Tributes paid to industrial and economy chaplain

Tributes have been paid today to the former leader of the ecumenical Black Country Urban Industrial Mission (BCUIM), during a meeting of the Lichfield Diocesan Synod.

The Revd Preb Olwen Smith retired this month from her role as leader of the organisation and as Lichfield Diocesan Officer for Mission in the Economy. Part of her role in recent years has been to serve as Wolverhampton City Centre Chaplain, serving organisations like Marston’s Banks’s Brewery and Marks and Spencer.

Leading the tributes today, the Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Rt Revd Clive Gregory, outlined Olwen’s work history, and added: “This brief resume illustrates Olwen’s enormous dedication to her ministry and also her willingness to offer her gifts in the service of the wider church.”

He added: “A more recent example of the latter was Olwen’s preparedness to take on the role of Acting Team Rector in the Parish of Central Wolverhampton at an extremely difficult time. It was, frankly, the last thing she needed, given that BCUIM was going through a challenging review at the time, but she accepted the responsibility and steered the team through very choppy waters with wisdom, expertise and great pastoral sensitivity.

“This snapshot offered a snapshot of what a great parish priest Olwen would have been, had God not got other plans in store for her. And of course those plans have centred on Olwen’s ministry in the field of Industrial Mission which began 30 years ago.”

He added: “I suspect if Olwen had her way all the clergy in the Diocese would spend some time on the assembly line to further our understanding of God’s mission in the economy. And who could deny the value of that?

“A short tribute cannot of course do justice to the full scope of Olwen’s ministry and were there more time I could speak further about Olwen’s huge contribution to both ecumenism and inter-faith relations, especially in Wolverhampton.”

Olwen Smith began her ministry in the Church in 1968 when she was commissioned as an Accredited Lay Worker in St Nicholas’ parish, Lincoln in 1968. After having two children and seeing them into school, an opportunity to work in Industrial Mission was presented in 1979 in Grimsby and this continued with BCUIM when she and her husband John, moved to Wolverhampton in the 1980s.

In 1994, Olwen was a member of the first group of women to be ordained to the priesthood in Lichfield Cathedral after the law changed to allow women to serve as priests. She became Team Leader of BCUIM, Team Vicar in the Parish of Central Wolverhampton, was ‘Recognised and Regarded’ in the Methodist Connexion and received ‘Permission to Officiate’ in the Diocese of Worcester.

In Grimsby, Olwen was employed as the Girls’ Friendly Society’s first female chaplain to women at work in the frozen food industry. Olwen comments: “The South Humberside Industrial Mission team thought my theological education would only be complete if I joined the 10.00am till 2.00pm shift packing fish fingers for three months, which I did and learnt very fast – though I was a slow packer!”

Olwen’s work with BCUIM began in 1984 as a half time chaplain to the retail industry in Wolverhampton town centre. This was a continuation of work which the Parish of Central Wolverhampton had already developed through the work of a curate and before him a team vicar. In 1992 Olwen moved to a fulltime post, adding Faith and Work Development Officer for the Diocese of Lichfield to her existing BCUIM role. In 1993 the Bishop of Dudley, as Chair of BCUIM, appointed Olwen as acting team leader; and the following year she was appointed to the post permanently.

Olwen said: “It has been a privilege and a joy to serve God in the world through the Church in these ways for 41 years. I shall miss deeply the humbling experience of being able to engage with and minister to people in companies like Marston’s at all levels; as well as those in the Public Sector working in regeneration, people whose job, like ours, is to transform local communities.

“Being able to bring the values of the Kingdom to some of the decision-making processes of the Black Country has been an integral part of the prophetic ministry to which I have been called. I hope that, to some extent at least, I have been able to achieve that.”

She added: “I am delighted to hear that there will be a new appointment and I would hope that in a time of deep recession, as will be the case for some time to come in the Black Country; this could be made very quickly and without too much delay. In the meantime, I would like to thank everybody for their support over the years through good times and more difficult times.

“I have done my very best to ensure that the work of mission in the economy through BCUIM has continued and is integrated into the wider Church in each of its denominations. I have thoroughly enjoyed the ecumenical nature of this work, believing it to be the only way of doing Mission.”

The recruitment of a new team leader for BCUIM is ongoing with interviews due to be held at the end of April.

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