Baptism of fire
The Tablet InterviewCatherine Pepinster
- 21 November 2009
It’s been six eventful months since Vincent Nichols became Archbishop of Westminster. He talks to Catherine Pepinster about St Thérèse’s relics, next year’s papal visit – and traditionalist Anglicans coming en masse into the Catholic Church.
Vincent Nichols’ study in Archbishop’s House is a comfortable, welcoming place: warm yellow walls, packed bookshelves, easy chairs. It’s as much sitting room as office and at first glance it is little changed from the days of his predecessor, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. But there are some telling signs: the grand piano has gone; the computer is far more prominent; there seem to be more paintings on the walls. And perhaps most significantly of all there is a drawing of the current incumbent’s mentor, Cardinal Basil Hume – a reminder that this is not the first time that Vincent Nichols has been at the heart of the Westminster Diocese and indeed, at the epicentre of Catholic life in England and Wales. During Hume’s time as Archbishop of Westminster, Nichols was one of his auxiliary bishops, but did far more than diocesan work: he was a confidant of Hume and involved in preparations for the visit of John Paul II.
So when he came to the job six months ago after 10 years as Archbishop of Birmingham, he brought with him far more experience than Hume, who arrived after being a monk, schoolmaster and abbot.
At 64, the Most Rev Vincent Gerard Nichols is not only leading a diocese, but is now perceived by many Catholics and the wider public as the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Indeed, as far as many in the media are concerned, Vincent Nichols is the Catholic Church in this country. And since he took over at Westminster, the attention has been relentless: a combination of the visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the announcement of the beatification of Cardinal Newman, the visit of the Pope to Britain next year, and above all, the controversial announcement by Rome of overtures to disaffected Anglicans means the spotlight has rarely been off the Catholic Church and Nichols.
It’s this latter issue that has generated the most headlines. The announcement that Rome would establish special structures within the Catholic Church for Anglicans, enabling them to keep some of their liturgical traditions and married priests, was sudden, and confusing, given that it was made before the apostolic constitution – the legal document outlining the provisions – was even ready for publication. The London press conference that announced there would be these special structures – ordinariates – had the Archbishop of Westminster sitting alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. But there are still unanswered questions. How long had they known about it? Were they consulted by Rome before the decision went ahead? Why was Williams there? And what is it going to mean for ecumenical relations between Catholics and Anglicans?
According to Nichols, there was not much consultation at all by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about its plans for the Anglicans. “It is a difficult thing to do and opening it up to public consultation would have made it public, ” he said. He and Williams had known about the initiative for a couple of weeks before the announcement in October. “He very quickly agreed that he would announce it with me. We talked about the way the announcement would be used to create divisions and so we should do it together.”
But could the Anglicans wanting to become Catholics not be received in the usual way, as individuals? Nichols is clear that they will have to be received as individuals, even if an entire church congregation crosses over to Rome together. “It’s not ‘all put your hands up and you’re in’. Faith is both an individual experience and a corporate experience. Each individual will have to go through a process of formation and reception. People who come in are Catholics – full stop.”
But it seems that the Archbishop is struggling, like so many others, with what exactly this overture means. “The Pope wants to give expression and space to the fruit and character of Anglican patrimony. It is quite difficult to know what that means, especially in this country – perhaps it is clearer elsewhere. But Anglican patrimony is an historical inheritance.”
The press conference that Nichols held did not just involve the Archbishop of Canterbury in his capacity in the Church of England; Williams is also the primate of the worldwide Anglican Communion. So the situation in England and Wales is more complicated isn’t it, with Williams kept out of the loop?
“The leader of the Anglican Communion is here and that is a difficulty. While approaches had been made to the Holy See, I don’t think that had been conveyed to the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he said, intimating that it was the Anglicans interested in crossing to Rome who should have kept Canterbury informed. Asked if the CDF could have been more courteous to Dr Williams, he says: “I can’t answer that.”
What Nichols seems anxious to avoid is any risk to relations between Catholics and Anglicans in Britain, although given the twists and turns of events in the Church of England, with a rejection of assurances for traditionalists over women bishops last weekend which could well lead to more of them accepting the Pope’s overture, this could be difficult.
The archbishop wants to work not only with the Church of England but with other denominations and other faiths, in a spirit of shared values, that will help faith find its place in society. Other churchmen have sometimes suggested that Britain is no longer a Christian country, while in a lecture at Westminster Cathedral in March 2007, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor spoke of a secular society where religion is driven from the public realm.
But Nichols sees things differently. “This country is far from secular. The state may see itself as secular but society does not.” One gets the impression that Nichols still sees Britain through the prism of Birmingham: “There are so many places of worship; there are churches, mosques, gurdwaras, Hindu temples. In parts of this country it is evidently multi-faith. In others it is undeniably Christian in what underlies everyday life.”
The clashes between faith and society do trouble him – clashes which include an insistence that Catholic adoption agencies which benefit from state funding have to accept gay couples as adoptive parents, and that people such as nurses should not wear religious symbols such as a cross at work.
“We have a discussion about tolerance but that is a fruit, not a root virtue. [If] tolerance [is] isolated from the virtues of respect and justice … the dignity of the human person won’t last.
The archbishop seems essentially an optimist about the connections between society and religious faith, speaking of the goodness of people that is apparent in society which he feels is sometimes overlooked. Some weeks ago he attempted to connect with those values by a public visit to the “Sacred Made Real” exhibition of Spanish religious art at the National Gallery, and he cites the attendance figures – 200 per cent more than the gallery expected – as evidence that “the religious pulse is there”.
Another recent instance of the evidence of faith being alive in this country was the positive reaction from not only Catholics but people of other faiths to the relics of Thérèse of Lisieux touring England and Wales.
The visits included one to Wormwood Scrubs prison, where the archbishop presided at Mass, and he knelt before the casket of Thérèse’s relics alongside prisoners. “There is a photo of a prisoner by the relics, trusting totally. The prison officers showed the utmost reverence. It really showed the goodness of people.”
This goodness is what he keeps emphasising when I ask him about the recent Cafod survey highlighting Catholic practice in Britain, or more accurately the lack of it. The charity’s figures revealed that there are around five million Catholics in Britain – a million more than was thought – but only a quarter go to Mass once a week. Doesn’t that suggest a failure on the part of the Church?
Nichols points out that even 80 years ago in his home town of Liverpool – Britain’s most Catholic city – just 20-30 per cent of Catholics went to Mass regularly.
“There is a basic group of people who have a stable pattern of attendance. But I suspect a lot of those other people [in the Cafod survey] pray, turn to God when things are difficult. They have a rhythm of response in their lives. Our job is to be sensitive to that.”
Organisations such as Landings that work with Catholics wanting to come back to the Church, often say that marriage difficulties, such as divorce and remarriage, are a stumbling block to being a communicant member of the Church, and Nichols is clearly aware of how painful this can be. But he struggles to offer a solution.
“There is a dilemma here; marriage is made by God and should not be put asunder but there is God’s compassion as well. These two things are difficult and they seem intractable. But there are ways in which the Church can create a space for people in its midst, even if they can’t receive Communion.”
The habit of people forming an orderly queue for Communion, going up row by row, is not something Nichols likes, thinking it divides the congregation, and people not receiving Communion stand out. The option of giving people a blessing is helpful. “When I give people a blessing I try to make it more personal. I want to say to them ‘you are welcome here’.”
And what of other divisions - between Catholics of a more traditional bent and those who are more progressive – a division made more marked today by disputes over liturgy and by ill-tempered blogs? Do they concern the archbishop?
“Variation and change are not a bad thing,” he says, urging people to be more understanding. “There is something unusual about a Catholic Mass,” he adds, “celebrated within a group of like-minded people. Celebration of the Mass gets us beyond the divisions.”
The pressure of the media spotlight will no doubt increase next year, given the beatification of Cardinal Newman and the likely visit of the Pope to Britain. While the Government has made it known that the Pope has accepted its invitation to Britain, the Vatican has yet to formally confirm that the visit is going ahead, so Nichols is in the awkward position of not being able to freely discuss arrangements.
But it’s clear he believes the visit is going ahead, that it will last four days, one of which will be in Scotland, and he and his fellow bishops are thinking very seriously about the visit and what events will take place. Hundreds of invitations have already poured in for the Pope, including from universities, schools, hospices and prisons. “The indications are that the enthusiasm of the Church for this visit find an echo in the enthusiasm of the Government.” As for finance, the Government will help, and there have already been generous donations.
Archbishop Nichols has four auxiliary bishops to help him, together with his private secretary and other staff. Nevertheless, the burdens of office must remain considerable; and, unlike Rowan Williams, he has no spouse to turn to at the end of a particularly difficult day. “Marriage”, he says sagely, “can be just as much of a struggle. It is not a panacea.”
His focus is to strive to foster an inner life – “and not let everything flood in. You must keep an inner space.” Prayer is his mainstay – and then there is football, too, his beloved Liverpool, as his hinterland. He is at once absolutely firm in his response to my final question: “[Rafael] Benítez must not be sacked,” he says of the beleaguered manager. “He needs a strength of purpose.” It could be a motto for an archbishop, too.