The Rev Tom Banham died suddenly, but peacefully, on Wednesday, 14 August. His funeral took place at Roselawn Crematorium on Monday, 20 August. I gave the address and reproduce it here as my tribute to someone who achieved so much in his ministry and who was also a great friend.
‘He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus,
When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose;
for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.’
Some verses from the book of Acts which sum up something of Tom Banham, the faithful minister. Tom passed away on Wednesday, quite suddenly but also very peacefully in the Somme Nursing Home where he had settled quite comfortably. Tom was in his 91st year but as interested and intellectually involved in his church, his denomination and the world of theology as he always had been. Indeed two of the topics for debate brought to the Synod last June had originated with issues directly raised by Tom.
Tom served this denomination, his presbytery and his churches with tremendous loyalty and devotion over the best part of 50 years. In fact so much of the shape and form of our Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church life was formed by Tom’s vision and endeavour. Tom was a minister, a theologian, an educator, a pastor, a liturgist. Innovative, dynamic and creative he achieved so much. For many of us here today Tom was also a friend, a colleague, a guide, a mentor. For everyone in our churches he was someone who played a key role on so many levels for decades. Typical of Tom he wanted his funeral to be conducted with a minimum of fuss. To be honest, given his achievements, no one deserves more fuss than Tom, but that isn’t the way he would have wanted it.
Tom was one of those people who had tremendous depth. He wasn’t just a leading minister in Northern Ireland throughout the period of the Troubles and beyond, although that would be enough to deservedly win the admiration of everyone. Tom had two consecutive high achieving careers – the first, of course, as an officer in the Royal Navy.
Tom was born in Devon and I think felt the call of the sea from an early age. He went to the Royal Naval College and was trained as an Engineer as he embarked upon his service in the Navy. Tom joined the Navy at a time when you really did see the world and he visited so many places in the course of his naval service. Tom kept pictures on his wall of all the ships he had served on but was unsentimental about the past. His medals and ceremonial sword were donated to the Royal Naval Association some years ago to be auctioned for service charities. He often lamented though that he seemed to have outlived so many of his comrades from the service. As an engineering officer Tom reached the senior rank of Lieutenant Commander bringing a highly specialised technical knowledge to the management of ships.
Tom was someone who was always keen to contribute to society, to make a difference to those in need. He had a long-time association with Scouting and it was this that brought him towards the ministry. As his time in the Navy was drawing to a close Tom was running the Sea Scouts in Bristol which was based at Lewin’s Mead Chapel, a famous and then very large dissenting congregation in the city. Through this association he felt called to the ministry and after around 20 years in the Navy went to the Unitarian College in Manchester to train for the ministry, studying theology at Manchester University leading to the award of the degree of Bachelor of Divinity by the University of London. In those days most of the students were young men, Tom was older and much more experienced, yet everyone who was a student in Manchester in those days remembers him with tremendous affection as a friend.
Had circumstances been only slightly different Tom might well have returned to Bristol to minister but instead Tom was called to Northern Ireland, to be minister of Ballycarry and Raloo churches. So commenced a connection that was to dominate the rest of his life, as a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church minister.
Tom was ordained by the Presbytery of Antrim in September 1971 and valued his membership of that ancient body. He was clerk for eight years and moderator on a number of occasions. And we can see here what an impact Tom had on the structure of the denomination. He found the method of visitation of congregations to be cumbersome and in need of reform. He straight away set about reconstituting the method of visitation by the presbytery, now basing it on four separate commissions. And so it was that the Presbytery of Antrim, and then the other presbyteries in the denomination, had a new more efficient system of visitation. It was based, Tom always liked to say, on the system used by the Navy for inspecting battleships.
Tom was well respected and very happy in county Antrim but after four years he received a call for a new sphere of work, to First Church, Belfast, the congregation with which he was to be associated for the rest of his life. In 1975 this was a very challenging settlement indeed. The previous minister had been killed in a tragic road accident, the Troubles were at their height, the city centre was under considerable pressure, and the church itself had been badly damaged in a bomb attack; the windows were smashed and the eighteenth-century ceiling lay on the floor. The late Tom Moore, who was such a stalwart member of First Church and a good friend of Tom’s, once said to me that without Tom he didn’t think 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.
Both when he was minister and later, when he had retired, Tom could be found every Wednesday morning in Rosemary Street, along with his band of co-workers. Tom was a scholar and a fine preacher and a thinker but he was also an immensely practical person and if there were jobs to be done about the premises Tom would take them on himself. And when the work on the premises was completed there were always books to catalogue in the church library and the index to compile for the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine. Tom was a voracious reader, the arrival of the Postscript catalogue meant more books needed to be bought, many of which he later donated to Rosemary Street. Even in recent times when his health began to decline Tom was, thankfully, still able to read and in the Nursing Home he got to work grappling with the finer points of the theology of Paul Tillich.
So Tom was a minister and a theologian. He was also an educator. He was involved in education both outside the church and inside. He was a governor and ultimately the chairman of the board of governors of Malvern School in Belfast for many years. 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 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.
Tom was a liturgist too. The version of the communion service which he devised has been used by many of us in the ministry since and elements of it were later published in Andrew Hill’s Celebrating Life and it was published in full in European Perspectives on Communion in 2001. A couple of years later Tom edited for publication European Perspectives on Baptism in the same series.
Tom was also strongly ecumenical in all his work, most notably serving 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 and was soon on first-name terms with Cardinals, Bishops and Moderators of all denominations. Indeed he had many friends across the denominations. Tom effectively wrote the DTQ’s paper on the church in modern society and was disappointed when narrow spirits prevented its publication. 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 Eclectic Fraternal, which brought all sides 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, particularly during the years of the Troubles, cannot be overestimated.
But Tom also loved music and he found in that a way to bring people together, particularly to celebrate God’s love in a broad and joyful way. For the denomination this meant the Choirs’ Festival which Tom set up and which alternated between All Souls’ and Rosemary Street, great gatherings of choirs large and small from all over the denomination singing praises together as well as their own favourite pieces. Tom greatly enjoyed and valued the musical tradition in First Church and right up to this year was helping to see this flourish.
Tom was throughout his life always kind and generous. Sue and myself and our children all have reason to know this, as do many here. It was part of Tom’s nature to be generous. And it extended far and wide. As a pastoral visiting minister Tom would call on those who were elderly or infirm or lonely. But he didn’t just bring prayers and support to those he visited. If he saw situations that needed practical resolution he would return armed with his tool box, and shelves would be fixed, pictures hung up and other items knocked into shape.
In Belfast Tom ran for a great many years what was then called the handicapped Scouts. Tom put in many hours – organising events, transporting young people to different occasions, working with young people with disabilities and doing so much good across the communities all against a background of civil upheaval. But such work was typical of Tom, done quietly without fanfare but so important and appreciated by those he worked with.
Tom believed in the importance of inter-faith dialogue and understanding and was one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum. I know his presence and counsel was much valued in that body.
Based on his understanding of the history of this denomination and his knowledge of the development of its witness Tom had a vision of how to make his church most effective and most true to its calling as a liberal Christian community. Tom always had an eye for the practical solution or identified a need to devise a new structure when necessary. So something as simple and useful as the Aide Memoire for the denomination was created by Tom – and physically put together by him and his co-workers for many years. The Sunday School Games was his brainchild too and for many years he participated and led in that. Tom helped at every level of this event and once was sitting acting as scribe for a team in the under 5 section of the quiz. In one round the children were asked ‘Who was swallowed by a whale’. Four small faces all looked blank until one turned to Tom and answered brightly ‘Pinocchio’. Tom felt he had no choice but to nod and dutifully write down the answer, for Pinocchio certainly was swallowed by a whale.
On top of all this Tom found time to do even more. He was secretary or chair or convenor or treasurer of many different committees and bodies. And though he was primarily minister first of all of Ballycarry and Raloo and later of First Church he was minister in charge of a great many other churches over the years, that is the minister during a vacancy, bringing pastoral care and help to many other congregations. I don’t think I could prepare an adequate list of the many churches he helped over the last fifty years. But many people will have memories of Tom coming to their church all over the country at different times.
It was a big upheaval for Tom to give up his home on the Cliftonville Road but it was a necessary move and he felt very comfortable in the Somme Nursing Home. At the time of his move I arranged for his papers to be sent to Harris Manchester College, Oxford to be stored there. It took three enormous boxes to carry them and the College had to buy additional archive boxes to store them in but it means so much of Tom’s working life – in the church, in the presbytery, in the denomination, in the DTQ, in ecumenical and inter-faith bodies is preserved for the future.
A few years ago Tom gave me his old Book of Occasional Services which is a minister’s book for the conduct of baptisms, weddings and funerals and so on. In one of the annotations which Tom has added he has written:
To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die
I am sure that is true and we will all long remember Tom, as the valued colleague or minister or friend he was to us.
We commend him to God now in glad thanksgiving for having known him and shared in life with him in all its fullness. And I would close with some words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:
Then said he, ’I am going to my Father’s, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder.’ When the day that he must go hence, was come, many accompanied him to the river side, into which, as he went, he said, ‘Death where is thy sting?’ and as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave where is thy victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”