The Right Rev George Noakes: Former Bishop of St Davids and Archbishop of Wales

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The Independent Online

As we stood on a hill in Galilee in the early 1980s, George Noakes, then the Bishop of St Davids and later to become the Archbishop of Wales, turned to me and said in Welsh, with an enormous smile, "This is just like Cardiganshire." Somehow the scene had brought together the two deepest elements in his spirituality: a love for the Jesus of the gospels and a rootedness in the rural community in which he had been brought up.

He was a native of the Cardiganshire village of Bwlch-llan, the son of a Welsh-speaking mother and a father from English-speaking south Pembrokeshire. This gave him a natural and unforced bilingualism which made him a fluent and attractive preacher and broadcaster in both languages. As a child he would attend Nantcwnlle parish church in the mornings and Bwlch-llan Calvinistic Methodist chapel in the evenings. He thus escaped the denominational prejudices that have so often been the bane of Welsh religious life, and he later devoted much of his time and energy to ecumenical activities.

Born in 1924, George Noakes was educated at Tregaron Grammar School and served as aircrew in the RAF during the closing months of the Second World War. He read philosophy at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and went on to Oxford to train for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall. A curacy in Lampeter was followed by a first incumbency in Eglwyswrw, North Pembrokeshire. He then moved to Tregaron, where he was particularly successful in working with young people. A keen footballer and cricketer, he was also an enthusiastic fisherman.

In 1967 he was appointed vicar of Eglwys Dewi Sant, the Welsh-language Anglican church in the centre of Cardiff. He swiftly earned a reputation as an able communicator on both radio and television. In addition, he assisted as chaplain to the Welsh-speaking inmates of Cardiff Prison, whose numbers were swollen by the Welsh Language Society's campaign of civil disobedience, then at its height.

After nine very happy years in Cardiff, Noakes returned to the diocese of St Davids as rector of Aberystwyth, becoming a canon of the cathedral and then Archdeacon of Cardigan in 1979. Three years later, he was elected Bishop of St Davids, to the delight of both clergy and laity. As a parish priest he had been an extremely dedicated pastor, valuing each individual and showing a striking depth of compassion and kindness. Having become bishop, he showed an equal degree of care and concern in his treatment of the clergy of his scattered and largely rural diocese.

A gentle evangelical by nature and conviction, he had a deep desire to "show Jesus" to the people of west Wales. This led to a diocesan mission which culminated in a morale-boosting open-air service at Stradey Park rugby ground in Llanelli, attended by a large and responsive congregation. He was a master of the bilingual sermon, moving effortlessly from Welsh to English and back again in a way that held the attention of all listeners, whatever their mother-tongue. At a time of considerable social and linguistic tension and change in west Wales, this proved particularly important.

In 1987 he was elected Archbishop of Wales. It was a burden which he shouldered with characteristic conscientiousness and he soon became regarded as a spokesman for Welsh Christians of every background. He was a firm supporter of the ordination of women to the priesthood and began to pave the way for its eventual implementation in Wales. He also played a significant role in the negotiations which ultimately led to the passing of a new Welsh Language Act. One action which was to have great future significance was his success in persuading Professor Rowan Williams, the most gifted young Welsh theologian, to abandon academia and accept nomination as a candidate for the vacant see of Monmouth.

He was supported throughout his ministry by his wife, Jean, a quietly perceptive judge of character. Unfortunately, the combined burden of running both a diocese that covers an enormous geographical area and a province of the Anglican Communion began to take its toll on his health. In 1991, Archbishop Noakes resigned. Two years previously he had been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wales. In his retirement he continued to be a wise counsellor and friend to many clergy. A man of genuine humility, he will be remembered as one of the best-loved Archbishops of Wales in the years since the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920.

Patrick Thomas

George Noakes, priest: born Bwlch-llan, Cardiganshire 13 September 1924; Curate of Lampeter, 1950-56; Vicar, Eglwyswrw 1956-59, Tregaron 1959-67, Dewi Sant, Cardiff 1967-76; Rector of Aberystwyth 1976-79; Canon of St Davids Cathedral, 1977-79; Archdeacon of Cardigan 1979-82; Vicar of Llanychaearn 1980-82; Bishop of St Davids 1982-91; Archbishop of Wales 1987-91; married 1957 Jean Davies; died Carmarthen 14 July 2008.