The Revd Brian Tucker: 1934–2015
A former BMS chairman who pastored churches in Leigh, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Saffron Walden and Bradford, and once taught ministerial students in Zaïre
Brian Lewis Tucker was born in Cheltenham in 1934, the first child and only son of Mildred Tucker and the Revd Keith Tucker, who was then minister of Salem Baptist Church in Cheltenham. A year later, the family moved to Peterborough, where Brian’s sister Monica was born two years after him. In 1944, the Tuckers moved to Sheffield, where Brian’s other sister, Marilyn, was born a year later.
Brian was baptised at the age of 12 by his father at Cemetery Road Baptist Church, Sheffield. Eighteen months after this, his life took a dramatic change of direction, when his father accepted the role of Principal of Calabar College in Jamaica (then the Baptist theological college though now merged with others to form the United Theological College of the West Indies). Mildred became matron there, responsible for the catering and for managing the domestic staff. Brian attended Calabar High School, the secondary school attached to the college.
The years spent in Jamaica were transformative for Brian. The family travelled there on a banana boat, gradually leaving behind England, with its rationing and war damage, to arrive on an island with a very different climate, culture and way of life. Brian took to life in Jamaica. He was one of only two white boys in his school and for the first time he made friends with boys from other racial backgrounds. Far more of these friendships were Christian than previously, and it was with some of these friends that Brian first learnt to contribute to worship.
His faith was also nurtured by involvement in para-church organisations. He was very interested in botany and zoology as a schoolboy. He studied insects and plants and kept chickens. He thought seriously of becoming a vet, but at the age of seventeen, he felt a call to the ministry. He turned down his offer of a place at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and, on the advice of his father, decided to get some other experience in order to test his vocation. He therefore became a science student at the newly founded University College of the West Indies, which had a campus near Kingston.
Brian’s life took another decisive turn when, at the beginning of his second year at university, he met his wife-to-be at the freshers’ ball, where he was helping recruit people for the Student Christian Movement (SCM). He fell in love with Helen almost at first sight, and the pair supported each other with love and commitment throughout their lives.
Brian’s involvement with the SCM helped his faith to develop further, because of the companionship of Christian peers from other denominations and the opportunities he had for discussion and participation. His interest in botany continued, and he and a close friend investigated and read up on Darwin’s theory of evolution, swearing to each other that they would not commit themselves to an opinion until they had examined all the evidence. After this process, Brian took the view that ‘my saviour became to me immensely greater … he had been the agent of God in the whole ordered universe in its unimaginable vastness’.
Brian and Helen became engaged in 1955 and were, sadly, separated from each other for two years while Brian returned to the UK to do his national service. National service helped him to understand white working-class culture better and formed a useful prelude to the rather rarified atmosphere of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, where he did his theological studies and ministerial training. Helen came to England in 1957 and took up a teaching post. The pair were married in 1959.
Brian’s first pastorate was in Leigh, a predominantly white working-class town near Wigan in Lancashire. Isabel and Rosie were born there, two years apart. In his working life Brian followed the model he had had from his father: Mondays off, mornings in the study, afternoons visiting, evening meetings and Sunday services with the focus on the sermon.
In 1965, Brian became the minister at Moss Side Baptist Church in Manchester, where he stayed for just over nine years. His son, Jeremy, was born a year after the move. Moss Side brought Brian and Helen face to face with extreme urban deprivation and made Brian understand, as even Jamaica hadn’t, the Gospel’s ‘bias for the poor’.
The church congregation consisted largely of Jamaicans, though there were a significant number of middle-class white Christians who felt called to participate in the situation, as well as several long-time residents of the area, many of them elderly. Moss Side and nearby Hulme were undergoing slum clearance, which was poorly managed at first, with back-to-back unhygienic housing being replaced by badly designed high-rise flats.
The church building was severely vandalised and then almost burnt down by alienated local young people, who had assumed it was going to be demolished anyway, and the church community had to meet in other buildings. Brian worked with a co-minister, Roger Dibben, and a youth worker, Peter Rule. He also collaborated closely with other clergy and developed his ecumenical beliefs and practice.
Despite the challenges the church faced, this period of Brian’s life bore some remarkable fruit. The Hideaway Youth Project, a youth club, was founded by the church and run by its youth worker. It began as a simple, small-scale venture, meeting in a basement in the old church building, but is now a key part of Manchester’s youth services and has attracted continuing funding and recognition. For example, in 2014 it was awarded the title ‘Best Youth Project in the UK’ by Children and Young People Now, a national magazine and website for professionals across the youth and childcare sector.
The other main community project Brian was involved in instigating was Mosscare, a housing association that was born when a group of seven ‘hard-pressed, idiosyncratic but persistent’ local clergy got together and gave £1 each in initial shares. Further shares were sold to church members. Nowadays Mosscare Housing Group employs around 170 staff and provides affordable housing to large numbers of people all over Manchester. Some new buildings that went up in later years were named after the founders, and Tucker House is still going strong.
Brian and his family moved to Wolverhampton in 1974, when Brian became the minister of Fordhouses Baptist Church. Again, the congregation was racially mixed and the church situated in a working-class neighbourhood, though Fordhouses was less deprived than Moss Side. During this time, Brian helped set up the Three Tuns’ Project, a community work project on a local housing estate.
He also became very involved in ecumenical and inter-faith work, and he was also a part-time hospital chaplain. In 1979, he had another life-changing experience, when he spent nine months in Yakusu, Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), teaching ministerial students. He worked with colleagues, both male and female, black and white, and learnt (in his words) ‘a whole new way of being human’. Two years later, he assimilated this experience by researching and writing an M.Ed. thesis on hindrances to communication in theological education in francophone black Africa. His Zaïrian experience also went on to bear much other fruit.
In 1983, Brian took up the post of minister at Saffron Walden Baptist Church. The town and congregation were very different from those he had been involved with before, being relatively affluent and not very racially mixed. However, his pastoral work carried on in this new congregation, and he continued with his ‘servant leadership’ to enable people to develop their faith and the way they expressed it, as well as helping the church to develop its life and purpose, for part of the time in collaboration with his co-minister, Tricia Troughton.
The church had a thriving Sunday school, youth group and Boys’ Brigade, and it also hosted community groups such as guides and scouts. Brian saw community work as a vital extension of church work. He once wrote: ‘My saviour loves and serves us all, and wants our good, whether we confess him or not – just as the gospel stories have always made clear.’
Brian kept up his international links and global view of the church. He served on the candidate board of the Baptist Missionary Society, become involved with St Andrews Hall and in 1989, while he was minister at Saffron Walden, he became chairman of the BMS. This proved a rewarding and illuminating time for him. A preparatory visit took him to Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, where he witnessed the way the church was taking shape in a very different cultural context. Later in his chairmanship he visited El Salvador, following an appeal from Baptist workers who were already based there and wanted international delegations to visit and show solidarity with the churches and the poor people they worked with.
Brian wanted to take on one more pastorate before he retired, and Girlington Baptist/Methodist Church in Bradford provided the kind of opportunity he was looking for. In 1992, he and Helen went to the Rüschlikon Baptist Theological Seminary in Switzerland for a short sabbatical, so that he could read about Islam before taking up his post, and in 1993 they moved to Bradford.
Baptists and Methodists worshipped together in a city centre church, which ran a community centre as part of its work. The local area was had a high proportion of Asian people, mainly Muslims, and was quite economically deprived. The community centre contained an advice centre, staffed by trained workers, that was much valued by local people. Cheap hot meals were available too. Among his roles and functions, Brian was chairman of the management committee of the community centre. This role brought him the most gruelling demands but the most rewarding outcomes of his time at Girlington. He saw the centre, at least symbolically, as a positive sign of Bradford’s possible future.
In 1999, shortly before they retired, Brian and Helen suffered a devastating loss, when Jeremy died in Dominica, where he had lived for three years with his wife, Kay, doing community work and writing up his Ph.D. thesis. He had been unwell for some months, but no one realised how potentially serious his condition was. When Jeremy was admitted to hospital, Brian flew out to Dominica and saw him, but Jeremy passed away that night.
The following year, Brian retired, and he and Helen moved to Hitchin. Their minister there, John Matthews, helped them as they tried to come to terms with the loss of their son. They were consoled in part by the fact that they had acquired their first grandchild, Jessie, in 1998.
In 2001, Rosie had her second child, Charlie, and Brian and Helen had frequent contact with the children. They were devoted grandparents, helping out by looking after the children at least once a week. While in Hitchin, Brian and Helen became fully involved in the life of Tilehouse Street Baptist Church, with Brian taking services when needed and leading a discussion group. He also served as a deacon for several years.
Sadly, Helen’s health was declining and they spent a fair amount of time on medical appointments. Brian supported her and did the bulk of the housework and cooking when she became too weak to share it. Nevertheless, Helen was a lively companion until just before the end of her life, in January 2012, when she died suddenly of an aneurism. Eighteen months later, Brian moved to a small flat in St Albans, near to the home of Rosie and her family.
While his health permitted, in St Albans, Brian attended Marshalswick Baptist Free Church, where he quickly began to make friends. He took part in a bible study and discussion group and was supportive of the church’s activities and mission. However, within about a year, he started to feel increasingly unwell, and, after his cancer was diagnosed, via a biopsy, a severe chest infection caused him to be admitted to hospital and then to a hospice for a few weeks. He lived for nearly nine months after coming home, and although he was no longer independent, he was able to enjoy the company of his family and some friends. He bore his illness with courage and fortitude.
Former church members and those who attended Brian’s services will know that his preaching was of a very high standard. His sermons were interesting, personal, inspiring and very carefully expressed. They guided listeners and challenged them, yet encouraged them to follow their own hearts and minds. He spent a long time preparing services and sermons, refining them through most of the week, from Tuesday to Friday or Saturday, and preaching from notes. One of the most memorable compliments he received came from an elderly woman in Saffron Walden, who told him: ‘I like your sermons, Brian, because I can hear them!’
It would be hard to sum Brian’s character and personality up in a few words. He was not only a man of integrity but also as a kind, considerate and humorous person. He was self-disciplined and reliable but sociable and witty too. He read voraciously, and was open-minded and intellectually curious. His particular interests were history and theology, but he also read a lot of novels and some poetry.
Brian did not subscribe to a triumphalist Christianity with a God who saved Christians from suffering and made them safe and happy. His God identified with people – unreservedly and unconditionally sharing in their humanity. When Brian gave his testimony in Hitchin in 2006, he spoke of the gap between the life and vision of his saviour and his own life and aspirations. He summed it up in this extract from a once-popular hymn:
Though what I dream and what I do
In my poor days are always two.
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O Thou, whose deeds and dreams were one.
We trust that he is no longer ‘oppressed by things undone’, but that he now rests in the peace that passes all understanding.