An appreciation of Brian Brindley – not an obituary by George Austin

Once upon a time, I would always look at the Appointments column in the Church Times and expect to find in it a few names I knew, from college days, from curacies, from dioceses where I had served. If I look there now, it is to count the proportion of those appointed to be priests-in-charge rather than incumbents – average, about 60%.

Now instead I look at the Deaths, to find out which old friend has fallen off the perch this week (usually about three a month), and to make sure I am not there myself. Sometimes it brings back memories of laughter shared, and any parish priest knows that part of the grieving process, even in sad and sudden deaths, is to be able to remember the good times. Save in the most tragic of circumstances, there are often smiles and laughter at a funeral wake.

A few weeks ago, the phone went early in the morning. I was told to go out and buy the Daily Telegraph. Brian Brindley had died of a heart attack, and I must see the obituary. As I read that he had departed this life at the Athenaeum at his seventieth birthday dinner, and in between the crab mousse and boeuf en croute, I was quite helpless with laughter.

There is nothing unseemly in that: the obituary, like that in the Independent, was full and comprehensive, recording his strengths and well as his weaknesses as an obituary should. Brian would have loved reading each of them, just as he would have relished the manner of his parting. He was eccentric, flamboyant, cultured, full of style, and enjoyed the great moments which life brought him.

That The Times should have printed on the same day the obituary of that great actress Dame Dorothy Tutin brought back a particular memory for me of a visit we made to a matinée at the Royal Opera House. Many years ago, Dorothy Tutin played Cecily in the film of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest. Now Brian arrived at Covent Garden like a man about town visiting country cousins, extravagantly dressed and the image of Michael Denison in the Tutin film, in which he played Cecily’s beau, Algernon.

In the early 70s, I ministered to Brian’s parents, by then in a nursing home and in their declining years. They had lived for much of Brian’s early life in Bushey Heath – ‘But I never worshipped at St Peter’s,’ he would insist to me. ‘Much too Low Church!’ I think he went into London to St Mary’s, Bourne Street, which better met his needs both in worship and in grandeur of liturgy and ritual.

Eventually as vicar of Holy Trinity, Reading, he became a member of the General Synod for the Diocese of Oxford, where he became a Canon of Christ Church. He and I were both elected at the same time to the standing committee together with Canon Gareth Bennett. We telephoned each other that evening, and the three of us agreed that, as none could expect preferment, we were free to speak out as openly and controversially as the occasion may warrant.

Sadly, Garry was to commit suicide, hounded to that extreme by his enemies in the Church, while Brian, by then a much-respected chairman of the Business Sub-Committee – in effect in parliamentary terms, Leader of the House – was the victim of a journalistic sting and forced to resign. I can recall being taken aside by the formidable Margaret Hewitt (I always want to call her Dame Margaret Hewitt) and warned, ‘Watch it, Father: Canon Bennett, Canon Brindley – you’ll be the next on their list.’

The full truth about the content of Brian’s indiscreet fantasies, recorded on tape by the journalist, will never be known, but I am convinced there was no conspiracy. His flamboyancy brought him to foolishness, while the extremity of his Catholic churchmanship together with the orthodoxy of his faith meant that he was forced out, when others, with more powerful connections and greater support at a high level, survived and prospered in worse scandals.

With his appreciation of art and artefacts, he was well suited to the post he was given by his former history tutor at Oxford, Eric Kemp, as secretary of the pastoral and advisory committees in the Diocese of Chichester. He converted to Rome after the introduction of women priests, and he felt he was home at last.

That great eccentric Dame Christian Howard once complained to me, ‘You know, George, the trouble today is that there are no eccentrics left in the Church of England.’ Sadly, this is all too true, and one doubts if a Brian Brindley would even clear the hurdle of a selection conference for the priesthood in these days. We seem to prefer blandness and vacuity to flamboyance and style, and we are all the poorer for it.

Brian died as he had lived, in extravagance and grandeur. Had he choreographed it himself nothing would have pleased him more than to be with his friends, at the Athenaeum, at a seven-course dinner with good wine, though I suspect he would have wished to finish his meal, make an exceedingly witty speech and then open his presents. But he made it to the crab mousse, if not quite to the main course.

Instead by that time he was with Christ, which is far better.