Former Abbot Hugh Gilbert is turning out to be an impressive Bishop of Aberdeen. What a splendid Archbishop of Westminster he would have made…

Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen

The Scotsman newspaper had a rather good story earlier this week, about Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, who, when asked a question about the Scottish government’s plans to introduce gay “marriage”, replied, provocatively but rather splendidly: “The truth is that a government can pass any legislation it likes. Why is it all right for a man to marry another man, but not all right for him to marry two women? If we really want equality, why does that equality not extend to nieces who genuinely, truly love their uncles?”

He added: “As Bishop of Aberdeen, I know there are gay people among the community of the Church. I promise I will always respect and love them and uphold them in their relationship with the God who loves them. But I won’t marry them. It just can’t be done.”

This clear and vigorous response made me wish, oh so much, that at the time when there was a great deal of speculation about his succeeding Cardinal Cormac at Westminster, this real possibility had materialised.

So much would have been different. I do not believe, for example, that as Archbishop of Westminster he would have thrown his weight behind the Labour government’s introduction of same-sex civil partnerships; nor do I believe that he would have allowed the Soho Masses to continue with the full support of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

There were many reasons (of which more presently) why this would have been the best outcome for Westminster. First, though, I was interested to see on the Catholic World Report blog, under the headline “Bp. Hugh Gilbert states the truth. Usual suspects are ‘offended’ ”, the comment “What, exactly, is offensive about the bishop’s remarks? After all, if people really do believe in ‘equality’, isn’t it bigoted of same-sex marriage proponents to consider their understanding of marriage to be superior to that of polygamists or relatives who wish to be married? On what basis do they separate their efforts from those of a man who wishes to have three wives, a woman who seeks two husbands, or an uncle and niece who are pursuing nuptials? If “equality” is simply an arbitrary marker that moves according to personal tastes, social fads, and other whims, who is to say that “gender-neutral” marriages are any better than what we might call relation-blind marriages or numerically flexible marriages?”

The Catholic World Report emerged again, when I made a Google search for more information about Bishop Hugh: in a post dating from the time when speculation about the search for a new Archbishop of Westminster was raging, the blog Clerical Whispers had a series of quotes from various writers, including one from me, which I simply couldn’t at first remember having written. “The Pope,” I had said, “needs to find a man who combines ability with both orthodoxy and charisma. Rome is looking for someone outside what has been described as the episcopal club of largely liberal English bishops: one candidate who fits all these criteria (and has been noticed where it matters) is Abbot Hugh Gilbert of Pluscarden, who would be the first convert Archbishop of Westminster since Cardinal Manning”. Well, it’s true that that’s what I thought. But where did I write it?

A bit more searching on the net turned up an article I had completely forgotten about, which had been commissioned by the aforementioned Catholic World Report; and I hope my readers will forgive me if I proceed, in a spirit of regretful nostalgia, to go over once more not only why it would have been a most splendid thing for him to be, as in the end he was, appointed to the episcopate (lucky old Aberdeen), but exactly what were the needs of the Archdiocese of Westminster that he could have fulfilled.

For the article, I considered a number of candidates, including the one who was finally appointed. He had, as Archbishop of Birmingham, I wrote, surprised everyone by his support for the Magisterium. “But,” I added, “however unambiguous his present support for Rome and all its works, there remains a suspicion that at heart he is still the unregenerate liberal everyone supposed him to be when he was — as a result — prevented from succeeding Basil Hume.” My feeling was that Rome would probably prefer another candidate, a fresh start. And despite what actually transpired, I still think I was right: “the conviction has grown in Rome”, I wrote

that — in the words of one very senior and very influential cardinal (one of those responsible for the speedy election of Pope Benedict) — “it is time to go outside the episcopal club of England and Wales.”

The search has been on for some time now and has ranged far and wide: and more and more, it is focusing on one name. A number of Vatican officials have now made the long journey to Benedictine Pluscarden Abbey in the northeast of Scotland, and some of them have made retreats there.

They have all been deeply impressed by the abbot, a stirring preacher, much sought after as a spiritual director, who seems to fulfill, uniquely, all the criteria for Westminster. He is well outside the English episcopal club. He has presence, and could “move on the national stage”; as an abbot he is perfectly at home as a public figure and often meets the bishops of Scotland. He is a man of prayer, with that most rare of qualities — a palpable charisma that really is a matter of personal spiritual quality rather than a self-conscious communicator’s personality. And his name is now circulating in Rome among senior cardinals.

He is Dom Hugh Gilbert, an Englishman born in 1952, a convert to Catholicism. He was educated at St. Paul’s School (famous for producing original and independent minds, among them one of the greatest of English converts, G K Chesterton) and King’s College in the University of London, where he read history. On leaving university, he entered Pluscarden in 1974. He was ordained in 1982 and was made novice master. He was elected abbot in 1992 at the early age of 40. Under his leadership, the abbey has grown and flourished, founding two daughter houses in Africa and the US. This compares strikingly with the decline of other monasteries and religious orders.

Abbot Gilbert is a man with a very definite and impressive presence. He has a dry sense of humour; there is about him an attractive sense of vitality and sparkle. He is also genuinely humble and self-effacing, and is said by one source to be “mortified and embarrassed at the attention he is receiving.”

There were various stories about why this perfect appointment did not — or could not at the time — come to fruition. I do not know what the explanation is. Simon Caldwell, still from time to time of this parish, wrote in the Mail that “Dom Hugh Gilbert … originally said he would be happy to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as Archbishop of Westminster. But then one of his key aides left the abbey – after falling in love with a woman. Worried that his monastic community would break up, Dom Hugh told the Pope he had changed his mind.”

Is any of that true? I simply don’t know. All I do know is that I’m sorry, very sorry that he didn’t become Archbishop of Westminster. “For of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘it might have been’.”