1 October 1953 to 13 September 2013
John, a former vicar at St James and Emmanuel, was a truly remarkable person – both down to earth and also full of faith and love.
This eulogy was given by John’s brother, Michael, at his funeral at St James, Styvechale, Coventry.
We mourn the death of John, but also give thanks for his life. John Kettlewell Mills was born in Birmingham in 1953, the son of Wilfred and Peggy Mills, both of whom were doctors. He had one elder sister, Susan, and two elder brothers: Christopher, known as Chricky as his siblings found the full word difficult to say, and myself.
John went to West House Preparatory School near to the family home, and then to Christ College, Brecon for his secondary education, where he also trained in mountain rescue. On leaving school, John won a scholarship and trained at Dartmouth Naval College, graduated as an officer also with a pilot’s licence, and went on active duty including on the submarine HMS Cachalot.
After several years in the Navy, he decided to resign and seek ordination in the Church of England. His theological training was at St John’s College Durham, where he met Sue. They married in 1984 on the Wirral, shortly before his ordination in Chester Diocese. John was a Deacon at St Mary’s Church in Sale, after which they moved to Manchester in 1987, the year of Tom’s birth. Bethan was born in 1989. John and the family moved to Coventry in 1998, after 11 years in Didsbury as vicar .
Those are the basic facts, but who was John as a person?
To give you some glimpse of him, let me first start with an anonymous but true story. One afternoon, in the late 1950s, a young boy went for a walk to the nearby park with his slightly older brother. With them was a Nanny. On reaching the park, the boys decided to play a game of Cowboys and Indians. The well-disposed Nanny kindly agreed to participate too, with her role being a captured prisoner. For the sake of authenticity, she even agreed that she could be tied to the park bench with some rope that the younger boy happened to be carrying. This was dutifully done; but the story took an unexpected turn when the two boys decided that the game was over and that they were hungry, and then left her there on the bench, totally immobilised, while they returned home for their tea. It was only some time later that the Nanny managed to attract the attention of a staff member at the park, get herself untied and return to join the boys at their home!
So what does this tell us about John? apart from his proficiency at tying secure knots! Well, John was real, he was immensely human, he was practical and he had a tremendous sense of humour! At a very young age, when asked what he would like for a birthday present, he replied that he would like to have a tool kit so that he could fix things, and that he would also like to have a padlock to lock the toolbox to his bed to keep it safe! I suppose that it’s fair to say that John was a bit unconventional, but he was also utterly dependable and genuine.
John was very much a sailor, loving both yachts on reservoirs and at sea, and delighting in the challenge of trying to use the wind to chart his course. Walking in the hills of the Lake District, Wales or Scotland, especially in wet weather, was another of his pleasures! Indeed, singing the Cwm Rhondda today brought back so many memories of John singing at the top of his voice in various mountains in the Beacons or Snowdonia to keep up our spirits and try to stay warm. And anyone who came into contact with John for any length of time would sooner or later also experience his rather idiosyncratic sense of humour, and even the occasional inappropriate joke! He once even said that he and I were very similar, but that he was the good-looking one!
John was also a faithful servant. He was caring, so loving, so transparent, so hard-working and so willing to help others. This was particularly obvious in his deep love of his family and their love of him. He was a devoted husband and father, so proud of them all. Our mother used to say that he and Sue were completely made for each other. I also remember, particularly, how proud John was when Tom followed him to Durham University, and similarly how proud he was of Bethan and her drama performances including at the Edinburgh Festival. We will hear more from them shortly.
But this is not just me, his brother, talking about his servant and loving heart. In the last few days, I have been re-reading some of the tributes that his Manchester church family members wrote 15 years ago. Typical among the comments was the following: “John has the ability to come alongside you, often quietly and gently. He asks you how you are, gives acknowledgement of your answer, and then encourages you to keep on the path of God before you”. I do not know the particular person who wrote that about John, but it certainly resonates with me and, I believe, with many of you too. John, indeed, focused his very first sermon at St James (Styvechale) on servanthood, his commitment to his flock, his intention to try to help others, and his willingness if necessary to take risks in doing so. And now, 15 years later, we see the tributes currently being written by the church family here and by others that he counselled. There will be a time to read them in the weeks and months ahead, and I know that they will be greatly treasured by Sue and the family.
In talking about his faithfulness, though, it would be wrong not to say something about his deep and trusting faith in God: it was this that drove him, that motivated him and that totally underpinned him as a person. I clearly remember having a conversation with John about his decision to leave the Navy and seek ordination, and the reason for it. In reply to my question, he said “Well, I have been reading the Bible and learning more about Jesus recently. And if all this is really true, then I had better take it seriously!”. He believed in the Gospel, and did indeed take it seriously. And in “Pause for Thought” that John wrote in the very last parish newsletter before his death, John again acknowledged this so clearly. At the end of an article about the finances of the church, he affirmed his faith with the words “…I do believe in God. Do you?”.
John knew and understood who he was, as a child of God and filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. John has left us suddenly and far too soon. We now grieve and honour him. And we remember a truly remarkable person, both down to earth and also full of faith and love.
John’s daughter, Beth, adds the following:
A couple of weeks ago Dad and I were having a conversation where he told me that when I was born it felt crazy to him that the whole world carried on as normal. He explained to me that my birth was such a momentous occasion to him, it felt strange that the rest of the world continued as normal. He asked me if I had ever felt like that – I thought about it and said no. A week last Friday, I heard the worst news of my life, my Dad had died. Then the world continued like normal and I realised, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Gentle, jolly, non-judgmental, accepting, kind, funny, generous, loving – these words don’t even begin to scratch the surface. My dad was a one off, one in a million – a genuine legend. My Dad is my hero, he was my superman – there was nothing he couldn’t fix, nothing he hadn’t done, nothing he couldn’t do and nothing he wouldn’t do for me. To think the world was just still carrying on without him was crazy. However, within hours of hearing the news, I realised the world wasn’t carrying on without him. He is still here in so many ways, he is imprinted in every aspect of my life. Dad was a believer in love, in fact if I had to sum him up in one word – that would be it. Dad absolutely showered me with a powerful, overwhelming and completely unconditional love – and love never dies. I know this because I can still feel it strongly.
Dad also remains alive through everything he taught me over the years. Rewinding to my childhood, he taught me how to tell the time. I would shout and get angry with him when I didn’t understand, but he persevered even when I was damn right rude (and believe me I can be very rude), but he never got angry with me. He taught me how to tie my shoe laces, again I would get angry when I couldn’t do it, I would take out all my frustration on him, but he never once got angry with me. I sometimes wonder how I got away with it.
Dad also helped me with my homework all the way up to secondary school. Surprise surprise again, I would get angry with him because I didn’t understand (or frankly care) what ‘pi r squared’ was. I don’t remember now (or care) I’m sure Dad would be able to explain it to me again if he were here (but that’s not the point). The point is that by allowing me to get angry with him – he took the brunt of my pain and frustration.
Another memory of my Dad from my school days was when I got suspended from school… for bulling and stealing! Now as I say this – I realise I am definitely not painting a great picture of myself to those of you who don’t know me – but lets just go with it. John Mills was my Dad so there must be some good in there somewhere.
On a serious note though (and as much as my brother will try and convince you otherwise) I was neither a bully nor a thief. In a nutshell the school took something massively out of context and blew it out of all proportion. Anyway my Dad was called in and I sat in and watched as the headmaster explained to my Dad that I was being excluded. Now it definitely can’t be a parent’s proudest moment when you are told that your child is a bully and a thief and it’s especially awkward when you’re a vicar. However I will never ever forget my Dads response – he paused and then said “My daughter can be really stupid sometimes, she can be stroppy and bloody minded…” in my head I was thinking “wow I really hope you are going somewhere with this Dad”,…anyway he then continued and said “…But she is not a bully and she is not a thief.”
He then went to the end of the earth to appeal my suspension. He spent months writing letters, calling meeting and doing everything in his power to get the school to retract the suspension and publicly make it known in the school that what was said about me was not true.
He didn’t do this for himself, he didn’t do this out of embarrassment, he did this all for me. He didn’t want me to have to deal with grief from other pupils, teachers and parents. He had complete and utter faith in me and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to support me.
Even as a young adult, Dad continued to teach me things. Including teaching me to drive. One of Dad’s favourite stories to tell was one of the first times he took me out driving. Dad was giving me directions, we approached a roundabout and he said – “go straight over the roundabout.” So taking it literally, I did just that. I drove in a straight line, cut straight through the middle of the roundabout and over the concrete mound. “Bu-dum-Bu-dum”. Dad used that as as his punch line. He never grew tired of telling it and laughing about it. We laughed a lot. He was so much fun. One of the things I think I will miss most about him the most is the big booming bold laugh that we all knew and loved.
Anyway, I’ve already spoken for longer than I intended, I could go on for hours about how wonderful my Dad was, how he supported me through my unconventional career choice and how he went above and beyond – not just for me, Tom, Mum or our extended family but for everyone he met.
But I would like to make one final important point. Many people offering their condolences to me have commented on how cruel this is. Dad was only 59 and this came completely out of the blue – what an absolute tragedy. However my Dad was an optimist, he always saw the glass as half full and whilst it pains me to my core that he has gone, I definitely do not want his death to be remembered as a tragedy. Instead I would like it to serve as a purpose. I would like it to be a wake up call and a reminder to everyone that life is so so short – and you only get one shot at it. The only certainty we have in life is that we will all die. And unfortunately, like Dad some of us will go unexpectedly and sooner than we would like.
Dad died leaving behind a family who all knew how much he loved us and how proud he was of us – because he told us and showed us constantly. Dad died leaving behind so much love that he will live on within us indefinitely for the rest of our lives. One day I hope to have children of my own and I will tell them constantly how much Dad loves them and how much of a part of them he is, even though he never got the chance to physically meet them.
Since Dad’s death I have already had one of my friends tell me that they have now healed a rift with their father after not speaking for many years. When they heard of my Dad’s sudden death they thought – wow life is too short. I know this would make my dad incredibly happy.
So again I urge you all to live for the present, tell your loved ones you love them every day, act with kindness, take nothing for granted. Please don’t see my Dad’s death as a tragedy but use it as a reminder that you must live life to the full and not get bogged down by trivial things. Because when things like this happen, believe me you realise nothing else but love matters. Death will come to us all – but love lives forever.
You were the best fucking Dad I could have ever asked for, I am the proudest daughter in the world. I will live every day to the full and be the happiest I possibly can be and I know you are with me every step of the way.
Dad, I love you.
John’s son, Tom, adds the following:
There is always an element of sibling rivalry in anything that Beth and I do. And Dad always sided with Beth, I suspect in a calculated effort to wind me up. And annoyingly it worked. Dad enjoyed reminding me that my little sister has beaten me in every official examination that we’ve both taken. Indeed one of the reasons that I wanted to do a Masters was that Beth hasn’t done one; I naively thought it might quieten Dad. Predictably it did not.
And now I have to follow a tribute that I can only describe as irritatingly excellent. Once again my little sister is showing me up, and Dad would be loving every second.
But on the flip side I was never suspended for bullying and stealing so it’s very much swings and roundabouts.
So what to say? And how to say it? How do I sum up the life of the man that I love most in the world?
I am not going to stand here and tell you all how amazing my Dad was because quite frankly I don’t have to.
Partly because we have already heard so much today, so many wonderful stories and memories. Having heard everything that has been said you could be forgiven for thinking that John Mills was clearly more than just a vicar with a beard and a horrible habit of wearing sandals with socks. And if you are thinking that, you are right, he was more, he was an absolute hero.
Even if you just met him briefly, or in passing, you will have realised that he was something special. But if you knew him, you will know what I mean when I say that he really was unique.
So I’m not going to tell you about my Dad, because if you’re here, you already know the important stuff.
And anyway Dad never liked us talking about him when he was in the room or as if he wasn’t there, he’d give a look of annoyance and say “does he take sugar?”.
And whilst I would normally take any opportunity to mildly annoy Dad, today is different.
So I’m not going to talk about my Dad as if he wasn’t here. There’s plenty of time for reminiscing, but here and now there are things that I want to say to him.
I will probably cry. I may well swear. But I know he wouldn’t mind. And no matter how painful this gets or how incomprehensible I become, I am going to sodding finish. You may have to bear with me in places but who cares. After all, it’s all good.
Dad I am so proud of you. You have spent your life looking after other people. In the Navy you served your country; I love that about you. Having a Dad who drove submarines? It honestly doesn’t get much cooler than that.
And then you became a vicar and devoted your life not just to serving God, but more importantly to serving people. Through the vicaring (incidentally I don’t think that’s a word but I feel as if it should be) and later the counselling you have made such a difference to so many. And no offence to the ordained members of the congregation but it just so happens that the Reverend John Mills is the coolest vicar that I have ever met.
When your children decided that this church thing wasn’t for them? No worries. When your son became a bouncer? Happy days. When your first born decided to get a very large, very questionable tattoo and take up fighting in cages? Crack on son (but maybe don’t tell your mother).
And that’s all because you knew this stuff didn’t matter. You always said, actually scratch that, you always sang “all you need is love”. And the thing is that you really mean it. You are not only the most accepting vicar that I can imagine, you are the least judgemental and the most loving person, and that is what makes you so special.
And that’s why you get so saddened with the various divisions in the church. Female bishops, same sex marriage, why are these even being debated? People matter, all you need is love and the rest can go hang. I remember you quoting the chief executive of ‘Stonewall’ – “if you don’t approve of same sex marriage, then just make sure you don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”
Beth and I often talk about how amazing it is that you click with everybody you meet. Now my sister and I are fundamentally pretty cynical people, we don’t like maybe 70% of people on sight and I’m sure at least that percentage feel the same way about us. But everybody likes you and you in turn like everyone. Well almost everyone, but if John Mills doesn’t like you then clearly is sod all to like.
But you aren’t just Lieutenant Mills, nor are you just Reverend Mills. You are first and foremost John, the most incredible father, husband, brother, uncle and friend.
From as far back as I can remember I have always known that you can do anything! From making my first batman cape, to the innumerable lifts, financial bailouts and stoically doing half a paper round for two years. Just weeks ago when I moved into a flat reminiscent of a bad day in Bosnia, you were straight down there, paintbrush in hand and a look of grim determination on your face, ready to battle rising damp, peeling paint and rats the size of Rottweilers.
And you never, ever let me down. You attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, although it was difficult to tell which was which. And no matter how upset I’ve been, no matter how bad the world has looked or how scared I am, you have always made me feel safe, you have always made everything OK.
And now you’re gone. And I am sad. Which incidentally proves that you are wrong when you said that I have the emotional range of a teaspoon.
And although I’m sad, even now you can still manage to comfort me. You once told me that to die will be an awfully big adventure, and you were all about adventure. And that’s how I know that, as ever, Shakespeare got it wrong. You haven’t shuffled off this mortal coil.
John Kettlewell Mills never shuffled anywhere. I know you’ve stomped off with a smile on your face, a spring in your step, singing an out of tune ‘Hey Jude’ at the very top of your voice.
Now I don’t know if I believe in life after death. But if when I finally run down the curtain and join the choir invisible, you are there waiting for me, sarcastic comment at the ready, then that will be a good day. And we will hug and we will laugh and then we will go off and find Shakespeare together and give him the celestial kicking that frankly he’s been asking for.
But if that doesn’t happen, it really doesn’t matter. Because I know I’m going to see you every day.
And remember it’s all good.
And now we are going to sing ‘Thine be the glory’. This hymn means a lot to my family. It was played at my parent’s wedding and it was played at both my Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s funerals.
Those of us blessed with a good singing voice like my dear little sister, by all means crack on and do your thing. Now me? I take after my Dad. Tone deaf and musically challenged. But like hell am I going to let that stop me. So if you’re like my Dad and I and can’t carry a tune, then join me and sing in true John Mills style. That means loud, that means clear, that means sing your heart out and damn the consequences!
That’s pretty much it from me. I think I did a reasonable job; a sprinkling of sarcasm, a few expletives, an element of existential crisis, a dig at Shakespeare and a whole lot of love. And that pretty much sums up my relationship with Dad.
But before we engage in what for one reason or another will be a truly memorable rendition of my favourite hymn, I will leave you with my favourite quote. From Douglas Adams, for me it sums up Dad’s attitude to life, the universe and everything.
“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the very ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
All the best Dad.
Rob Brown, John’s childhood friend, adds the following:
I first met John 53 years ago when we were aged 7. A strong bond developed after we were despatched to Mr Hooper Phillips for extra French. Those of you who knew or heard of HP will know he became to both of us a mentor and friend. That bond remained as we set out on our very different careers: John to the Navy and then the Church, me to surveying.
Both John and I loved being on and in the water from an early age, swimming and sailing meant everything. I recall, aged about 13, how we were allowed to have our boat on the annual Mills’ Norfolk Broads holiday. John’s mum was rightly concerned about how tidy the boat was being kept and, following a full Naval inspection, we were told to tidy up below! John showed early signs of his leadership abilities by luring his sister into the cabin and locking her in until she had tidied up! Undeterred Sue, showing true Mills initiative, found a knife and dismantled the lock and of course we were left to tidy up.
It is John the sailor and friend of whom I wish to speak… so what are the qualities of a good sailor? Strong reliable leadership, caring for the crew, a willingness to give in order to enable the ship, or boat in our case, to run smoothly and, not least, a sense of humour when the dinner we had all been looking forward to, ends up in the bilge! John had all of these qualities and are not these the things of which friends are made?
John was a man who, on receiving your telephone call at 1 am in the morning would not say “What time do you think this is?” BUT rather “What can I do to help you?” Sailing with John every year was simply slipping back into that friendship established so many years ago with its easy, if wicked, humour and comfortable boundaries which make sailing a small boat (often compared to being inside a washing machine) all the more enjoyable. Sailing the boat with John was entirely natural, often needing no words for each of us to know what needed to be done and by whom. I hope our sailing trips gave John something, be it ever so small, in comparison to what he gave me.
I would like to end with ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson because I think this poem reflects John both in life and death – a man who gave everything and asked for little. In the poem, the speaker heralds the setting of the sun and the rise of the evening star, and hears that he is being called. He hopes that no one will cry when he departs, because although he may be carried beyond the limits of time and space as we know them, he retains the hope that he will look upon the face of his “Pilot” when he has crossed the sand bar.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
John was my best friend and I miss him.
Duncan Stoddart, John’s colleague from Warwick University, adds the following:
I’d like to share with you John’s life and work as a counsellor, teacher and supervisor.Some of you may not be aware that he had, over many years, been on a long and involved journey to become a counsellor. He kept a clear and professional boundary between his responsibilities as a vicar and his counselling activities.
I’ve had many conversations this last week with people who knew John in different capacities and settings within the counselling community here in the West Midlands. I hope to include their experience of him to give you a picture of this side of John. As a friend and counselling colleague, I’ve also drawn on conversations he and I had on our walks with Rowan, his dog.
Of course, there was one person who was in a unique position to see John’s route into the world of counselling and psychotherapy. While Sue herself was training, she introduced him to the person-centred approach. John soon began reading Carl Rogers, the originator of the approach – often regarded as the father of counselling. Significantly, the writing of Brian Thorne, ordained minister and Professor Emeritus of Counselling at the University of East Anglia, struck a resonant chord with John. Meeting with Thorne, who combined his teaching, counselling and ministry, spurred John towards training.
Strongly drawn to the values that the person-centred approach stood for, he began his training on the Person-Centred Counselling programme here at the University of Warwick. The then director, Roger Casemore, a gifted and inspiring counselling educator, was another influential figure in John’s development. When he qualified in 2007, John had been a counsellor-in-training at the Sycamore Centre in Nuneaton. The following year he started seeing clients at the Lighthouse in Coventry. He undertook further training as a supervisor and later as a couples counsellor. In 2010, Roger Casemore invited John to help out as a part-time tutor on the Warwick programme. In the next year, with Jeannie Wright as the new director, he was Course Leader for the first year of the degree programme, and last year took on responsibility for co-ordinating placement activities.
Acknowledging John’s progression in the knowledge that he simultaneously worked as a full time vicar gives an idea of the workload he took on. He did his utmost not to neglect either community, making every effort to fulfil his responsibilities to each. Indeed he agonised at times over this very issue. The phrase “To go beyond the call of duty” seems so apt in conveying John’s drive to contribute. Whether meticulously planning the details of a day’s teaching, or giving his undivided attention to a student, almost everything he did had meaning that served a higher purpose – that of making a difference to individuals, communities and society.
What his spiritual life and work shared with his values as a counsellor was above all relationship. In the person-centred approach he found a way to be deeply connected to others. As a set of qualities in the person, it made complete sense to him. It helped him make sense of himself, giving him permission to express himself more openly and authentically. The closer he came emotionally to himself, the closer he could experience others’ feelings. He could see the complicated veils we put up in conversation that keep us safe, but somehow hidden. And he understood how essential it was for clients, supervisees and students to be with someone who was dependable, real and transparent.
John’s directness and warmth, his capacity for empathy and equal consideration of the other, showed people by example that it was possible to live and love authentically. Immensely proud to be part of a bona fide person-centred course, he loved saying – particularly when interviewing prospective students – “it does what it says it does on the tin, you know!”
As a tutor, he championed the students’ voice, caring deeply for their experience. He demonstrated a courageous leadership based on openness that some found difficult, while others found inspiring. His humour and colourful vocabulary often surprised students, helping them to see him as a real person far more than a fixed entity of ‘tutor’ or ‘vicar’.
Sadly, as a result of a restructuring policy, he could no longer see a future for himself at Warwick. Just before he died, he was intending to refocus his energies on the parish, whilst continuing as a part-time counsellor and supervisor. Yes, we will miss his presence. Many of us still can’t believe this has happened. And what he showed us and stood for will, I’m sure, help us in our own lives, in our own ways.