Remembrance of Tony Bridge by The Rev. Canon P.B.Morgan. One time Curate at Christ Church Lancaster Gate
Tony Bridge became Vicar of Christchurch, Lancaster Gate in 1958. There had been a long vacancy, because the Bishop of London could not find anyone to take on the post. The appointment reverted to the Archbishop of Canterbury; he appointed Tony who had just completed a three year curacy in the diocese of Canterbury. It was one of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher’s more imaginative appointments. A notable parochial ministry which branched out into the wider church was about to begin.
The small congregation at Christchurch was suffering from the post-war blues. The church itself was a product of the confident 1850’s, an elegant Victorian Gothic building, but far too big for the existing congregation. The parish had changed as people found they could no longer keep up the substantial Victorian terraces as private houses. In Lancaster Gate, many of the houses had been turned into hotels; the USA forces ran two leave centres there; there were hostels for nurses and students. The hinterland had become a warren of boarding houses, flats and bedsits, with a few houses here and there of a reasonable size for families. The population had increased, but it was difficult for the church to make contact. The seedier side of Bayswater and Paddington brought many prostitutes on to the streets.
Tony had read theology enthusiastically and carefully at college. He was an astute observer of the parish scene and could see what might be done to make life more fulfilling for parishioners, and in the course of that to build up the life of the church. He was in his mid-40’s with a great deal of energy. Gradually, the congregation began to become aware they were hearing about Christianity from a fresh voice, a voice who knew what it was like to be on the other side of the divide and who had a great concern to make it clear the decision for Christ could be a reasoned one, not just fluffy emotion. At the same time, word began to spread among the students and nurses and others in London for their first jobs that here was someone who was making new sense of what Christian faith had to offer. The congregation began to grow, and the stalwarts who had kept going in the lean times began to see others across a wide age range joining them. After a couple of years, Tony and the churchwardens began to see work for an assistant curate, probably someone just ordained, and the Bishop was persuaded to agree to an appointment.
By good fortune, I was allocated a place in a group of theological students from Wells coming to the Paddington deanery in Lent 1960 to learn about parish life, and by greater good fortune, was attached to Christchurch for this weekend. The vicarage, a large decrepit house in Porchester Terrace, one of the few streets left with family houses, was an eye-opener. People were coming and going a great deal of the time; noone seemed to pay any attention to the normal household details, but things got done and there was a buzz which I had never experienced before. Coming from a rather formal home, and a parish where I played very little part, it was amazing to find a congregation in which people seemed to have the greatest pleasure in meeting one another. It was a new world.
I returned to Wells still feeling I ought to look at some parish in the north of England; I did and came away feeling it was a foreign country. There was a notable and lovely parish priest in Bishops Stortford, where I took part in a parish mission and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Back at Wells in the late summer, I took my predicament to the Principal; having played a part in teaching Tony theology, he said, ‘If you have the chance of working with Tony Bridge, take it.’ I wrote to Tony asking if I could come; he wrote back, ‘I’m absolutely delighted………. Bless your heart, I’m so pleased.’ It was a shared decision for which I have always thanked God, and taken great comfort in for nearly 50 years.
On 28 May 1961, I put on a dog collar in earnest for the first time, was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral by a bishop who had not interviewed me, and after a family lunch, arrived at Evensong at Christchurch to be welcomed. The welcome was long and encouraging; it went on for months, as I met people, those in the congregation, and those on the electoral roll, whom I spent much of the next months visiting.
Both Tony and I were new to the ministry he and I agreed on, but he was certain he wanted me to start quite quietly, as he had been encouraged to do by his vicar, Bobs Newman in Hythe. Sitting in that battered sofa in the study of the new vicarage in Porchester Gardens, with his books and papers spilling over on to my too-tidy file, we worked out week by week what I should be doing. Visiting those on the electoral roll gave me a chance to get to know the parish, and to meet countless people on the way to a visit. It also enabled me to bring my tidy mind to bear on the realities of an out-of-date document. In the evenings, I might get into my Mini and go to see people who lived further afield. There were only two committees; one was the PCC, and the other a group which made decisions about which theatre they would go to next. Would that all the parishes I’ve been in have been able to function like that!
Rightly I was soon in the pulpit, and the congregation had to bear with my learning to put some thinking and believing together in the form of a sermon; this took a long time. Tony was a formidable preacher, increasingly in demand outside the parish,often at independent schools; his way of preaching was all his own, and I was a different kind of person. He was immensely supportive, listening to my script on a Friday morning, and offering comments; more by presence than anything he said, I began slowly to catch something of what it was all about. Another of our differences was that I could sing in tune; Tony caricatured himself by saying that when he had to sing the responses at services, he would hit notes entirely unknown to musicology. I remember his grin and thumbs up across at me after I had sung my first set of responses. So I had a role straightaway in these parts of the services, and soon began to feel reasonably comfortable in my curate’s seat.
Another of Tony’s great strengths was his powerful intellect and an ability to communicate readily and easily; he had illustrations galore of the contemporary meaning of the essence of the Gospel. He ran discussion groups at the Vicarage, mainly for the younger generation who were searching for ways of growing up into a changing world. Usually, the New Testament source would be the Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. As Tony used to say, if you have a letter which mentions God, sex and death in the first chapter, you’re never short of discussion. We – I used to come to these groups if I could - found our assumptions and preconceptions about God challenged and overhauled. Those who found believing difficult – most of us – were encouraged to keep on thinking; Tony had been there and knew what it was like. He wanted us to feel both mind and heart were engaged on this most important of searches.
In due course the group would reach chapter 7 of the letter, which includes the verse,”For I do not do the thing I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19.) Now we would discuss the reality of human nature, but in the context of a God who did not walk away, had not walked away, and would never walk away from this part of his creation, even though we were constantly walking away from God. The coming of Christ in life, death and resurrection really did change everything.
In this way, in groups and in conversations in the study with individuals and with couples, we began to see the shape of the issues that lay before us in those days when we were making decisions about our lives which would shape them for a long way ahead. For those of us whose experience of Christianity had been mainly through services in church, many of which we had been stoically required to attend, all this was a revelation. Tony made belief in God seem both simpler and more profound than most services seemed to allow. The combination of worship and preaching with discussion about what all that meant and what life was about was immensely important. I, and I think I speak for others too, heard and felt the Gospel for the first time there.
Tony’s ministry at Christchurch, which included many forays to preach and give addresses and lead retreats elsewhere, lasted ten years. I shared almost five of them with him. I was lucky to come to the parish when I did; Tony had more time for consultations and conversations with me in the early 1960’s than he did later, when the church at large realised it had this prophetic figure within it. He probably worked more easily with curates than with his peers. He played a vital part in earthing the theology I learnt at college in the life of the parish, and encouraging me to go on reading and studying; he supported me through thick and thin. Nicholas Menon, who was ordained in 1963 will agree it was a very unorthodox kind of parish in which to have our first ministry. Nothing was ever quite so lively again, but much of the theology, so enthusiastically shared by Tony, remained to buoy me up through my ministry. My life would have been utterly different had I not been allocated Christchurch, Lancaster Gate for that visit from college.