Brian Brindley

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The Independent Online

Brian Frederick Brindley, priest, writer and critic: born Harrow, Middlesex 4 August 1931; ordained deacon 1962, priest 1963; Curate, St Andrew's, Clewer 1962-67; Vicar, Holy Trinity, Reading 1967-89; Honorary Canon, Christ Church, Oxford 1985-89; died London 1 August 2001.

Few could have had a more symbolically appropriate death than Brian Brindley. On 1 August he anticipated his 70th birthday by holding a dinner party in the North Library of the Athenaeum. Present were guests who represented every strand of his life, from boyhood, school and university, his clerical career in the Church of England, his life as a Roman Catholic layman and journalist, and others on whom he had exercised a profound influence that had changed their lives.

In that small, densely furnished, candlelit room, with the low light gleaming in the silver and glass, he died suddenly after the third of eight epicurean courses, having received absolution from a Jesuit priest. Earlier that week he had been warned that if he went ahead with the celebrations he might die. "What a way to go," he replied. Perhaps his only regret was that he did not have the flambeaux lighted outside nor have the opportunity to open his birthday presents.

It was as hard to imagine anybody grander in voice, dress and style than Brian Brindley. He applied an archaic code of manners of which few knew the rules and was easily offended when invisible boundaries were overstepped. He had a clear, logical brain that made much possible that nobody would have imagined, and talked with mesmeric brilliance and wit, sometimes unkindly. He was clever to the point of genius, but never superficial.

Brian Dominick Frederick Titus Leo Brindley (Dominick and Titus were taken on his ordination, Leo on his reception into the Roman Catholic Church) was the son of Frederick Brindley, an electrical engineer who successfully ran a small specialist firm in Islington, north London, that helped to evolve television. Frederick was an orphan and self-made man from Birmingham who rose to solid bourgeois status and lived in a stockbroker's Tudor house in Bushey Heath with a large garden.

Brindley was educated at Gadebridge Park School, Hemel Hempstead, and Stowe during the last years of J.F. Roxburgh. It was there that he was enchanted by the 18th-century architecture and park and came under the influence of William McElwee, his tutor, whose civilised standards, broad culture and influence laid the foundations of Brindley's life. He wanted to give to others what McElwee had given to him. School friends included Roderick Gradidge, who became an architect, and Colin Anson, later an art historian.

After National Service in Germany, Brindley went up to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1951 to read Modern History. His tutor was Eric Kemp. Religion had always interested him but, after the low-church traditions of Stowe, Brindley discovered the intoxication of Oxford Anglo-Catholicism as represented by Colin Stephenson, Vicar of St Mary Magdalene's, who was the most fashionable and urbane clergyman he had ever met. It was the last period of Anglo-Catholic confidence. Ultra-high, Stephenson made an enormous impression on the university. Bishop Roscoe Sheldon – bluff, hearty, irascible – regularly celebrated Pontifical High Mass from the faldstool. Brindley absorbed Oxford religion, became a high-church Tory, an Anglo-Catholic with a loyalty to Church and Queen, and an aesthete.

There was nothing morbid about Brindley's religion. He combined faith with sophistication and had a talent for humorous verse and satire. Ned Sherrin entered his life through the OUDS pantomimes and after an early-Victorian production of Sleeping Beauty they were complimented by Neville Coghill and told that it was exactly what an OUDS pantomime should be. Alan Bennett was another friend and together they worked on the revue Beyond the Fringe. But the pinnacle of Brindley's theatrical success was a masque written in the style of Dryden, Porci Anti Margarita, produced in the open air on a sunny day for an official visit to the university of Princess Margaret in 1954. The programme was printed by the Clarendon Press. It caused royal pleasure but Brindley was prevented from attending himself by examinations. Many thought that Brindley had a successful theatrical future and at home he gave wonderful garden and fireworks parties.

After a short time reading Law in London, Brindley sought holy orders. This was received with bewilderment rather then hostility by his parents. Brindley had become a member of the congregation of St Mary's, Bourne Street, and enjoyed the rather raffish bachelor social life of the presbytery. All his friends went there. While Gradidge shouted in one corner, gin flowed, and Brindley, his hair parted in the middle and with a slightly grey complexion, would scintillate in another, in a moleskin waistcoat with a thin gold chain.

After a difficult time at Ely Theological College, where his precocity caused him to fall out with the Principal, Canon Derek Hill, Brindley secured a title at St Andrew's, Clewer, and in 1962 was ordained in Oxford Cathedral. In later life Hill said Brindley was his most promising pupil. He was a popular and successful curate and did much to improve the church, helped by Gradidge. Brindley took an interest in local affairs and was a conspicuous member of the Windsor & Eton Society. In 1967 he accepted the living of Holy Trinity, Reading and the most significant chapter of his life opened.

Holy Trinity was a hopelessly run-down church of no architectural distinction with a small congregation of 30, but in a short time Brindley, assisted again by Gradidge, transformed it by making it a receptacle for fine church furniture discarded as a result of liturgical change or church closure. Pugin's screen from St Chad's, Birmingham, came first, followed by altars and a door case from St Paul's, Oxford, the magnificent c17 pulpit from All Saints, Oxford, Martin Travers's sarcophagus-shaped altar from Nashdom Abbey, and one of the finest collections of antique vestments in the country, many bought for a song. Every piece of altar plate was gilded. Brindley applied an accretive hand and wanted to make the church look as if it had evolved through time. Nothing was made to look temporary. Holy Trinity could not be too high and the music and ceremonial were carried out with Continental style and racy perfection. Attracting a large congregation, advertisements were inserted in the Church Times announcing fast trains from Paddington.

Perhaps there was a deliberate element of the opera buffa to Brindley's liturgical tastes but a note of seriousness emerged in 1975 when he sought election to the General Synod. Church politics became his main interest, he became powerful in the Church Union, the Church Literature Association, was a force in the Anglo-Catholic Loughborough Conferences, and took an informed and influential interest in the synodical debates on new liturgical rites that eventually found expression in the Alternative Services Book. Rite A, with a consecration prayer based on the Hypolitan Canon, was largely his work.

Brindley was an immensely popular speaker, was elected to the Standing Committee in 1980 and in 1985 he was chosen to be chairman of the Business Sub-Committee, which was the equivalent of becoming leader of the house. In that same year he was made an Honorary Canon of Christ Church and some of his friends expected him to be made a bishop. Others did not.

Brindley had become the most famous Anglo-Catholic priest in the Church of England but preferment eluded him. He would have liked to have moved to London and narrowly missed being appointed to St Augustine's, Kilburn, St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge (a church he craved), and Our Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell. He was regarded with suspicion by the old guard.

In 1989 his life was reversed when he was exposed in the News of the World for indiscreet conversation about young men that had been surreptitiously recorded by an opportunistic young reporter. Most of it was fantasy. Brindley was forced to resign his parish, canonry and synodical appointments. Lord Coggan tried to have him expelled from the Athenaeum. Eric Kemp, by then Bishop of Chichester, came to his rescue and appointed him Assistant Diocesan Secretary and in 1989 Diocesan Pastoral Secretary where he did valuable work on the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches. He enjoyed officiating in the Brighton churches and had acquired a flat there before his resignation.

Brindley was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1994. He had bought an enchanting Regency House in Western Terrace, designed by Amos Wilde, and he exquisitely furnished and decorated it in the style of Soane and the Royal Pavilion. He had bought antiques from schooldays and had acquired a fascinating collection of neo-Classical furniture, pictures and bondieuserie which he arranged with imagination and style. The walls were marbled and murals of Brighton scenes were painted in the drawing room. Each room had its distinctive character and the effect was magical.

In later life Brindley mellowed and became a much kinder person. Catholicism and the aftermath of his fall made him less competitive and more natural. In his own way he grew in holiness and said he wanted to die penniless. He became a contributor, as a reviewer and columnist, to the Catholic Herald and his work (while sometimes provoking) attracted a wide readership. He was encouraged to write what he pleased. Brindley wrote like an angel and his work reflected the broadness of his cultural interests, the penetration and depth of his intelligence and his liberal education. Decadent perhaps, he was loved more than he realised, and few who fell under his spell remained uninfluenced. His friendships are his lasting legacy.

Anthony Symondson SJ

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