This morning I read that Tom Smail had died. Tom was a great teacher of doctrine and Christian life who I had the pleasure of studying with before going to theological college.
The reason I met him was due to the letter telling me that I had been selected to train for ordination in the Church of England. It said, “Yes we want you but we want you to wait a year before going to college”. With hindsight that letter led to one of the best and most maturing years of my life. At the time it felt like a punishment and a misunderstanding.
The selectors felt I had problems with theological reflection and study. So, they recommended a year’s study with a theological mentor. Our wise director of ordinands noted that Tom Smail lived just around the corner from us and he had agreed to act in this role for me. I knew nothing about Tom. I hadn’t read any of his books nor encountered him in any of his roles either as parish priest or theological educator.
He was a short scot whose accent I sometimes found hard to understand. On our first meeting he and I chatted about my life and faith and what I wanted to get out of this arrangement. He was gracious but very serious about the task at hand. He assured me that while he thought perhaps the selectors didn’t really appreciate my understanding of theology he said that maybe I needed to take my reading up a step and to think and reflect more deeply.
So, once a month we would sit down and I would tell him about the book he assigned me. He was very good at not interrupting and I learned that some of his penetrating looks meant he was composing questions to ask me later. I once sat despairing at how hard Rahner’s “The Trinity” was to understand. I said to him, “maybe they were right, I don’t know much about theology”. He patted me on the shoulder and told me, “You don’t have to understand Rahner, you just have to read him.”
Tom brought humanity and grace to all he did while never accepting slackness or an unwillingness to apply rigour to the task.
Once I was done spouting on about whatever I had read, he would start teaching me. It was infectious. It wasn’t someone showing me how much he knew and how little I did. He wanted me to know and enquire. He taught as if it really mattered that I knew more about God and his purposes and his love. We always prayed together at the end and he always asked how Ruth’s pregnancy was getting on. I never felt that I was an imposition on his time or intellect and when I would drop him notes throughout my ministry he always responded and would offer words of wisdom.
I haven’t seen him in years but he will always be an important part of my journey and my maturing. I hope that in my own small way I can offer to others the gift he has given me.