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Obituary: The Revd Tony Crowe

18 March 2022

Correspondents write:

THE Revd Anthony (Tony) Crowe was a progressive and sometimes controversial priest, who was committed to an inclusive Church. He came to national prominence for blessing gay partnerships in church as early as 1978, and he was a longstanding campaigner for the ordination of women, for the marriage of divorcees in church, and for Palestinian rights.

His main ministry was at St Luke’s, Charlton, in Southwark diocese, where he was Rector from 1973 to 1994. Under his leadership, St Luke’s became a very distinctive church community; his legacy of inclusivity remains embedded. His commitments to radical causes were sincere and principled, but Tony also enjoyed sticking his head above the parapet, and very visibly breaking the rules.

Tony was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and, after National Service with the Gloucestershire Regiment, he studied theology at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Tony first felt his calling as a schoolboy in Bristol, and his views about the nature of the priesthood were shaped by Mervyn Stockwood’s ministry there. Later, Stockwood, as Bishop of Southwark, appointed him to parishes in Clapham and Charlton. While Tony’s attitudes to homosexuality and Christian Socialism were influenced by him, he was more critical of Stockwood’s gender politics.

Tony trained for the priesthood at Westcott House, Cambridge, between 1957 and 1959, a time of heated theological debate. He was a direct contemporary of Don Cupitt, and Tony’s sermons were informed by Sea of Faith ideas, as well as a recurrent theme that explored relationships between the Bible, tradition, and reason.

One source of pride for Tony was that he was the first deacon to be ordained in the crypt of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1959, three years before its consecration. He served his title at St Paul’s, Stockingford, a mining village outside Nuneaton, where he met Ailsa Wood, a health visitor. They married in 1962, moving to Eltham, in south London.

Tony became Vicar of St John’s, Clapham, in 1966. He plunged into the politics of 1960s inner London, aligning the church with local groups campaigning for racial justice. For a time, the Black Panthers used the church hall.

It was at St Luke’s, Charlton, that Tony’s ministry had its fullest expression. Tony was forever grateful that the parish was willing to come with him, even at the cost of criticism and attacks from the wider Church, local community, and national press. Tony was physically assaulted, and his family were verbally abused, primarily because of his support for gay rights.

In November 1978, Tony was the celebrant for the blessing of the partnership of Rodney Madden and Saxon Lucas. The “gay wedding” was widely covered, in the national tabloid press and elsewhere. It was indicative of Tony’s commitment to the cause (and eye for publicity) that these vows were reaffirmed in 1988 for a BBC Panorama programme about Church of England divisions.

Tony’s support for the ordination of women was also expressed through action. He mentored Liz Canham, who travelled to Newark, New Jersey, in 1981 and was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church by Bishop Stockwood and Bishop Jack Spong. Three weeks later, she celebrated the eucharist in the rectory at St Luke’s; the service was covered on BBC’s Newsnight that evening. In 1986, at the invitation of the PCC, she celebrated the eucharist in the church.

Tony’s ministry was marked by careful, compassionate support for women who were training for ordination as deacons and then priests during the late 1980s and 1990s. His work was particularly important in quietly supporting those who were knocked back by selection processes that he saw as marked by ingrained sexism.

The third cause central to Tony’s ministry was the Palestinian struggle. He visited the Middle East in a Labour Party delegation in 1970, crystallising his sense of injustice about the Occupation. He later met Yasser Arafat, and regularly wore a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf), sometimes over his vestments. He was a trustee for Bible Lands (now Embrace the Middle East) for 34 years.

What linked these issues for Tony was injustice. He was prepared not just to have opinions, but to act upon them even at personal cost.

Tony and Ailsa had six children, three of whom were adopted or fostered into what became a happy multi-racial family. In 1994, they retired to Whitstable, in Kent, and acquired a beach hut that they named St Luke’s. Tony became a part-time prison chaplain at Swaleside and Emley in the late 1990s, and worked as a counsellor for Cruse.

Ailsa strongly supported Tony’s values and provided emotional stability for the family. Although she disliked the term “vicar’s wife”, theirs was a shared social ministry. Ailsa died in 2020. They are fondly remembered in Charlton and beyond for their community work, radicalism, humour ,and open house.

Tony died on 27 January, aged 87. He is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter.

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