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The Ven. Peter Sydney Godfrey Bridges

24 February 2015

Priest and architect: Peter Bridges

Priest and architect: Peter Bridges

Martin Purdy writes:
THE Ven. Peter Bridges, who died on 24 January, aged 89, was a pioneer in a situation now quite common: combining the ordained ministry with another occupation. He was active as an architect and priest for much of the second half of the last century, and gained distinction in both disciplines.

He was outwardly shy and modest, and quite easily upset by issues he considered unjust; and yet inwardly lay a steelier disposition, prepared to think radically and challenge accepted mores.

Peter Bridges was born in Tooting Bec, in south London, and, after attending Raynes Park County Grammar School, enrolled, in 1941, in the Department of Architecture at Kingston upon Thames. Studies were interrupted by war service as a navigator in the RAF, but he returned to college in 1947, and finally qualified in 1950.

After practice in London, and recently married, he moved to Salisbury: first to work on precast prefabricated housing, and a year later (1952) to the private practice specialising in ecclesiastical design, founded by William Randoll Blacking and later run by Robert Potter and Richard Hare. The firm designed a number of forward-looking churches, based on the tenets of the Liturgical Movement, then rare in England.

He stayed for two years, before taking up an academic position within the School of Architecture in Nottingham.

The call to the priesthood, however, was strong, and, in 1956, he became a student at Lincoln Theological College. During vacations, to help support a young family (his first son was born in 1953), he worked with the local architectural practice of Clarke Hall, Scorer & Bright.

Peter Bridges was ordained deacon in St Albans Abbey in 1958 and priest in 1959. His first curacy was in Hemel Hempstead, and New Towns were to be a prime consideration for much of his life.

He worked for one day a week with the New Town Commission's architects. Privately, using technical back up from his former practice in Lincoln, he designed a church for the Hatfield Hyde area of Welwyn Garden City. This radical design, a square plan with the altar placed on the diagonal axis, beneath a hyperbolic paraboloid roof, was never built.

The 1960s was a period of iconoclasm, not least within theology. The churches of Potter and Hare, and the proposal by Bridges for Hatfield Hyde, had been praised in Peter Hammond's Liturgy and Architecture (1960), a rallying cry for the UK to adopt design principles already accepted in Continental Europe. Yet Britain, initially slow, was soon to propose an even more radical approach, spearheaded by the Institute for the Study, Worship, and Religious Architecture (ISWRA), set up by Gordon Davies and Gilbert Cope at the University of Birmingham. The apparent dichotomy between the sacred and the secular was challenged by Davies in his seminal book The Secular Use of Church Buildings (1968). The natural resolution to this dilemma was the multi-purpose church.

With a background in the social theories of modern architecture, the post-Second World War ideals exemplified in the New Towns, and his sense of Christian mission, Bridges was ideally placed to work within ISWRA. He was appointed its first Research Fellow in 1964, where he concentrated on socio-religious studies, principally within the New Towns. He chaired the New Towns Ministers' Association from 1966 to 1972, and his ISWRA work included ecclesiastical planning for Telford New Town. Bridges was also in the ISWRA-led multi-disciplinary team responsible for an experimental church in Birmingham, St Philip and St James, Hodge Hill. Sadly now demolished, this was to receive worldwide publicity as a prime example of multi-purpose expression.

While in Birmingham, Bridges was Warden for two years of the University's Anglican Chaplaincy, and, at the end of his fellowship, took up a lectureship at the Birmingham School of Architecture. Frequent requests for advice on buildings came from former clerical friends; so, in 1969, an architectural practice (now APEC) was formed with Martin Purdy, a colleague at the school, and project architect for the Hodge Hill church. Projects followed, perhaps the most noteworthy being the Ecumenical Centre for the New Town of Skelmersdale, and the central United Reformed Church in St Helens.

In 1972, his varied career was to take yet another direction. A third London Airport was proposed at Foulness, off the Essex coast. Its infrastructure would create a profound impact on the area, and the Bishop of Chelmsford, who had known Peter Bridges from his years in Hemel Hempstead, invited him to be Diocesan Planning Officer, with special responsibility for Foulness. The position combined that post with the archdeaconry of Southend. Bridges initially established a Chelmsford Diocesan Research and Development Unit, and a number of useful studies were undertaken. Nationally, he also chaired a working party for the Church of England's Board for Social Responsibility, which produced an important paper, Planning for Community (1977).

The Foulness Airport project was to be abandoned, owing to the declining economy, so with no compelling reason to stay in Essex, he was offered, and accepted, the post of Archdeacon of Coventry. He stayed in the diocese for the next 13 years (1977-90): six in Coventry, and, after the death of the Archdeacon of Warwick in 1983, a move to that position. For his whole Coventry tenure, he was Canon Theologian.

He began a long-lasting involvement with the Painting and Prayer retreat movement, but these middle years in Coventry became increasingly stressful. A turning-point was reached, after a period of personal retreat at St Katharine's Royal Foundation in London, which led him to train in spiritual direction. Spirituality was to be the focus of his final years of ministry, acknowledged when the Bishop of Coventry encouraged him to develop that work first in the diocese, and, after his retirement in 1990, to establish a course for spiritual directors in the West Midlands.

In 1993, the Bridges moved to Romsey in Hampshire, to be closer to their two sons, who lived in the county. For some years, Peter gave service to Romsey Abbey, and continued to write articles on Christian spirituality, even after final "retirement" in 2005.

Bridges remained active for some years, but declining health brought about a move in 2013 to a care home, where he died with his close family in attendance.

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