Address given by The Reverend Nicholas Menon
Address given by The Reverend Nicholas Menon at the Funeral Service of The Very Reverend A.C. Bridge, Dean Emeritus of Guildford on Thursday, 3rd May, 2007 at Canterbury Cathedral.
We are here out of affection and respect for Tony Bridge, and few people can have inspired more affection or more respect. It is my daunting privilege to delivery this address. Philip Morgan and I were Tony’s curates at Lancaster Gate, we served our titles under him and learned our priestcraft in that highly idiosyncratic parish. One thing we very soon discovered was that Tony greatly disliked eulogies and encomia at funerals. “By grace ye are saved”, he would say. I was fortunate enough to visit him in February just before what turned out to be his last spell in hospital. He was tired, but lucid as ever. In that characteristic way, and that wonderful, rich and undiminished voice, he said in the course of conversation, “Darling Nicky, St. Paul was right, wasn’t he? By grace we are saved.” It was a question requiring the answer ‘Yes’ (leaving aside the question of the authorship of Ephesians!) By grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.
And so it is an impertinence to attempt an eulogy and please forgive it, dear Tony, here in this place where you were made deacon in 1955 and priested in 1956. That was the beginning of a ministry which was to touch the lives of countless people, not only through the parishes and the cathedral that he served, but also through radio and television and as chaplain and lecturer on Swan Hellenic Cruises. His preaching was legendary. I quote from a letter Diana received last week. “When I was at Marlborough ‘A.C. Bridge’ came to take several Lent courses and he preached on a few occasions. Of all the preachers I had heard on leaving Marlborough he is the one who made the most impression. He inspired me. His attitude to Christian faith reached my teenage public school mind and set an example which has continued to influence me over 40 years later. Old Marlburians of my era, Christian or not, remember him vividly. He made an enormous impact for good on each of us”.
Tony was a big man, not only in stature and presence, but big hearted; in some ways larger than life. Perhaps even he was a great man. Samuel Beckett, writing about the painter Jack B. Yeats, brother of the poet W.B., said “He is oner of the greats of our time, because he brings light as only the great bring light to the issueless predicament of existence.” By such a definition, Tony also was one of the greats of our time, a chosen vessel of God’s grace and a light of the world in our generation. That is how the 1928 prayer book (echoing Cranmer’s 1549) describes the saints: ‘And here we give thee most high praise and hearty thanks for all thy saints who were the chosen vessels of they grace and lights of the world in their several generations’.
But Tony was no plaster saint and he had scant regard for those who were. Such “holiness” was pastiche, like the worst kind of art. He had an amused tolerance of the foibles of others; he summed up a neighbouring Anglo-Catholic with: “Of course, he wears his biretta in the bath”. He had a wonderful gift with words and a sharp eye for the absurd. But he had little time for pomposity or those who knew they were right. Certainly Tony, like the first man, was of the earth, earthy; and all who knew him will remember that wonderfully earthy sense of humour and the fund of anecdotes that illustrated it. Some of these reached back into his colourful past as a painter and his friendship with such people as Dylan Thomas and Mervyn Peake.
Tony had enormous warmth. There was much kissing and embracing at Christ Church before and especially after the services. I remember thinking it was rather stagey which I first arrived before I discovered how genuine and sincere it was and joined in. Another letter to Diana says of Tony in those days: “We were warmed by him, given fresh confidence, made to feel the world was a better place”. The kissing and embracing were for before and after the service. Tony was no great lover of the modern form of the Peace. Indeed, when Series Two introduced it with the words “We are the Body of Christ”, the Bridge response, irreverent though sotto voce, was ‘Bully for you’. Memorably he told the General Synod that to expect a committee to write a new liturgy was like asking the Board of British Rail to dance Swan Lake on Waterloo Station .
What Tony did, if I may quote from the same letter, was to take the old forms and breathe fresh life into them; he turned water into wine. “No I”, Tony might have said, “but Christ in me”. There was a kind of heady excitement about those Christ Church days. Tony wrote in his book Images of God that Cezanne was ‘moved to embody in paint his apprehension of something more than, beyond, and yet implicit in the material spectacle of the landscape’. In much the same way the congregation, made up of a kaleidoscopic range of people, were inspired by Tony to an apprehension of something more than, beyond, and yet implicit in the material spectacle of each other as God’s imagery and artistry. That was why people mattered and why love was paramount. Bayswater in the sixties, like fourth and fifth century Byzantium, was a-buzz with theology. It was partly the climate of the times, but largely because of an encounter between the Holy Ghost and Tony Bridge in the Tottenham Court Road some years before. Everything was underpinned by much kindness, pastoral care, acceptance, encouragement, and hospitality at the Vicarage. Perhaps it is as well that the church building is no longer there in Lancaster Gate to evoke a sentimental nostalgia; Tony would be content if the memory could inspire us still to look for something more than, beyond, yet implicit in our material surroundings now, not just in this wonderful Cathedral, but when we return to our more humdrum quotidian surroundings. How well aware he was that where there is no vision, the people perish.
When Tony was appointed as Dean of Guildford, the statutes had to be changed as he was not a graduate. I have to say that among the many graduates of my acquaintance, I have seldom met anyone so widely read or of such scholarly application as Tony. That application allowed him to write two novels while he was at Lincoln Theological College, and Images of God when he was curate at Hythe. Becoming a lecturer on Swan Hellenic Cruises opened new vistas for Tony. He could share his passion for ornithology and it led to several more books inspired by his research for the lectures. To read these books is to be caught up in his enthusiasm and given a share of his vision.
In these comments I do not attempt to give a biography, but rather to evoke something of the man and his far-reaching influence. Over the last couple of years or so he has been in declining health with all kinds of infections. These led to much discomfort and confusion; anguish of body, mind and spirit; wrestling with physical suffering and dark spectres in the mind. Through all this he was devotedly supported and nursed by Diana. It bore out one of
Tony’s favourite Biblical sayings: “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” When I last saw him, he said that he had in old age been learning to let be. We spoke then briefly, without acknowledgement, about John Macquarrie’s contention that God’s essence is Being and how Being, in turn, is letting-be. And this ‘letting’be’ is the necessary condition for love. Thus, as it turned out, we concluded a theological conversation that began when we first met on a summer afternoon in 1962.
Hearing of Tony’s death, our older son, Matthew, who lives in Cambodia, summed up what all of us must feel, with the conciseness of a text message ‘What a character! He was one in a million’. We shall never forget him.
I should like to finish by reading one of Tony’s favourite poems. It comes from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages.
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great,
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke,
Care no more to clothe and eat,
To thee the reed is as the oak;
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightening flash,
Nor th’ all dreaded thunder stone,
Fear not slander, censure rash,
Thou has finish’d joy and moan,
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.