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Canon Geoffrey Brown

by
12 June 2015

PA

Making St Martin's cloak: Canon Geoffrey Brown publicises the new restaurant in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, on 1 December 1987, with its head chef, Lucie Walford

Making St Martin's cloak: Canon Geoffrey Brown publicises the new restaurant in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, on 1 December 1987, with its h...

The Revd Dr John Pridmore writes:

CANON Geoffrey Brown, whose father was in the Indian civil service, was born, the youngest of four siblings, in the hill station of Simla.

From Monmouth School, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read History and English. Geoffrey joined the Cambridge Footlights, in whose sparkling company he developed a talent for entertaining which later served him well at parochial knees-ups.

After Cambridge came National Service in the gunners. He was trained at Cuddesdon, and served his title at St Andrew's, Plaistow. A second curacy followed at St Peter's, Birmingham. He stayed in Birmingham, to serve for six years as Rector of St George's.

There he met his wife, Jane, an actor with the Birmingham Rep. Thenceforward - on the church-hall platform and in what in many ways was a shared ministry - they were side-by-side. They became a family with the birth of their twin daughters, Alison and Frances.

In 1973, Geoffrey became Rector of St Mary and St James, Grimsby, now Grimsby Minster. There he and Jane ("singing to a small guitar") are affectionately remembered. Today, people also recall how forward-looking Geoffrey was. Home-groups tackling issues of poverty, homelessness, and addiction were not commonplace in those days.

After Grimsby came a more celebrated stage - and on it a raft of problems. When Geoffrey was appointed Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1985, he took on the "greatest cure in England". He also inherited an institution facing bankruptcy. Geoffrey's great achievement during his decade as Vicar was to rescue the church from the receivers.

For years, St Martin's had depended on legacies. Vulture-like, the church had been feeding on the dead. Geoffrey saw that the church must pay its way. Family silver was sold. Stalls retailing boxer-shorts emblazoned with the Union flag appeared in the courtyard. Concerts by candlelight hooked the tourists and raked in their dollars.

A robustly priced restaurant opened in the crypt. Many in the congregation were bewildered; some were outraged. And there were awful problems with "the purple and the grey", with a bishop who never answered letters, and a diocesan advisory committee ill-disposed to the innovative. But Geoffrey stubbornly insisted on the importance of "the world of work", and argued that the church - even if it gets its skirts dirty - must be part of it. Someone has to make the cloak Martin shares with the beggar.

At one level, all this was plain common sense. At a deeper level, it was rigorous theology, resolutely applied in defiance of the prevailing orthodoxy that, in siding with the poor, demonised the rich. Geoffrey did go on - and sometimes on and on - about "affirming the wealth creators", but his case was unanswerable, and in the end he won us round.

Today's gloriously refurbished and soundly financed St Martin-in-the-Fields is a tribute to all those who came to share Geoffrey's vision and to build on it. But it was Geoffrey who first saw that, if a church is to serve the living, it must make a living.

Saving St Martin's took its toll on Geoffrey. He was naturally a shy, gentle, hesitant man, never relishing the battles he had to fight. But, bruising as those days were, his pastoral heart never hardened, as countless who were blessed by his kindness and wisdom will testify. Among those were his curates. Across the years, Geoffrey took on scores of them - many of us in our own minds knowing it all already. His patience with us was unfailing - well, almost.

Nor did Geoffrey's wider vision falter. Those were the years of struggle for a just South Africa. With South Africa House next door, St Martin's could not stand aloof from that struggle. Geoffrey was committed to the church's projects to forge links with communities in South Africa, including St Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg, and to projects seeking to enhance educational opportunities for those deprived of decent schooling by the apartheid regime.

Geoffrey retired in 1995. For some years, he was frequently called upon to "help out" - and he did so gladly. But the time came when, as he put it, "enough was enough". One who visited Geoffrey towards the end spoke of his "straightforwardness".

"Straightforward" - the epithet is exactly right. In his time, Geoffrey had been a good actor. But he was never a showman. Geoffrey Brown was no Dick Sheppard - though, nearly a century after Sheppard's time, Geoffrey's accomplishment in ensuring that the doors of St Martin-in-the-Fields did not close can surely be seen as a historic achievement equal to his more illustrious predecessor's decision to open them to all and sundry.

Dear Geoffrey, "Many shall stand at the last day and call you blessed."

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