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The Revd Dr Anthony Peter Bird

24 June 2016

Birmingham Post

Attentiveness to individuals: the Revd Dr Anthony Bird

Attentiveness to individuals: the Revd Dr Anthony Bird

The Revd C. R. T. Nankivell writes:

THE Revd Dr Anthony Bird, who died on 16 May, aged 85, of pancreatic cancer, was a thoughtful, questioning, and compassionate doctor and Anglican priest. The son of Harry and Noel, née Oakley, a teacher, he was born in Wolver­hampton (and was a lifelong supporter of Wolverhampton Wanderers) and was brought up, the second of four children, in his father’s vicarage on the banks of the River Severn in Shrewsbury. He boarded at a preparatory school in Shrewsbury, then at St John’s, Leatherhead, did National Service with the REME, and read Greats and theology at St John’s College, Oxford.

At Cuddesdon Theological Col­lege, he made deep and life-lasting friendships and absorbed the college’s ethos. He served his title with another Cuddesdon man, Canon Dudley Hodges, at St Mary’s, Stafford. Here he, and his friend Peter Wyld, developed a young congregation, St Bertelin’s, in the heady days of the Parish and People Movement (breakfast in church).

He was a born parish priest; a story-telling teacher, he helped invent “Stork-hounds”, laity trained to work with the parents of those to be baptised; he had the teenage Companions of Christ make a raft and sail it down the Trent. His creative pastoral work was abruptly cut short in 1960, when Robert Runcie (later Archbishop) per­suaded him to join his staff at Cuddesdon.

After working first as Chaplain and then Vice-Principal, Anthony went to Birmingham to read medicine. Conflicting reasons are given for this surprising move: it was an Albert Schweitzer missionary-doctor ideal; it was an attempt to join the worker-priest movement, where the clergy should not be paid by the Church, but immerse themselves in so-called ordinary life; he had a vision of a centre staffed by a lawyer, a doctor, and a priest.

Whatever the reasons for this apparent change of direction, Birming­­­­ham had a particular attraction at that time. There was a move in the University’s depart­ments of medicine and theology, and among several doctors in the city, to question the professional­isation of medical and pastoral care. Anthony, having no science back­ground, had a tough time as an older medical student. When he qualified, he seemed to settle down as a GP in a practice in King’s Norton, Birmingham.

In 1974, Anthony was prevailed upon to become Principal of the ecumenical theological college, Queen’s, in Edgbaston. Queen’s was not the quasi-monastic male com­munity of mostly graduates which Anthony knew at Cuddesdon, but an experimental enterprise, mainly a marriage of Anglicans and Methodists. There was accom­modation for families, and there were many residential students fol­lowing various programmes of study, some at the University.

The five West Midlands dioceses had their non-residential course for mainly non-stipendiary ordinands based in the college, as was the Anglican Gilmore course for women on an Open University type of training. The Wesleyan dea­coness training scheme came to an end at Queen’s in Anthony’s time.

Anthony managed this collection of not always serene Christians, and the conflicts usual among religious groups. He would surprise his staff with his penetrating insight into individuals, and, after a strenuous staff meeting, students enjoyed hearing the Methodist lecturer in church history return to his study muttering “bugger bugger bugger”. Anthony’s ethics seminars were outstanding.

His attentiveness to individuals was striking, and it wasn’t years of Jungian training, but some­ thing spiritual, that made his influence so deeply felt. There are many who remember how their self-under­standing, relationships, and theo­logy were shaped in the course of a walk with Anthony.

Apart from family life, Anthony had outside interests and comm­itments. He enjoyed sailing, and later took his Day Skipper licence and kept a yacht at Lymington. He had a stint as a member of the Prison Parole Board.

In 1977, with the backing of the college, a World Council of Churches medical commission, and the University department of theo­logy, Anthony founded an exper­imental medical practice in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, an under-doctored, racially mixed, deprived inner-city district. For the first two years, the practice was developed with local people in a terraced house by Dr Malcolm Rigler, who later founded the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing.

Anthony left Queen’s to become a full-time GP, in a partnership of 30 years with Dr Mohammed Walji (who read in Arabic a lesson from the Qur’an at Anthony’s requiem mass). Their aim was to enable patients to take control of their health. To this end, nurse prac­titioners, not then really known in Britain, were recruited and trained. They were present not to help the over-busy doctor, but as com­plementary therapists with their own skills and experience. Barbara Stilwell joined the practice, and it was she who later established the now familiar work of the nurse practitioner.

Handing patients their medical records was another innovation that infuriated consultants, and led the practice to work with, and receive an award from, the Freedom of Information lobby; Anthony gave evidence to the parliamentary com­mittee. He argued that the records were not the property of the Minister of Health, as was stated on the envelopes that held them, but belonged to the patient, who needed them to understand and care for his or her own health.

The NHS also commissioned other research topics, such as pat­ient advocacy.

Anthony thought retirement un­christian. As a volunteer, he con­tinued to be available to patients and colleagues, and he worked as a classroom assistant in a junior school.

He was often consulted, and former students kept in touch; he preached at an anniversary of the Dean of Philadelphia, and the Bishop of Liverpool had his episcopal ring blessed by Anthony. He served St Paul’s, Balsall Heath, through interregnums and mat­ernity leaves. He took the church­wardens to Iona, which, with St David’s, was one of his sources of refreshment. He had a fund of funny anecdotes, some recently culled from the Church Times.

He was always ready for a game of bridge. He loved cats: “such a noble cat”, he would say.

At traumatic moments, Anthony would make himself vulnerable, and recall his last sight of his mother as she was put protesting into an ambulance. He was eight when she died, and at home she was never mentioned again. The pain of this experience persisted through his life.

Anthony translated the Author­ised Version translation of Luke 5.31, “they that are sick”, as “those who have it bad”. In identifying himself with these sufferers, he wrestled with a theology that might answer God’s responsibility for suf­fering; he self-published a booklet, The God who says Sorry.

Music was a great passion. He took a university diploma in music, and wrote an article for a music journal about God and J. S. Bach, whose works he especially loved. His wife, Andrea, knowing what he wanted when dying, played a recording of the Sanctus from the B-Minor Mass. Ten minutes later, he died.

He is survived by Andrea, his children Markus, Stephanie, and Dominic from a former marriage, and seven grandchildren.

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