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John Gwyn-Thomas

Born in 1923 in Swansea of Anglican parents, John Gwyn-Thomas was brought up in a happy, close-knit family. He received his schooling from the age of eleven onwards at the Emmanuel Grammar School affiliated to the Bible College of South Wales. At eighteen he joined the school staff as a teacher and housemaster and did both jobs while working for a London external B.A.; this he duly secured, though at the cost of much lost sleep.

After a short period of national service as a mineworker, he returned to the school. There, he tasted revival again. Following these experiences he married in 1949, and began to prepare for ordained ministry. After spending two years at Wycliffe Hall, John served three parish units. He learned his trade at Christ Church, Surbiton, where two years’ apprenticeship at the parish church led on to three years (1954-57) as curate-in-charge of the daughter congregation, Emmanuel, Tolworth. While there he raised money to build a new hall, something he had been assured could not be done. (In his next parish he raised money to build a new church, another thing that he had been assured could not be done.)

In 1957 he became rector of Illogan with Portreath and Trevenson, a trio of churches in West Cornwall that seemed to need a strong hand and steady teaching. It was a difficult situation, but over a period of eight years John proved there the power of the gospel to unify and reinvigorate. Then in 1965 he became vicar of St Paul’s, Cambridge, where he fulfilled a stable and stabilising ministry of sowing and tending the good seed of faith, hope, love, holiness, and joy in the Lord.

During those years he was noticed by the discerning as one of the wisest and most skilful Reformed pastors in England. Both as a didactic preacher and as a pastoral counsellor John was unusually strong, despite the inner diffidence and inferiority feelings with which he had constantly to battle. His theology was that of the Reformers and Puritans. His method was always to teach and apply the Bible. His style, both in the pulpit and in the study, was that of the schoolmaster: not impassioned but emphatic, not rhetorical but analytical, not literary but life-centred. Living by the grace of God in Christ was his focal theme. Three stresses in particular marked all his counselling and preaching: the sinfulness of sin, the necessity of thought, and the duty of joy.

The end came unexpectedly, in 1977, through the second of two major coronaries. John loved life and had not expected to die at fifty-four, but during his ten days in hospital before the second, fatal coronary struck him down, the medical staff found him a peaceful and relaxed patient, calm and cheerful, and grew very fond of him. His outward peace reflected peace within. ‘If the Lord wants to take me, I’m willing to go,’ he said to one visitor. He went early one morning, unnoticed. Nobody saw or heard him die, and I think that is how he would have wanted it: no calling of attention to himself, and no fuss. He was clear, after all, that there was nothing special about him. If you had suggested otherwise, he would have laughed. Like other Reformed saints, he was sure of his own essential unimportance; God could work just as well through others, and every time he chose to work through John Gwyn-Thomas it was truly amazing grace.

[Adapted from J. I. Packer’s Memoir of the author in Rejoice . . . Always!, John Gwyn-Thomas’ sermons on Philippians Chapter 4, published by the Trust.]