Saturday, 5 November 2011

Bishop John Brown

We said farewell to Bishop John with strong Easter hymns this week. Few people really realised the stature of man living among them in his retirement in Cleethorpes, but then he was the last person to stand on stature.

Before I was born, he was serving in Jerusalem (there is something special about his having been ordained there) and becoming proficient in Arabic. Twenty-five years later, having served in Sudan and in Berkshire parishes, he was my Archdeacon (and may well have been the one at my ordination in Reading who read out the formal assurance I was a suitable candidate, but I don’t recall that sort of detail about the service).

Quite soon afterwards the Anglican Communion needed someone, ideally an Arabic speaker with rare diplomatic and leadership skills, to be Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, and it was on the then Archdeacon of Berkshire that they gratefully lit.

He served there for just eight years (1987-95), but those were the testing years of Terrie Waite’s captivity and release and of the Gulf War when the quality of our Bishop for the Arabian Peninsula was telling. At the thanksgiving service for his life this week people spoke of both his patient building up of the chaplaincies of the diocese and of his regular high-level encounters with the leaders of the countries across which they are scattered.

His knowledge of Arabic and local culture was crucial. He recalled one instance when he was aware of what was being said to him in Arabic (nothing less than a Muslim reflection on the theology of Martin Luther) was quite different to what the translator was attempting to express in English (not least because the translator misunderstood the subject to be Martin Luther King), and there must have been many others instances when his knowledge and careful attention was equally fruitful.

He was proud of being the subject of a fatwa - a formal religious opinion, patiently courted, which allowed Christian worship and the reopening after thirty years of Christ Church, Aden; it was for work in the clincic there that collections are being made in his memory.

He was a local lad who had sung in the choir at Old Clee, and his retiring back here was returning home (where, among other things, his elderly mother was still living), where he got stuck into bread and butter ministry without any pretensions (although, on feast days, in a spectacular pink cope); he often offering me as Rural Dean a range of Sundays when he simply hoped he might be quietly used.

A month ago, he called me over when he saw me pass the end of his cubicle in hospital.  He was being given blood because people were alarmed at his low blood count; his cancer was clearly running away at that point.  He was full of kindly enquiries and of understatements about his condition which he said he had been keeping quite. We heard that he had died when we were in Cordoba during Half Term, and the ancient Islamic art from there somehow makes an appropriate picture for this post.

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