The spectacular death of Brian Brindley (between the dressed crab and the boeuf en croute at a birthday party in the Athenaeum) has been celebrated in most of the papers, largely by people who were at the party. I was not; but Brindley’s untimely death nevertheless causes me to reflect on mortality and the swift passage of the years. (Brian was a portly seventy and could have been expected to be contributing articles, reviews and recipes to the Church Times and the Catholic Herald for some years to come)
I first encountered Brian at the height of his synodical power, when he was an improbable but remarkably successful Chairman of the Business Committee. He was also a co-opted member of the Committee of Cost of Conscience, of which I was in those days the Secretary.
They were stirring times. The number-crunchers in the Synod thought that they had the thing under control. The wise money was on the defeat of the women priests legislation. (Indeed, a number of bishops told me afterwards that they too were unprepared for the eventual outcome.) Cost of Conscience was by no means so certain.
Just as he had steered through the Synod the most Catholic Eucharistic Prayer ever to be legal in the Church of England, so Brindley played a significant part in formulating the document ‘Alternative Episcopal Oversight’ which paved the way for the Act of Synod and Flying Bishops. He did not stay long to enjoy the fruits of his labours – the extra-ordinary mixed economy of orders under which we now subsist. He became a Roman Catholic, in which condition, it seems, he could not have been happier.
How things have changed over the thirty or so years that women’s ordination has been the central controversy of the Church of England! Numbers have dwindled, the financial crisis has deepened. Both doctrine and morals have altered in predictable and probably irreversible ways.
Brian Brindley was hounded from the Synod by a campaign of vilification occasioned by his own foolish and ill-considered fantasies, recorded by a young reporter in a classic journalistic scam. He was shown no mercy. That was in 1989. Who would have thought that only five years later a bishop who had been convicted of gross indecency in a public lavatory would receive a standing ovation from the Synod and go on to be the architect of a major revision of the structures of the national Church?
Who would have thought, too, that the ASB, over which so much blood was spilt and midnight oil burnt, would have so short a life-span? People thought that they were approving a liturgy for the new age; that after the giddy era of flimsy pamphlets there would be a lengthy period of stability. Brindley expressed, in the Eucharistic prayer with which he was associated, the theology of the ARCIC Agreement, and Catholic Anglicans rejoiced to use it. For the first time they had a rite which said what they wanted to say. But twenty years, it now appears, is a long time in liturgy. With Common Worship that Catholic moment is gone. Instead of affirming its ecumenical agreements in its new liturgy, the Church of England has effectively turned its back on them.
In the same period of time ecumenism itself has taken a severe kick in the teeth. In 1985 the Pope walked with Robert Runcie to the shrine of Thomas Beckett wearing a stole presented to him by the Catholic Societies of the Church of England. In the same procession was the saintly Michael Ramsey, who received from the crowd an ovation second only to the Pope’s. It seemed a high point in the long journey towards unity.
But in a matter of a decade all that had been achieved was torn down. Despite Mark Santer’s disingenuous assurances to the contrary, women’s ordination killed it stone dead. Anglican ecumenical endeavour has since shrivelled to a couple of unrelated local agreements with Lutherans (both of which have further compromised whatever Catholic integrity the Anglican provinces in question had left). The unity of the Communion itself has been fractured by the wholesale adoption of a doctrine of Provincial Autonomy which is almost precisely what the first Lambeth Conferences were intended to avoid. The ‘full visible unity’ which was once the goal of the Council for Christian Unity does not now exist even between Anglican provinces themselves. Meanwhile, inter-continental ballistic bishops have been fired from one province to another, and the Eames Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate (to which no-one paid the slightest attention, even the Primate after whom it was named) is to be followed by the Sykes Commission, which (as everybody knows) will go similarly unheeded.
It has been unkindly said of Brian Brindley that he treated the Church of England frivolously whilst he was its minister and churlishly after he had left it. Not so. He had fun while he was a member of it, and, in truth, served it diligently and well. There are many who took the fast trains from Paddington to his exotic conventicle who learned to love the Anglican Church and who remain in it because of him. At a safe distance from its increasingly zany ecclesiology, Brian was certainly able to see (and describe in his own colourful way) its lamentable shortcomings. But he was no more critical than many loyal members. And he had tried, after all, as best he could, to save it from itself. Then, as now, the Church of England was not listening.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.