The Ven Ray Roberts, naval padre with a sympathetic ear who rose to become Chaplain of the Fleet – obituary

Ven Ray Roberts
Ven Ray Roberts

The Ven Ray Roberts, who has died aged 88, was a Welsh miner’s son who became Chaplain of the Fleet.

In Roberts’s quarter of a century of service as a naval padre, there developed a special, mutual affection between him and the Royal Marines. His first encounter with the Corps was as chaplain to 45 Commando in 1965, when he earned his own green beret.

He admired the Corps’s family tradition and its highly motivated young men, and later that year he deployed with them to Aden. There he would accompany the Marines on watch in their bunkers or observation posts, often overnight. He always had an endless supply of cigarettes.

He was also proud of the naval chaplain’s tradition of not having officer’s rank, often remarking that he had only the rank or rating of the person he was talking to, be he a youthful sailor or marine, a commanding officer or an admiral. In Aden Roberts would avoid encountering the senior Army padre, a colonel resplendent in a purple-banded cap. When he was not in his clerical robes, Robert’s dress was a dark grey suit with a dog collar.

Later at the Commando Training Centre (1975-79), Roberts had an impressive influence on the young men and young officers under training, as well as keeping an eye on the staff and other trained ranks on courses. “I always knew that when there was a knock on the door closely followed by Ray that there was a problem which only he and I could start to solve, “Colonel David Bailey recalled. “He was a regular visitor to the sergeants’ mess, which was, of course, the heart of any good Royal Marines unit.”

Roberts gives a service in the Radfan mountains in the Yemen

Raymond Harcourt Roberts was born in a terraced house in Wattsville, a small mining village in the Sirhowy Valley, outside Newport, on April 14 1931. His father Tom, a miner who had lost brothers down the pit, was determined that Ray would never follow suit, and decided that education was the way forward.

Carrie, his mother, saved her Green Shield Stamps to acquire a bicycle so that young Ray could cycle to school, and he was educated at Pontywaun Grammar School, where he became head boy. He also became a committed member of St Catherine of Alexandria’s Church, Crosskeys.

Roberts won a place at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, to read English, which to his disappointment meant Anglo-Saxon. “Teddy Hall” was a small and friendly place, which under its principal, the Rev Dr John Kelly, was embarking on a period of expansion. Roberts, one of the grammar school boys then beginning to infiltrate Oxford, integrated well, juggling a vigorous social life with being sacristan of the chapel.

Though an ordinand, he enjoyed the challenge of climbing into hall over the spiked walls after the gates had closed, climbing monuments on Saturday nights, and attending bibulous parties. But Sunday mornings were reserved for worship at Pusey House.

His vacations were for adventure, whether hitchhiking across Europe or enjoying undergraduate idylls in a rented villa on the Costa Brava. Roberts showed the same mixture of fun and faith throughout his life.

After National Service in the Navy, he studied for ordination at St Michael’s College, Llandaff (1954-56), was made a deacon in 1956 by the Bishop of Monmouth and ordained in 1957 by the Archbishop of Wales.

Ven Ray Roberts

As a curate at Bassaleg he demonstrated his latent organising ability when, in the space of 10 months in 1958, he led the replacement of the church hall with a church, St Anne’s, to serve the developing suburb outside Newport.

Meanwhile, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve, HMS Cambria, in Cardiff as a chaplain, and in 1959 he re-entered the Navy proper. He was sent to Singapore to minister to the crews of the small ships, an early report noting: “he is painstaking in the preparation of any work and would seem to have plenty of ability in both pastoral and administration skills.”

His first appointments were to Chatham barracks (1961-63) and the frigate Urchin (1963-65) which was then part of the Dartmouth Training Squadron. Roberts communicated easily with all ranks, keeping open the door to his cabin, where there was always a cup of coffee and a sympathetic ear. He was never gullible, but he would spend much effort in sorting out people’s problems.

Other appointments included the naval engineering college (1967-68), the commando carrier Bulwark (1969-70), Britannia Royal Naval College (1971-73), the aircraft carrier Ark Royal (1974), and HM Naval Base Devonport in 1979. In 1980 Roberts was appointed Chaplain of the Fleet, Archdeacon for the Royal Navy and Honorary Chaplain to the Queen.

A soldier stands guard while Roberts gives a service

Roberts followed high Anglican rites, was no supporter of women priests, and did not approve of the ceremony of Passing the Peace. However, he worked closely with the Free Church and Roman Catholic priests who also gave religious instruction to young trainees.

Of sailors, Roberts said “You can’t call them miserable sinners, because no one sins so cheerfully.” Once on holiday in Crete, he visited three sailors serving time in a civil prison: when he returned it was to report that all was well and the sailors were running the jail successfully, using as currency the cigarettes which he had delivered.

Roberts never married but his nieces and nephew and their offspring adored him. For adults he mixed exotic drinks like champagne cocktails and horses’ necks; the children he spoilt with pocket money and sweets – and fast rides in his Ford Capri.

After retiring from the Navy in 1984 he was appointed CB and returned to parish ministry. He was assistant curate at St George’s, Badshot Lea, Surrey (1985-89) and general secretary of the Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association. He was a chaplain of Llandaff Cathedral from 1990, retiring from full-time ministry in 1995.

The Ven Ray Roberts, born April 14 1931, died September 25 2019