Obituary: Prebendary Richard Bewes OBE (B2 1948-53)
A Model of Servant Leadership
Prebendary Richard Bewes OBE died, aged 84, on 10th May 2019 at his home in Virginia Water after a period of illness and surrounded by his family. He was one of the outstanding parish ministers of his generation, and although his first love remained Africa and Africans, he had a worldwide ministry, speaking and preaching in many parts of the world and his books, sermons, hymns and broadcasts will be treasured by future generations. At his funeral the Nigerian Archbishop, the most Reverend Ben Kwashi, thanked him for his ministry of encouragement to him personally and to the worldwide Christian community.
Richard’s final parish role saw him succeed Dr John Stott and Bishop Michael Baughen as the Rector of All Souls Church Langham Place, that beautiful Nash conception in the heart of London’s West End, from 1983 to 2004. Here his contribution as a versatile, imaginative and talented preacher blossomed. His passion for evangelism, coupled with his self-effacing, warm hearted and humble nature, endeared him to all and led to invitations for him to lead, preach and teach all over the world. His wise and loving leadership was widely admired and resulted in his being sought after for a range of boards and committees, not least African Enterprise, The Church of England Evangelical Council and the National Anglican Evangelical Congress, all of which he chaired. He was appointed a Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1988 and was honoured by the Queen in 2005 with the OBE.
His Honour Judge David Turner QC writes: “He was an exemplar of Christian ministry at its best – passionate and strong, humble and gentle, visionary and yet with feet on the ground and a twinkle in his eye. He was a serious person who did not take himself too seriously and who was consumed by a passion that others should come to know Jesus as Lord and to love His word, the Bible. As his dear friend Bishop Michael Baughen (previously Bishop of Chester) said: ‘Richard was a man who carried a Bible in his pocket and Jesus in his heart’.
Richard Thomas Bewes, like his two brothers and sister, was born in Nairobi. He was the second son of Archdeacon Thomas Francis Cecil Bewes and his wife Sylvia, both missionaries with the Church Missionary Society. His early years were spent in up-country mission stations among the elegant Kikuyu people, first in Kabare and then Weithaga, on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya – “the most tranquil upbringing a child could have”, as he described it.
As far back as he could recall, his aspiration had been to pursue a life in ministry, and this was the time of the East African revival, which gave him confidence in the power of God’s Spirit to change lives. This confidence was to mark his ministry to the end of his days. He was initially educated at Kenton College, Nairobi, a classic prep school, where he excelled in tennis and hockey. When he was aged 11, the headmaster prophetically commented to his parents: “This boy will one day do something special with words”.
Leaving Africa in 1948, like his elder brother Peter before him and his younger brother Michael following him, Richard entered Marlborough., in the days of FM Heywood’s Mastership. He went first into A2, at that time the house for first-year pupils run by housemaster FL Coggin and subsequently B2, under Frank Shaw. For the rest of his life he maintained contact with some of his Marlborough study companions and tennis team mates. He captained the 1953 all-conquering Marlborough tennis VI and with his younger brother was selected for a British schools’ team. Unable, through asthma, to pass the health qualifications for national service, and with the idea of future ministry in mind, he felt it important to experience life ‘in the raw’ and keep his feet on the ground. He therefore sought employment with Peek Frean, the biscuit manufacturer in Bermondsey, making Custard Creams and Twiglets and mingling with the factory operatives. His mother, on hearing that he was making Twiglets, enquired as to whether he might give her the recipe for the little brown blobs of marmite with which they were decorated. “Yes”, he answered, “take three tons of salt…..”
After Peek Frean’s he took up his place at Emmanuel College Cambridge, where he read Geography. He participated in the activities of the University Christian Union and in due course became its Vice President. He maintained his interest in sport, playing tennis and badminton for the College. Tennis remained a passionate interest for the rest of his life, and his prodigious memory for Wimbledon champions in every event in its history was a regular source of entertainment. He was a great story teller and mimic, and his dramatic recitations of historic Davis Cup matches were spellbinding.
As a tennis player, on one occasion he was partnering his younger brother in a men’s doubles match at Wimbledon, against a partnership which included the British Davis Cup captain. Richard decided that should his team win the toss, they would choose for their opponents to serve first, so that in future years were anyone to venture a question as to the score, he would be able to report: “Well it all went with service to start with.”
An African background had its benefits on the tennis court. Where today’s doubles partners secretly whisper tactics by concealing their lips behind their hands or behind tennis balls, the Bewes partners would converse aloud and in the open …… in Kikuyu!
From Emmanuel he went on to Ridley Hall, to read for Ordination which followed in 1959 at Rochester Cathedral, conducted by Bishop Christopher Chavasse. There followed a happy and productive six-year curacy at Christ Church Beckenham under the Venerable Herbert Cragg. In 1965 he became Vicar of St Peter’s Church, Harold Wood, a busy suburban Essex parish, handing on to his successor a full and thriving church, moving on to Emmanuel Church Northwood (1974-1983) before taking on the role of Rector at All Souls, Langham Place in 1983. Here among other innovations he introduced in the middle Sunday of the Wimbledon fortnight a well attended annual tennis-themed service under the title ‘Break Point’, in which several prominent Wimbledon players participated, including Champion Stan Smith from the USA.
From time to time Richard would take a break with other ministers and go into retreat. On one occasion, being driven to Wales by lifelong friend, he was asked whether he could read a map, so that his colleague could concentrate on the driving. Richard confidently replied, “I have a degree in Geography from Cambridge University – need I say more?” Five minutes later they were lost! Though he was a serious minded man, he never took himself seriously or indeed thought much of himself – humility was his hallmark.
A preacher and communicator at heart, Richard wrote at least 21 books, many booklets and over 20 hymns, one of his most celebrated being that which he wrote to the tune of the Dambusters’ March: “God is our strength and refuge”. He was for some years a regular presenter on BBC Thought for the Day and his relaxed and informal style made him a welcoming host for his TV programmes connected with Bible teaching and exposition, such as Open Home: Open Bible, Book by Book and The Sermon.
Shortly after his arrival at All Souls, he was on the steps greeting people after the service. A visiting American couple said: “We’ve just read The Cross of Christ” (predecessor John Stott’s magnum opus). Richard replied: “Best book in the English language on the subject”, whereupon they countered with: “Yes, and we’d like to thank you for writing it.” There followed a bit of embarrassing explanation as to his identity!
His many visits to Africa always inspired him and on occasion provided him with amusing anecdotes. On one occasion, during a visit to Uganda, he introduced himself to a small boy with the words: “Hello, my name’s Richard Bewes, do tell me who you are” and received the reply: “My name’s Oxford University Press.”
For many years he had been a friend and admirer of the evangelist Dr Billy Graham, stimulating and chairing Mission ’89, one of the largest-ever mission events held in the UK. He had a long and happy relationship with Billy and his family, one of whom attended and spoke movingly at his funeral. It was a great sadness for Richard that having been invited to speak at Billy’s funeral, ill health prevented him.
His magnetism was well illustrated on one occasion, when Richard was neither leading nor preaching at an All Souls service. As he came forward, however, to welcome people and to announce the notices, an attender was overheard whispering to a visitor: “Now you must listen to this – even the way this man gives out the notices makes us want to come to this church!”
As a small child, Richard had been painfully shy, and his later charm, outward-looking friendliness and gracious concern for people derived, many felt, from this early sensitivity. His apparent informality and relaxed manner with people was honed over years and was the result of hard work and dedication to his mission in life, to introduce people to his Master. He was deeply loved and admired by all who encountered him.
His first wife Elisabeth died in 2006. They had two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. Six years later he married Pam, who gave him seven idyllic years. He will be long remembered as a gentle, godly servant leader, an outstanding communicator and someone in whose presence we all felt the better. His funeral was attended by over a thousand grateful people, representing the many more around the globe who have cause to thank God for this remarkable man’s life and service.
It was Pericles who pointed out: “What you leave is not what is engraved in monuments of stone, but what is woven into the lives of others”. What a ‘weaver’