Monday 13 May 2013

A funeral homily

Preached last week in Swansea by Kim Fabricius

The historian Professor Gareth Elwyn Jones, MBE, MA, MEd, PhD, DLitt, FRHistS died on April 20th. He was a universally respected figure in Welsh academic life, and the pre-eminent authority on the history of education in Wales. In 1992, at the age of 53, Gareth was severely injured in a car accident, and subsequently confined to a wheelchair – which didn’t stop this teacher’s teacher from teaching, nor interrupt the steady stream of rigorously researched and elegantly written articles and books, nor dampen his deeply Christian courage and joie de vivre.

Though Gareth and Kim did not know each other well, it was Gareth’s wish that Kim take his funeral, which took place on May 7th at Tabernacle United Reformed Church, Swansea. Professor David Howell gave the eulogy for his friend and colleague. Then Gareth’s wife Kath, herself a formidable teacher and writer, and his two children, Bethan, a university lecturer in English, and Matthew, a musician, paid wonderful tribute to Gareth as husband and father. Bethan (on clarinet) and Matthew (on violin) also played two pieces of music intimately connected to life with father. Then Kim preached the homily.

Kath, Bethan, Matthew, family, friends:

In January 1939, Donald Bradman hit his fourth consecutive century, Superman made his debut in the comics – and Hitler called for the extermination of the Jews.

Later that year, in Wales, for the first time ever, both chair and crown were withheld at the National Eisteddfod – and the first wartime civilian evacuees arrived from across the border.

And there were some notable births in Wales: Donald Anderson, Rhodri Morgan – it was a good year for the Labour Party – and, rewinding to January – the 30th – in Abergavenny, to a father who was a local Congregationalist minister and a mother who had trained as a nurse, one Gareth Elwyn Jones.

Dates and facts. Dates and facts.

Via Morriston, Swansea, the family settled in Whitland, Carmarthenshire. To improve his educational prospects, little Gareth was sent to Caterham, a Congregationalist school in south London. But Surrey is not exactly Carmarthenshire: Gareth hated it. He returned to Whitland to excel at the local grammar school; then on to Swansea to read history.

During his time in Swansea, Gareth worshipped at Walter Road Congregational Church. So did another Swansea student, a philosopher in a department world-renown as a centre of Wittgenstein studies. Perhaps she cited the great Austrian philosopher to the lad sitting next to her in the pew – “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done” – because in 1963 Kath and Gareth were married in Newport.

Dates and facts. Dates and facts.

Then off to Croydon – ironically, a town just a few miles from Caterham – where the newlyweds began to teach. But only for two years. Hiraeth: back to Wales, to Cardiff, then to Swansea, Pennard, where Gareth and Kath settled – and then, as we’ve heard, the CV takes off. Jones the lecturer; Jones the professor; Jones the dean; Jones the article and Jones the book; Jones the distinguished man of letters – eventually there would be over 20 of them following his name. In short, Jones the teacher and Jones the learner – and the terrific teacher precisely because the lifelong learner. Meanwhile, Jones the husband had also become Jones the dad: Bethan born in 1971, Matthew in 1973.

Date and facts. Dates and facts.
And then there were church commitments, community responsibilities, and even some time for leisure. Gareth worshipped here, at Tabernacle, where he became a deacon and elder. He served on the governing bodies at Bishopston Comprehensive School and Pentrechwyth Primary School. And the camping, the cricket, and – yes – the cars ... the collision, on July 3rd, 1992 ... and then the chair...

Dates and facts. Dates and facts. It’s time to move on from dates and facts. Gareth spent his professional life contending against the Gradgrindian – and, alas, Govean – notion that history is reducible to dates and facts. Dates and facts are just data. Things only begin to get interesting, and the real work of the historian only begins, with the conversion of dates and facts into evidence, and the deployment of evidence in the intellectual venture of reconstruction and interpretation, which while partial and provisional might just turn out to be “true”. Why study history? “There are only two good reasons,” observes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: “to enhance life and prepare for death.”
So the date and fact of Gareth’s accident – fine. But what did his disability do to him, and more, what did Gareth do with it? Hemingway said that life breaks everyone, but some grow strong at the broken places. Gareth grew strong at his broken place. His can-do mindset and professionalism – unabated. His cheerful, generous spirit and lofty idealism – undaunted. His devotion to his family, eventually as a delighted tad-cu – unreserved. Not dates and facts, here we are talking about character, shaped by a story. And as a student of John Fines, Gareth knew the crucial importance of story in fashioning human identity. Who am I? I am my story.
Or rather, I am the one who is the intersection of stories. My personal history intersects with contemporary history – the present is simply what the past is doing now; intersects with various narratives, domestic, national, and global; cultural narratives that colonise our lives and give them direction: narratives of money and power, health and beauty, and an obsession with denying death at all costs. Bewitching narratives, but narratives that are quite unable to deliver the purpose they promise, and narratives that finally shape grotesquely distorted characters.
The good news is that we meet here today in the context of a bigger narrative, a cosmic narrative, an eternal narrative that yet intersects with time. It is, of course, the narrative of Jesus – his life, death, resurrection – and his continuing story – Christ reigns as Lord of history, hidden in it: human history is his-story. It is the story that informs and transforms us in an altogether different way from the stories of our time. It is the story that in our doubts gives us faith, in our despair gives us hope, and in our fears gives us peace. It is the love-story of God’s passionate embrace of the world in Jesus, the story in which Gareth has played his part so well – and now moves on to play other roles in the chronicles of heaven. And it is an endlessly unfolding story, the story – as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the story “that goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
It is my belief that we are all characters in this story, though some of us may have lost the plot. Perhaps on an occasion like this, in which we celebrate Gareth’s earthly life, grieve its end, and celebrate its final integration into God’s never-ending story – perhaps this is a good time to begin to find the plot again – find faith again – and play our own parts with commitment, imagination, gratitude, and joy.    

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