LAURENCE BROWN had no easy task when he was appointed Bishop of Birmingham in 1969.
His two immediate predecessors were formidable characters. Bishop Ernest William Barnes, a brilliant mathematician, was the David Jenkins of his day, renowned for his controversial theological views which caused division within the diocese. Leonard Wilson, who followed him, was an international figure because of his sufferings at the hands of the Japanese in Singapore. Throughout the country Wilson was known for the dignified way in which he conducted the Annual Service of Remembrance in the Albert Hall. When it became known that his successor as Bishop of Birmingham was to be the Bishop of Warrington, many within the diocese were saying 'Who on earth is the Bishop of Warrington?'. This is not surprising, for Laurie Brown's previous ministry had been mostly in the south of England and we in the Midlands are apt to take little notice of what goes on south of Watford.
From Luton Grammar School Brown went to Queens' College, Cambridge, and read History and Theology. From there he moved to Cuddesdon for his theological college. He remained for the rest of his life devoted to Cuddesdon, which formed the pattern of his prayers and his spiritual life. He took his title at the famous church of St John the Divine, Kennington, in 1932, where he joined a gaggle of clerics living together in a clergy house. It was there that he flung himself into the scout movement, which remained a passionate part of his life and even as bishop he was apt to break into scout phrases from time to time. One very proper rector once remarked: 'One does not expect the Diocesan Bishop leaving the altar after confirmation to stop in cope and mitre in the procession and say to the congregation 'See you all afterwards for a cup of char'.'
Many parish clergy when they know that the diocesan is coming to visit are apt to get into a panic. Would he want to change things? Will the choir rise to the occasion? Will the choirboys behave? Will the congregation even stir themselves to get out of bed to be there? With Laurie Brown there needed to be no worry. He would be kind and patient, friendly and loving. Even in his cathedral, where problems could easily arise for bishops, as many of us will remember who saw that excellent BBC series All Gas and Gaiters, Brown could cope. He might wish the Provost and Chapter would not do something, but he would be patient and say to himself 'All sorts and conditions of men in God's Holy Church'.
Brown came to his finest hour after the terrible night in which the IRA bombed pubs and clubs in Birmingham city centre, killing many youngsters and maiming hundreds of others. The city was in turmoil and a very ugly situation might easily have materialised a conflict between the communities. At once Brown with George Patrick, the Roman Catholic Archbishop, went round together throughout the city from parish to parish, healing and reconciling.
It is perhaps for his humanity that Laurie Brown will most be remembered. He used to joke about the fact that he was born on All Saints' Day but that in itself is fitting, for it reminds us that God chooses very ordinary people to be of the company of the saints. Brown was not a great preacher or administrator but he was a holy and humble man who said his prayers and loved the people God had given into his care. Those of us who worked for him knew that he would be patient with our failures and give us always his loving strong support. Like Chaucer's poor parson, Christ's law he taught but first he followed it himself.
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