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Obituary: The Revd Dr Anne Townsend

26 November 2021

Philippa Smethurst writes:

THE French activist and intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy recently said: “What is interesting in your life is not your identity, but the escape out of your identity.” Anne Townsend was a person who inherited much and transformed it into something entirely new.

She was born to intellectual missionary parents serving in India — Henry, an educationist, and Barbara, a doctor. Anne’s first influences were the living out of an Evangelical faith in remarkable professional ways. In an environment that aimed high, it was no surprise that Anne gravitated towards studying medicine, qualifying as a doctor in the early 1960s.

Anne’s way of caring for others developed spectacularly in her life. The first weaving was the medical with the missionary. She met another young medical student, John Townsend, studying at St Bart’s at a Scripture Union “Sausage Sizzle” in Yorkshire, a term that maybe reflects something of the innocence of faith background which she inherited.

They fell in love, corresponding by letter only for one summer, while they discerned their independent vocations to serve in the missionary field. They were married in 1960 and were selected by the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF).

Already with one young child, they travelled by ship to Singapore and on to Manorom Hospital in Central Thailand, as designated by OMF headquarters. Anne gave birth to a further two children in Asia and served there, alongside John, as a triage doctor in general medicine for 16 years. Anne was known for her enormous capacity and efficiency in working with people, treating as many as 100 outpatients a day. Anne describes these days as heady and full of certainty.

On returning to UK in 1979, Anne became editor of the Evangelical Family Magazine, greatly increasing the number of its subscribers; and then served as National Director of CARE Trust. There followed a period of unravelling of her faith and herself. She hit rock bottom, which ultimately became a turning-point in her life with the help of several years of psychotherapy.

She cast away secondhand notions of God and other people’s expectations of her career, and began to forge a faith and vocation that was truly hers. One aspect was as a writer. Anne wrote in her book Hidden Treasure that she “diced with God, didn’t lose, and discovered God to be different (far greater and more unpredictable) from the God I had once known”.

She was unafraid to challenge and write about the way in which the Church can damage people. Her other books were Faith without Pretending and Good enough for God. With huge imagination and empathy, Anne captured through imagery and straightforward language, the struggles and vulnerabilities of others, championing single parents, and survivors of childhood sexual abuse in ways that were ahead of her time. In her sensitivity to others, Anne wove in her own experience of loss in losing her daughter, Bess, in 2013, as well as her joy in her family, including her six grandchildren.

Anne was a charismatic and compelling speaker. She contributed to the BBC’s Epilogue that marked the end of the broadcasting day. She brought both her powerful skills as an advocate of others and her authority as a doctor to her speaking on different causes at both Houses of Parliament.

Anne found that it was conversation with others that deepened her understanding of them, compelling her to go further, training as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Qualifying in the late ’90s, she went on to work and help hundreds of individuals in psychotherapy processes over many years, including clergy and members of religious orders.

In discussions with colleagues, of whom I was one, on complex professionals and personal difficulties, Anne would bring her radiant intellect and compassion to bear to help others. She inspired trust, was rigorous in her honesty, had unstoppable energy, and was a force for good.

Anne’s passion was for the whole person, and she was always compelled to do more, living out more than anyone else I have known: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12.48). She added to her studying of the human body (medicine) and mind (psychotherapy), her spiritual training for ordination on the Southwark Ordination Course, becoming a deacon in 1992.

In 1994, she was in the first wave of women ordained priest. Anne served as an NSM at St Paul’s, Wimbledon Park, and later at Bromley Parish Church, combining her priestly ministry with a busy psychotherapy practice.

In her preaching, Anne would get under the skin of matters, dispensing with conventional religious language, finding God in the personal and vulnerable, seeing beauty in ordinary things, and encouraging and enabling others.

Her enormous contribution and legacy to “life in all its fullness” will be celebrated at her funeral in Bromley Parish Church on 6 December.

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