An illustration of the Archbishop of Westminster
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There has been some difficulty in arranging this meeting with the Archbishop of Westminster. We had hoped to set it up before the Pope’s visit in September but he was, understandably, busy.

There also appeared to be difficulty with the formula of the piece. Nearly every interviewee in this slot is taken out to lunch and part of the fun is to conduct a conversation with some eminent person while he or she chooses their food. Being someone who enjoys lunch as my main meal of the day, there could be few more pleasurable assignments than to be paid to eat. But the last person I interviewed for this page, the writer Paulo Coelho, announced, when I had flown to Geneva to buy him the poshest lunch this paper could afford, that he never ate in the middle of the day. The most I could do was to coax him to eat a boiled egg.

The Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols, who was installed as Archbishop of Westminster in May last year, went further. He announced in advance that he would only have tea with me. When I began to slaver over the prospect of tea at the Ritz, with mounds of little sandwiches, three types of cake, and possibly a hot savoury, the press office for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster said the collation would be consumed at the Archbishop’s House.

Was this because the Archbishop, like the Holy Father himself, was too rarefied a being to be seen eating in public? Evidently not. When I arrive for the Archbishop’s tea party, he has clearly heard nothing about the possibility of being taken out to eat. Evidently, his minders had not thought anything was to be gained by allowing me to buy him a fine lunch. A pity. I recollect the very first Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Wiseman (who was appointed in 1850, when the Pope restored the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England) was said to “have his lobster salad side”.

Vincent Nichols, a very amiable, modest, smiling priest, evidently has no lobster salad side or, indeed, any side at all. We take our tea at the Archbishop’s House, which lurks behind the great red-brick cathedral (completed in 1903) in Westminster. The house is a lugubrious, institutional residence. The walls are hung with bad portraits of previous archbishops (and an even worse one of the current Pope).

I am shown into the bleakest of reception rooms. The Archbishop, wearing one of those black suits only seen on Catholic priests, begins by saying, “May I ask you a personal question?” My heart plunges to my boots. He is going to ask if I believe in God or, more embarrassingly, whether I have ever considered joining the Roman Catholic church. After all, in 1966, when the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge interviewed John Heenan, then Archbishop of Westminster, for a BBC documentary in this house, he referred to the prelate’s role as a proselytizer. “I loathe that word,” snapped back Heenan memorably. “Presumably,” Muggeridge pressed him, “you want more people to become Roman Catholics?” “Yes,” said Heenan, rather splendidly in my opinion. “I want everybody to.” (And, many years later, Muggeridge did become a Roman Catholic.)

The presence of a new RC archbishop in Westminster caused enormous controversy in the 19th century. The very act of setting up a hierarchy of RC bishops was described at the time as the “papal aggression”.

Was conversion, perhaps, Nichols’s aim in luring me to tea in his house, rather than allowing me the Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason, where a protestant can eat his knickerbocker glory in freedom? Evidently not.

“Every time I’ve seen your name in the paper. I’m reminded of a book from a fellow-student of my father’s at Strawberry Hill called AN Wilson.” The personal question he wants to ask me, it seems, is whether I am the author of that book. I have written many books; what, I ask, was the title of the book?

“I can’t remember. I think it was a scripture text. My father studied with this AN Wilson.” Vincent Nichols has just turned 65. His father must have been born at least 85 years ago. Aware that time makes ravages even on the vainest of journalists, I explain that I am five years younger than the Archbishop and he seems to take my word for this. It comes as a relief.

I still feel it worth trying to get to grips with whether Vincent Nichols, like his predecessors, hopes or believes that we all should submit to the Pope. The Pontiff has, after all, set up an “ordinariate” so that members of the Church of England who do not like women priests can join the Roman Catholics en masse. (Shortly after we meet, five bishops of the Church of England do take up the Pope’s offer, and will convert.)

I begin by asking about women priests. Many Roman Catholic friends tell me they see nothing wrong with the ordination of women – indeed, that they would welcome it in their church. Archbishop Nichols takes a rather different view – one that is not merely old-fashioned but practically Bronze Age in its pre-feminism: “A Catholic understanding of priesthood is so strongly rooted in the historic actions of Jesus and in all their antecedents in the place of sacrifice in life. And those things …they are rooted to the role of the man. You know, in some ways, the celibacy tradition goes back to the tribe of Levi and, certainly, sacrifice and the notion of sacrifice. In the Old Testament, the shedding of blood was for a man to perform. It was not for the woman, who gave life.”

I get my point in: but if we speak of the Sacrifice of the Mass, that is surely symbolic language. We are not talking about priests wielding knives on stone altars?

“And then” – Nichols goes on, taking a bite of the Victoria sponge – “you have this iconography of Jesus Christ who stands in this spousal relationship bringing his people as [the] bride, to the Father. And some of those things are quite difficult to unpack, and I have a sense that some of those things are quite deep and not going to be changed by someone having an argument about who had a right to be a priest.”

I bring up the argument, made to me by prominent Roman Catholics, that there just aren’t enough men training to be priests. At some point, the church will have to admit women to make up the numbers, I suggest. “It depends,” the Archbishop says. “I don’t know the situation in France or Germany but I know in this country we have never had a tradition of providing ourselves with enough priests. Hence the strong tradition of an Irish priesthood in this country.”

I pause. This is the moment when a killer interviewer would point out that the Irish church has imploded but, somehow, he seems such a nice man that the words “child abuse” simply will not form on my lips.

Sheepishly, I say that the readers will want to know what we are eating. “I don’t know,” laughs Nichols good-naturedly. “He” – pointing at the press officer who hovers in the background – “chose the cakes. They were bought in some shop. What would you call this, do you suppose?” Sponge cake. “And that?” It’s a chocolate brownie, I say.

“That’s it!” – more nervous laughter, as if the word were somehow esoteric.

Don’t you, I ask, have a cook? “I am looked after very nicely by nuns. La Sagesse, the Daughters of Wisdom.”

Do they make breakfast, lunch and tea?

“We muck in a bit, actually.”

How many nuns?

“There’s two, actually.”

The “actually” seems a bit apologetic. Was this twice as many nuns as he needed or a pathetically small number? I revert to asking about the numbers training for the priesthood. He tells me there are more than 200. “It is an upward trend …In this country I would not be convinced by the argument that there was a shortage of priests.”

Even without the Irish? “In this country we have the third highest ratio of priests to laity in the world. We have been spoiled.”

Perhaps too persistently, I try to get him to say that we should all be joining his church and accepting the Pope. In fact, as Nichols tells me: “I think he [the Pope] is more at ease with the diversity of expression of Catholic truth than we are. I think he knows that the Catholic face can have many expressions.”

Does that mean that the role of an archbishop of Westminster is no longer to convert England to Catholicism but to look after the foreigners who happen to live in England? “Here you have this multicultural, multiracial Catholicism. In the Popemobile as we drove about the streets [during the Pope’s visit] quite a bit of the conversation …was spotting the different flags in the Mall. We have 60 different chaplaincies in London for different languages.”

I get him back on track with another question about the ordinariate and this idea that the Anglicans can come to Rome en masse? “It feeds the wider ecumenical quest,” he says.

We change the subject from the esoterically churchy to the wider question of the archbishop’s role in the world. I suggest that Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster from 1865-1892, would have advocated voting for the Labour party because he would have feared the effect of the coalition government’s cuts on the poor.

“He would, but the social setting today is so utterly different that I don’t think you could apply his thinking today. I remember as a young priest in Liverpool hearing about the condition of workers in the docks and there was no justice. But we are not in that situation today, the comments are not exactly applicable. It is right, great care has to be taken about the impact of the cuts and to keep in mind that the great majority [affected] are in public employment, or are students, and the impact could be dreadful.”

The Archbishop has wisely ignored my invitation for him to put his foot in it by getting involved in party politics. He talks instead about a conference in the City of London last month in which the chief executive of the Financial Services Authority and City bigwigs were talking about the social responsibilities of the very wealthy. “The people I’ve met in the financial world are profoundly good people and they are sensitive to that [issue].”

I ask about his childhood. “I grew up in Crosby, which is the north side of Liverpool. When I was recovering from an illness at the age of 10, someone in hospital asked me where I was from. ‘Ah,’ they replied, when I told them. ‘Posh Crosby.’ ‘Crosby’s not posh,’ I said. ‘Yes it is, there are trees in the street.’”

I ask if he knew the very hard days in Liverpool, when Catholics and Protestants threw things at one another.

“I remember as a young priest going out to take Holy Communion to the sick on a Friday afternoon. Two men standing at the door said, ‘We’ll come with you.’ They’d been doing it for 20 years since it was actually necessary to escort a priest with the Blessed Sacrament and protect him …No, I did not know bad times”.

Other things have changed since Nichols was young, I point out. Back then huge numbers of Catholics went to mass frequently, if not daily. What happened to stop it? Nichols tactfully attributes it to the demolition of slums in the inner cities. “All those crowded areas of people produced those people – those areas were dispersed.”

So, you are an optimist, I say.

“Well, it’s a struggle.”

I move on to something more cheery, the rumour that Nichols is likely to get a promotion soon. Have you been told you are going to be a cardinal?


Surely it is inevitable that you will be given the cardinal’s hat soon?

“It would be with the job, not because of any qualities of …” his voice trails off.

As I make my way out of the room, he offers me a souvenir Papal umbrella, adorned with the words of Cardinal Newman, the English Catholic convert who was beatified during the Pope’s visit: “Heart speaks to heart.”

“We have been surprised in recent surveys,” he volunteers. “There are more Catholics than we realised. Regular mass attendance has gone down but there is a lot of vitality.

“After the Pope’s visit we have seen plenty of evidence that faith in God is important to people and the Catholic faith has vitality in it. The silence speaks to people: the period of silence – 80,000 or 90,000 people in Hyde Park in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament – no one who was present will ever ever forget that. The utter silence in the middle of London.”

We look at one another and realise the interview is at an end.

“Amen,” he says with a friendly laugh. “Thank you.”

AN Wilson’s most recent book is ‘Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II’ (Arrow)


Archbishop’s House

London SW1

Chocolate brownies

Victoria sponge cake

Tea x 2



How Anglican clergy will serve the Roman Catholic church

In October 2009, the Vatican issued a statement with the uncatchy title “Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering the Catholic Church,” writes Isabel Berwick.

The long-winded wording concealed some remarkable news. The Roman Catholic church had devised a way to respond to requests from disaffected Church of England priests who wanted to join the Catholic church while being allowed to keep aspects of their Anglican practice and worship.

And on Monday this week, almost a year to the day after the Vatican published the full details of the Apostolic Constitution for Anglican converts anywhere in the world (Anglicanorum coetibus) came some big local news: five bishops of the Church of England have decided to leave, and become members of the Roman Catholic church.

The tipping point for these Anglicans (as it is likely to be for others) is that the go-ahead for the ordination of women bishops is now inevitable within the Church of England. In a statement, the five said they had followed the dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics “with prayer and longing”, but “we have now reached the point, however, where we must formally declare our position and invite others who share it to join us on our journey.”

The Roman Catholic church’s newest senior clergy will be managed within a separate, linked, chain of command – its newly-invented Anglican Ordinariate. This will be like a diocese, but instead of being based on geography and having a bishop at the top, the grouping takes in the former Church of England bishops and any other clergy who wish to convert. It also applies to lay faithful (who could convert, and join in groups with their priest, for example), regardless of location. At the top of the hierarchy will be an “ordinary”, a title given to someone with bishop-like authority. Next week the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales will be working out the finer points of how the new Ordinariate will operate.

The Right Reverend John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham and the most well-known of the five bishops, is the chairman of Forward in Faith, the leading group of traditional Anglicans of the sort who identify themselves as Anglo-Catholic. Forward in Faith parishes don’t accept women priests.

To those who aren’t versed in church politics, this Anglo-Catholic tradition may seem odd: some traditionalist Church of England churches offer masses that are more ornate and old-fashioned than those in modern Catholic churches.

In another Anglo-Catholic twist to the plot, some 600 traditionalists – clergy and members of religious orders – who oppose women priests but want to remain within the Church of England, met in September to launch a new organisation called The Mission Society of Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda, named after “two English saints with a passion for the unity of the church”.

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