By Rev Dr David Steers
‘When in doubt, steam towards the sound of the guns.’
These were the words with which the Rev Tom Banham commenced his ministry here in November 1975. It was the starting point of his statement of principles and objects when he was installed as minister here by the Presbytery of Antrim. I have no doubt that a good number of those here today will have been present on that occasion, held, not in the church for that was not fit to hold a service at the time, but in the Central Hall.
To give the full quotation Tom said:
It was one of the principles drilled into me at Dartmouth a quarter of a century ago which made me decide to accept this Call from Rosemary Street. The principle is quite simple; and I’m sure many of you will recognise it: ‘When in doubt, steam towards the sound of the guns.’
I don’t think there’s any need for me to elaborate on the ‘sound of the guns’ in the context of Belfast in 1975; because this City a by-word for fear to the rest of the world, is all too well publicised by our news media. Yet, around that violence, beneath it, and often caused by it, there is work for a Minister – and that I shall endeavour to do.
And that is what Tom did, both then and also when he undertook the ministry of Ballycarry and Raloo where he was ordained four years earlier in 1971.
Tom was born in Newton Abbot in Devon on 17th April 1929 and from a young age felt the call of the sea. He joined the Navy as a boy, aged just 16 and served with some distinction for around 22 years. So Tom was one of those rare people who had not one but two highly successful careers, in his case as a naval officer and as a minister of the church. After joining the Navy Tom was later sent to the Royal Naval College to train as an engineer and an officer, all his subsequent service was defined by his engineering skills. But during the war, as a boy, Tom also worked as a fire brigade messenger. This is actually a potentially very dangerous task - cycling around during air raids taking news of firebombs to the fire brigade. I suspect that it was for this work that Tom was awarded the Second World War Defence Medal. This was issued to military and civilian workers who were involved in civil defence during the war. Since Tom would have been 16 just before the end of the war I think this is the service that merited this medal.
As I mentioned at Tom’s funeral Tom gave his medals and his ceremonial sword away to the Royal Naval Association to auction for service charities. He was unsentimental about such things and once told one congregation, tongue in cheek although not obviously so, that he had given them to a church jumble sale. But looking at Tom’s medals tells us something about Tom’s naval career. Tom was awarded the Naval General Service Medal with the clasp for Palestine and he was awarded the British Korea Medal and the United Nations Korea Medal. The Palestine clasp was given for service in that troubled region during the Emergency between 1945 and 1948. The Korea medal with its UN equivalent was, of course, awarded for service in the waters of Korea during that war between 1950 and 1953.
But Tom saw service in the Navy at a time when travelling the world east of Suez was the norm. He visited many places. Tom was promoted to Lieutenant in 1954 and was made a Lieutenant-Commander in 1962. He retired from the Navy in 1968.
Tom then felt a very strong call to ministry. He had been raised in a conventional Church of England way but I have no doubt that his travels around the world, his engagements with different creeds and cultures had an influence on him. When he was in Bristol and involved with the Sea Scouts his connection with the Lewin’s Mead congregation broadened his thought and outlook and he found a way to express faith that also incorporated reason and which wasn’t afraid of questions. But even when Tom was called to ministry I think even this was an extension of what he already was because he was always called to service. When Tom was ordained at Ballycarry he said that during his travels he had met many people with troubles and had advised and helped with many problems.
So in 1968 Tom went to the Unitarian College, Manchester to train for the ministry. He was a valued student and it is worth mentioning that a statistical survey of all the NSP ministers in the whole of the 20th century shows that exactly half were trained in whole or part at UCM. Later in the 1980s when the College launched an appeal Tom was one of the former students who was chosen to front that campaign.
At College Tom was older than the vast majority of students and he chose to live out of the College in a mobile home. But I know he earned the friendship and admiration of his fellow students, I have been told of how impressed many of them were when they visited Tom who was always so well organised and prepared for anything. Tom was able to prepare a Chinese meal for his guests and had all the traditional Chinese crockery to serve it in, which greatly impressed his fellow students. Whilst at UCM Tom also studied in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Manchester although the degree he prepared for was the Bachelor of Divinity at the University of London and which he was awarded in 1971.
There are many stories from Tom’s time at UCM. I was reminded of one he told himself by John Midgely who subsequently recounted it in his Inquirer column a couple of months ago. You may have seen it, he wrote how in his caravan Tom:
once received a visit from Jehovah’s Witness evangelists. Their opening gambit was to ask, ‘Have you got a bible in your home?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied. ‘Several. I have an Authorised Version, a Revised Version, a Revised Standard Version, a New English Bible and a Golden Treasury of the Bible. I have an Old Testament in Hebrew, a New Testament in Greek and a New Testament in Welsh, given to me by an aunt. Which one would you like?’ They made their excuses, left and never came back.
At UCM Tom got to know a number of Non-Subscribers including the Rev Robert McKee. I think there is no doubt that Tom’s original plan was to return to Bristol, to Lewin’s Mead which pulpit was expected to become vacant at the time Tom was due to finish his studies. However, this didn’t develop as was expected and Tom started to think about coming to Northern Ireland. I think pretty soon he felt a very strong call to what became his home for the rest of his life.
When he was installed here in 1975 Tom still felt he was a newcomer to Belfast. He said:
This Congregation, the First Presbyterian Congregation of Belfast, has a long and noble history, in which it played an important part in the civic and academic life and the development of this City. Yet, until Mr McMillan invited me over for a visit in early 1971, I had never even set foot in it; and the following years were spent in south-east Antrim which has problems and entertainments of its own.
Here, I start almost from rock bottom in trying to understand this City – its people and its problems. So, I shall need much help from the Congregation, even in understanding what has been and is going on.
Well, of course, Tom became closely identified with this church and this city. Tom loved this city. When I travelled around Belfast with him when I first came here over 30 years ago Tom took great delight in pointing out the interesting, the unusual, the quirky, the delightful, the places associated with the history of the denomination. His distinguished predecessor as minister here the Rev Alexander Gordon liked to describe himself as ‘An Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination’. Gordon was also spoken of as ‘An Irishman and, at heart, a citizen of Belfast’. Well Tom was recognised very much as an honorary Irishman or Ulsterman but he was really a true citizen of Belfast and he exemplified in his life and in his ministry the best traditions of this congregation and this denomination in this city.
When Tom came to First Church this church was at one of the lowest points in its history. With the exception of 1941 when the old Central Hall was destroyed in the blitz and the church itself was narrowly saved from the flames there is little to compare with the serious situation of 1975. The previous minister had been tragically killed in a car accident, the Troubles were at their height, the city centre was under virtual siege, the church itself had been wrecked in a bomb attack with its stained-glass windows smashed, the eighteenth-century ceiling lying in pieces on the floor and some of the walls made unsafe. As I mentioned at Tom’s funeral, the late Tom Moore, who was such a notable member of this church and a good friend of Tom’s, once said to me that without Tom he didn’t believe there would be a First Church today. Tom was the right man in the right place at the right time and under his leadership the Church was resurrected and able to flourish once more.
When Tom was installed here he said he had doubts about coming because he was not a scholar in the sense of his immediate predecessors, he said he was better qualified as an engineer than as a theologian and that the congregation might find his preaching more ‘down-to-earth and homespun’ in comparison to what they had been used to.
Tom needn’t have worried, in the first place his skills as an engineer had such practical application in the job of reconstruction and later of maintenance but in any case his abilities as a scholar were never in doubt. Tom read very widely, his knowledge of theology and associated topics was extensive and Tom had a great ability to delve into a subject and grasp its essentials and produce a paper that was enlightening and interesting for the general reader. I remember him doing this on such topics as the 1798 Rebellion and the historical theology of the ministers of First Church. Tom’s interests were diverse and very deep. A lot of papers and addresses were later published in different places. In Faith and Freedom, in 1974, for example, he published an article on ‘The Moral and Practical Challenge of Revolutionary Terrorism’. He contributed other pieces to that journal even up to about three years before he died. When A Tapestry of Beliefs Christian Traditions in Northern Ireland was published by the Blackstaff Press in 1998, the chapter on Non-Subscription was contributed by Tom. These are just more or less random selections from Tom’s interests and published works. Tom was also keenly interested in liturgy too. His version of the communion service became widely used by ministers in this denomination and elements of it were published in Andrew Hill’s Celebrating Life and it was later published in full in European Perspectives on Communion in 2001. A couple of years later Tom himself edited for publication European Perspectives on Baptism, in the same series, contributing to it his own reflections on baptism.
Tom’s contribution to this denomination was immense. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Antrim in September 1971 and always valued his membership of that ancient body. He was clerk of the presbytery between 1979 and 1985 and was moderator in 1975, 1987 and 2001. In addition he was moderator of the general synod in 1989-90, 1990-91 and 2007-8. Tom had a tremendous impact on the shape, structure and activities of this denomination. When he arrived he found the method of visitation of congregations to be cumbersome and in desperate need of reform. He straight away set about reconstituting the method of visitation by the presbytery, working now through four separate commissions. And so it was that the Presbytery of Antrim, and subsequently the other presbyteries in the denomination, had a new and more efficient system of visitation: based, Tom always liked to say, on the system used by the Navy for inspecting battleships.
In the denomination Tom was innovative and imaginative. Many of the most valued features of denominational life in the last few decades were devised by Tom. Things like the Sunday School Games had their origin principally with Tom, it was really his idea and it was clear when your saw him presiding over one of the quiz or even musical rounds, which used to take place, how much he enjoyed being there and how much he enjoyed the company of young people. Tom was a leading power behind The Church in the 21st century Committee which tried to plan and prepare the denomination for the future.
Probably because of his engineering background Tom was always an early adopter of any new technology. He was the first person to have a fax machine in this denomination which was fine except that he found that there was no one he could send faxes to or receive faxes from. This changed, however, when he was asked to write the bi-monthly From the Other Island column in the Inquirer. Keith Gilley, the editor, was pleased to receive Tom’s copy via and fax and always sent an acknowledgement by fax. Tom did this for a year and wrote entertainingly about denominational life and activities in the early 1990s.
A major love of Tom’s was always music, with that he valued greatly the musical tradition of this congregation and saw music as an important, indeed essential, part of worship. He extended this for the denomination with the creation of the highly successful Choirs’ Festival. This alternated annually between here and All Souls’ and saw large gatherings of choirs and congregations from all round the denomination hear a great variety of choral pieces. Tom really enjoyed these events, I remember once standing with him in the gallery at the back as we listened to the First Church Choir rehearse, Tom’s enthusiasm was very clear. And Tom enjoyed working with the different organists and musicians who were part of First Church over the years with all of whom he had a very close connection. That was something that Tom was very keen to see continue which is why he endowed the congregation to set up the system of choral scholars which we have seen come to fruition today and which the church have named after him as the Banham Scholars.
One major educational contribution he made to the denomination was the creation of the Academic Training Board. With Tom’s vision and energy this body was established for the denomination and for years it provided essential training and educational courses first of all for ministers but then later for lay people, preachers, church officers and so on. It became an invaluable and essential part of denominational life. Tom devised many of the early courses himself and others followed in his footsteps developing this body for a great many years.
A particularly high priority for Tom was ecumenical work. He was closely involved in all the inter-church bodies at the highest levels. In particular he served as the secretary of the Department of Theological Questions of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, the body which brought the Catholic and Protestant churches together. Here Tom held his own with the leading theologians in Ireland. Indeed he had many friends across the denominations. I remember going with Tom to the Greenhills Ecumenical Conference held in Drogheda each year. As we walked in Tom was warmly welcomed on first name terms by Cardinals, Bishops and Moderators of all denominations. But the work that was of most importance to Tom was that which he did as secretary to the Department of Theological Questions of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting. Tom effectively wrote the DTQ’s paper on the church in modern society and was disappointed its publication was ultimately prevented, he thought it had something important to say.
But Tom was usually present on any major ecumenical body. When Churches Together in Britain and Ireland was set up, then referred to as the ‘new ecumenical instrument’, Tom was very closely involved. When he attended the meeting to establish the new body in Ireland there was a big crowd of people there and also a one-man protest. Someone came to the meeting carrying a large placard. It read simply
The CTBI supports Terrorism. Sodomy and Bingo.
Tom turned to the person sitting next to him and said “What have we been missing!”
For a long time Ireland had some of the most sophisticated top-level ecumenical bodies in the British Isles, but what it lacked, particularly during the Troubles was much grass-roots ecumenical contact. Not so for Tom. As a parish minister Tom was keen to work on a cross-community basis. He was a member of the distinguished Eclectic Fraternal, which brought clergy from all traditions together, and in his church he maintained the close connection between Rosemary Street, St Mary’s and St George’s which bore fruit particularly in the joint Christmas Carol services held between the three churches in Rosemary Street every year when Tom was minister. The importance of such events – singing, praying and praising together - particularly during the years of the Troubles, cannot be overestimated.
When Tom was ordained in Ballycarry, in replying to the visiting ministers, he said ‘I think of churches as different ships in the same fleet’, a suitably naval analogy for the ecumenical initiative. And if different churches were different ships in the same fleet he didn’t mind jumping aboard from time to time for an inspection. I remember once he told me that on a Sunday evening he had put his collar and tie on and wandered down to what was still St James’ Church of Ireland on the Cliftonville Road to attend evensong. But you can’t really go incognito in Belfast and the next Sunday when he came into First Church one of the ladies immediately asked him “And what were you doing attending the Church of Ireland last Sunday?”
Tom also was a firm believer in the need for inter-faith dialogue and understanding. Accordingly he was one of the founders and ultimately was one of the patrons of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum. I know his presence and counsel was much valued in that body. He gave a lot of time to inter-faith matters and was well-versed in the rites, traditions and beliefs of the other faiths with which we share the world.
In his denomination Tom was chair or convenor or treasurer of many different committees or bodies. First of all though he was a pastoral minister, of his churches in county Antrim and then here. Tom had many tales of visiting. He used to visit one elderly congregant who always welcomed him warmly by the name of Mr Rossington. That is Tom’s predecessor here from 1907 to 1927. One day she said give my regards to your wife and children and named them all. Tom looked them up and they were indeed Mr Rossington’s family. So Tom was very aware of following in other people’s footsteps. He was an assiduous visitor and a very practical one too who brought not only prayer and pastoral support but frequently would come back with his tool bag and fix or replace or otherwise repair something that needed that kind of attention. But Tom’s work went much wider. He was minister in charge of a large number of vacant congregations and also brought additional pastoral support to many other churches, all over Ireland. Tom actually retired in 1993 but apart from the fact that he stepped down from his preaching and pastoral duties here you wouldn’t know that looking at the many commitments he maintained after his nominal retirement. He was minister in charge of a number of churches after retirement but also throughout his ministry, particularly in the 1970s when there was a shortage of ministers. Once when Tom was minister in charge at Clough in the 1970s and preaching there, he banged the big black pulpit Bible shut and up from the side of the pulpit shot a bat. It didn’t phase Tom, of course, and we like our bats in Clough, but even Tom was a bit surprised. Tom’s work also extended to Dublin and Cork and the Synod of Munster at a time when that body was in a vulnerable state. A number of us would travel to Dublin crammed into the back of Rev Robin Williamson’s Isuzu Trooper just to keep the Synod going. Tom as ever was at the forefront of this, took on a lot of the administrative burden, and was much involved in Cork when very few people were interested in maintaining its witness. Indeed, at the same time in the early 1990s when Tom was moderator of the General Synod and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster Tom was also appointed moderator of the Synod of Munster. He joked that he wore, metaphorically of course, a triple tiara, something unique in the history of this denomination.
I mentioned at Tom’s funeral that when Tom moved from the Cliftonville Road to the Somme Nursing Home I arranged for all his papers to go to the archives of Harris Manchester College in Oxford who do a great job in preserving ministerial papers from our tradition. I said at the funeral that it took three enormous boxes to carry them all but in actual fact it was four which weighed 40 kg, there was so many. But the College did indeed have to buy new archival boxes to store them. His papers include sermons, correspondence, writings, documents for the denomination, the DTQ, ecumenical and inter-faith work, the Academic Training Board, all now preserved for future generations of researchers. As clerk of the presbytery Tom was responsible for ministerial training, he oversaw the training of many students who went on to the ministry in the present time. Not all of the students from Northern Ireland made the grade as is clear from some of the correspondence that went into the archive. In one letter to Tom from Arthur Long, the Principal of UCM, he notes that one potential student had written to him but claimed that he was having trouble expressing himself in English and so would henceforth write to him in Hebrew. A useful talent no doubt but perhaps not a skill essential for pastoral care in Northern Ireland. Another student Tom told me about went from here and arrived to conduct his first service as a student wearing full Anglican vestments. He later left the College through a back window and disappeared never to be heard of again. That wouldn’t have mattered, the Principal wrote to Tom, ‘except that also he took one of our best students with him.’
There is so much more that could be mentioned today. Tom was a governor and ultimately the chair of governors of Malvern School. He ran the Scouts for the disabled in Belfast for a great many years, contributing freely vast amounts of his own time to them, organising events and activities and being glad to see them flourish.
To many here Tom was a friend, a colleague, a pastor, a counsellor, a source of wisdom and advice, to everyone perhaps in different ways an important part of our lives. Tom was throughout his life always kind and generous. Sue and I know this so well personally. At times when I was ill or when I was away researching in Glasgow Tom was always on hand to help Sue and the children. I mention this not just to express my own thanks to Tom for his kindness but also because I know others experienced this type of kindness too. It was part of Tom’s nature to be generous. And it extended far and wide.
So we remember Tom now with thanksgiving for all that he has meant to us, to the churches he served, to the denomination, to youth work, to inter-church relations, and we give thanks for all aspects of his ministry and witness.
As Tom wrote in his own copy of his Book of Occasional Services, a phrase he must have used many times himself at funerals:
To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die
And so it is for us all with Tom