Friday, February 17, 2012

RIP Tom Smail

In the mid 1970s The Fountain Trust came to St Stephen's, Selly Park to lead a weekend. At the time this organisation was the vehicle mainly for the teaching of Tom Smail. His book Reflected Glory arose out of such. It was an attempt to put a theology and understanding of the Holy Spirit back on the agenda of a church which had lost it. It was a good weekend. One moment I recall clearly is that one of the speakers asked Tom for a brief input half-way through his session and Tom took over. 'You can sit down now' he said to the original speaker after realising he wasn't going to give the platform back up. It was taken in good spirit. Here was a team working but it was one person's work they were doing.

First lesson from Tom. It's OK for the person in charge to be in charge.

A few years later Tom left Fountain Trust which was closed down. It was set up to do a particular work and when that work was done it was stopped. He joined the staff of St John's College, Nottingham, a theological college training people for ordination, and wrote another book, The Forgotten Father. He taught Christian Doctrine

Second lesson from Tom. When you have done what you set out to do, stop.

Third lesson from Tom. If you see your mission as restoring balance you will be constantly emphasising different things.

In 1981 I went to St John's to train. Some of the lectures were hard. Some were dull. Some felt pointless. Two hours a week with Tom for the first two years, the first on Mondays at 9.10 a.m. I recall, were redemptive. He built our doctrine up from scratch, not ignoring the difficulties those of us from a conservative background would have with more liberal theologians, gently helping us through. I loved his lectures and still re-read my notes from time to time. Seminars were harder. He was smart and a good debater. Those of us who were young and timid found it hard to contribute. He liked the cut and thrust with the more academic students and was not so good at encouraging along the slow stream. But I came top of my year group at doctrine in 1983 and got a comment on an essay from him that began 'I liked this essay a lot.' It still only got 58%. But he had enjoyed reading it. Another helpful piece in the jigsaw that eventually convinced me I could write. (He had told us Barth wouldn't get 70%.)

Fourth lesson. Theology isn't beamed down. It needs building.

Fifth lesson. It doesn't matter how gifted the student; if you tell them you like their work it helps.

Tom went back to parish ministry for a few years before retiring. His congregations would have been well taught.

So thanks Tom. We haven't kept in touch but I am one of your students who is glad to have been in your presence those few short years. RIP


RuthJ said...

This is a heart-warming, as well as a thought-provoking, post. Thank you.

Chris B said...

I remember Tom Smail attending Beeston Parish Church during his time at St John's. I don't remember him involved in leading at all, although maybe I was teaching in sunday school and missed him. But his contributions to the midweek discussions in Lent were gently thought provoking. He was a lvoely man.

David Walsh said...

Steve - we were at St John's Nottingham together and spoke a couple of years ago, I think, when we almost ended up on the same day course in Salisbury.

I grew up in Nailsea and belonged to Holy Trinity in the 1960s and early 1970s! Now I'm a parish priest in Kensington, London.

Landed here after hearing news about Tom's death.

Tom's book 'Reflected Glory' was the real reason I went to St John's. I'm afraid once at St John's I became far more skeptical about his brand of theology yet he was very good to me personally: we sometimes spent Saturday afternoons together out in Nottingham, watching films and occasionally sharing a sauna! A few years later he preached at my wedding.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Anonymous said...

Hello - its daughter Mary Smail here. I love this blog on Tom. Thank you. He showed himself to be through and through faithful to his trust in Jesus - and I do not say that in a wet or sentimental way. It was rock solid. Thanks for remembering him. the funeral is open to all and you can get details from me marydotsmailattescodotnet

john davies said...

As always I get the news too late -fourteen months late in this case -but have to write and say how much I valued Tom's books in the 70s and 80s. He helped me develop my understanding of my Christian experience, clearly confirming things the Spirit had been teaching me through his writings. Don't forget his magazine 'Theological Renewal' either - that was a valuable resource for people who wished to understand their faith,perhaps sadly not as widely known or read as it deserved to be. Rest in peace, Tom - we're the poorer for your passing.