The Vice-Chancellor’s eulogy for the Reverend Nigel John, whose funeral was held on Friday 28 October at St Mary’s Church, Swansea.
The Reverend Nigel John has been the Senior Chaplain in Swansea University for 14 years. I pass on here the most profound and sincere condolences of staff and students to Trish, his wife, who is also widely known and respected in the University as a co-opted member of the Chaplaincy, co-opted by Nigel. I also pass on condolences to Nigel’s wider family and relatives.
All who knew the Reverend Nigel John will attest to his warm, outward-looking humanity. This was underpinned by some notable personal qualities. He was charming, cheerful even in his own adversity, with a fine sense of humour, had an infectious enthusiasm for whatever he was engaged in (.. and for sport..), an intellectual, a pragmatist, and he had an evident and exceptional interest in, concerns for, and respect for others.
His great achievement in life was to mould all these qualities into a powerful force for good, for spiritual, pastoral, and community good.
Our highest aspiration for our students at Swansea is that they go on to make the world a better place; here, Nigel was a role model. He earned the affection of hundreds, over the years probably thousands of staff and students and, of course many in other communities. This affection led to him being widely known not as the Reverend Nigel John or Father Nigel but simply as Nigel… or even Nige!
Cymro, oedd Nigel a Llanelli oedd ei fillter sgwar; Welsh-speaking, Nigel was a Llanelli man through and through and his support for the Scarlets date back to his first visit to Stradey as a three year old. He went to school at Old Road and then Llanelli Boys Grammar School. He then worked for five years as a clerk in the Treasurers Department of Llanelli Borough Council. I wonder whether he was temperamentally suited to this. He left this post and then took what we would now call a “gap year”. It was a remarkable gap year in which he committed himself to difficulty voluntary work. He worked at a Residential Centre for the severely disabled in London, a night shelter for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts in Stoke on Trent, and then a hospital for elderly patients back in Llanelli.
After this broad spectrum of life experience, Nigel proceeded to Cardiff University as a mature student. Following a degree in Religious Studies, he was employed at a rehabilitation centre for homeless alcoholics in the East End of London. This was a challenging and sometimes dangerous job although in a mischievous mood he would draw parallels with being a University Chaplain.
Nigel was then accepted for Ordination training by the Church in Wales, leading to three years in Cambridge. He trained at Westcott House while simultaneously studying for an MPhil Cambridge research degree at Selwyn College on Thomas Merton. I suspect that his prodigious networking skills were also acquired during this period and, well before Facebook, his ability to keep in touch with large networks of friends and acquaintances.
There was talk of Nigel staying in Cambridge for a Doctorate but the Church in Wales wanted him back! He was based at St Peters Carmarthen for three years being “Deaconed” in 1991 and “Priested” at St David’s Cathedral in 1992. During this time as a Curate, he also lectured on the Philosophy of Religion at Trinity College, Carmarthen.
He proceeded next to Roehampton Institute as a Chaplain but, after several years, the sudden death of his father drew him back to Wales. He was appointed Vicar at Cross Hands and then the few further miles back home to St David’s, Llanelli. It was there, 16 years ago, that he met Trish. He was officiating at the wedding of one of her friends. As I have already noted, he was a prodigious networker. Trish recounts that an early date was a trip to a rugby game at Neath in heavy rain. She suspects that this was a test; she clearly passed. They were married by the bishop of St Davies’s, Nigel’s Uncle, the Right Reverend Ivor Rhys.
Nigel was appointed as Anglican and Senior Chaplain at Swansea University in 2002. He simultaneously assisted first in St Pauls, Sketty and then in High Cross Church and Clyne Chapel, together with “filling in and helping out” as far as Tenby.
Many knew him most for the Theology Public Lecture Programme he created and ran with Trish’s help. Over many years it has attracted interest within the University and across the region and beyond. He managed to draw to Swansea leading theologians and eminent figures from most denominations and even other faiths. The list of speakers over the years reads as a Who’s Who of theologians and clergy. We have no Theology Department, but this Lecture Programme provided better access to contemporary theological debate than available in many universities which do have a theology department. How did Nigel achieve this? His networking was important, as was his determination and strength of character; he was not easy to say “no” to. But I came to understand that it was underpinned most by the respect which so many “thought leaders” in theology and different Christian Denominations had for him personally and the large audiences his efforts secured. In retrospect, it is particularly poignant that there was great celebration a few months ago to mark the 100th lecture.
I must emphasise, however, that Nigel’s contributions to the University Community, staff and students, go far beyond his Lecture programme. Much of his pastoral and spiritual engagements were 1 to 1 and, of course, largely confidential; I only ever saw the tip of the iceberg. But I saw enough to appreciate that Nigel majored on continuity of support and guidance, following-up repeatedly. Universities are high-pressure environments and his workload was massive. I referred many harrowing problems to him, such as overseas parents on the way to Swansea after their student son had been killed in a road accident. He never let the University down!
He was also ready to celebrate the good times. He loved graduation ceremonies, congratulating all those he knew and mixing with their families. He took particular delight in meeting eminent recipients of Honorary Degrees, especially if they were a Welsh sportsman or sportswoman.
I must pay a special tribute to one of Nigel’s particularly prominent contributions to the University Community. This was his sustained collaboration with our Imam, Sheik Mohsen El-Beltagi to create positive relations between different faiths on the campus and in the community. At the core of University values is the use of debate and discussion to progress learning and scholarship. A university should therefore be able to set an example not just of tolerance between faiths, but, through creating an environment of open and friendly exchange, an example of respect. And they set about creating such an environment here in Swansea, including an annual Faith Week. Dozens of schools and thousands of visitors have visited the Faith exhibition set up as part of Faith Week each year. It is a flagship programme in UK universities.
Nigel had more than his fair share of medical emergencies most recently with complications from Diabetes. He endured them with remarkably good humour, often deflecting queries about his own health with a beaming smile. His emails from hospital were full of comments about the excellence especially of Swansea University trained nurses and doctors. One visitor commented: “as I left the hospital, I realised he had cheered me up!”
The University has been privileged to have had Nigel as our Senior Chaplain for the last 14 years. I have been privileged to have had Nigel as a colleague and friend; hundreds in the University would say the same thing. In the outpourings of grief in the social medial one simple description of Nigel has found particular resonance, being repeated and repeated; tweeted and re-tweeted. I will finish with it: “Nigel was a lovely man”.