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‘What we asked for is what we got’

Andrew Burnham at the launch of his latest book, Heaven and Earth in Little Space Photograph by James Bradley

Last September Andrew Burnham was waiting for Cardinal Newman’s beatification Mass to begin at Cofton Park. He was intrigued by the idea of VIP loos in the middle of a field, so he went to investigate.

“The grass was very slippy,” he recalls. “But even more slippy were the things that they had placed over the grass so that one didn’t slip. On the way back I just skidded. My feet disappeared from under me and I fell down on my back, first landing on my wrist and smashing it.”

A nurse arrived and told the then Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet that he probably would be stuck in casualty for four hours. He decided to spend those hours at the papal Mass instead.

“So she bound up my wrist extremely tightly,” he says, “and I went back to my row where I was sitting, right behind Jack Sullivan’s family. And there they were and there we all were in all our variety: the Sullivans celebrating his miracle and me nursing my anti-miracle.”

Mr Burnham, as he is at the moment, was received into the Catholic Church on New Year’s Day. He is expected to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday, becoming one of the first three members of the world’s first personal ordinariate. Arguably, if it were not for him the ordinariate might never have happened.

When I meet him in Oxford on the Epiphany he is enjoying his brief period as a Catholic layman. His brown and white New College scarf and copy of The Catholic Herald are props so that I will recognise him now that he wears slacks, a shirt and a dark jumper instead of clericals.

For the past 10 years he has been a Provincial Episcopal Visitor, or “flying bishop”, for the Archbishop of Canterbury, serving the needs of Anglo-Catholics who were unable in good conscience to accept the ordination of women. As an Anglo-Catholic, Burnham had also heavily invested in the idea of unity with Rome. This seemed less and less likely as Anglican ecclesiology shifted and by April 2008 he decided to take a trip to Rome for his 60th birthday.

Burnham suffers from claustrophobia so doesn’t fly easily (“one of the ironies of my last job”) but felt a pressing need to go to the Eternal City. Together with his chaplain and driver, he travelled across Europe in “a little charabanc”, stopping in Canterbury and Beaune, with the community of Notre-Dame de Laghuet just outside Nice, before heading down to Florence and from there to Rome. He had never been that far before. His family flew out to join him.

Deciding that he might as well use the opportunity to “sort it all out”, Burnham asked if he could see someone at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and was surprised to be told that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the then Vatican ecumenical czar, would see him. Applying also to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he found himself scheduled to meet the prefect, Cardinal William Levada. The Rt Rev Keith Newton, the Bishop of Richborough, flew to Rome to join him. In the meetings, curial officials assured them that they would “be

The flying bishops remained in contact with Rome. But Burnham insists that neither he nor Bishop Newton were responsible for the publication of Anglicanorum coetibus, the Apostolic Constitution providing for the creation of personal ordinariates for groups of former Anglicans.

“We weren’t consulted on the contents of the document,” he explains, “and we didn’t know what it said until just before it was published, 18 months later.”

Later in the interview he says: “What we asked for is what we got, which was, ‘is there a way in which we can as groups be incorporated into the Catholic Church?’ The answer we heard right from the start was ‘No’. Every individual person who becomes a Catholic has to become a Catholic. You can’t become a Catholic because everybody else on your street is becoming one. So everybody has to make an individual conversion and everyone has to subscribe to the Catholic catechism in so doing. But people can do this as groups and they can preserve their identity before and after individual conversion.

“Our vision was that whole parishes would go over. And because the whole parish was going over then obviously the vicarage and the church hall and the church would sometimes go with them because otherwise they would be empty and unsupportable.

“But in fact that’s not what is happening,” Burnham says. “The Church of England has not been entirely dismissive of the idea but has raised the obvious difficulty: parish churches are there for the vast majority who seldom or never attend as well as for the congregations who do. And the Catholic Church has very sensibly said: ‘We’re not after your property.’

“So the result of that is that our pioneering groups are essentially atypical. They are priests and groups who are prepared to give it all up. The priests are prepared to give up their stipends, their houses, their pensions.”

As a boy, Burnham already knew he wanted to be an Anglican priest, but decided to read music at university. After three years at New College as a music student, between 1966 and 1969, he began his theological studies in a time of intellectual turmoil. It all went hideously wrong, he says, as soon as he started reading theology because he stopped believing it.

So instead he taught music and eventually the music became more and more important. But in his early 30s he “decided that it was all true after all” and became a non-stipendiary clergyman, continuing with his music. He would conduct Christmas carols and Messiah at the Royal Concert Hall, London, in his dog collar.

After getting married in 1984, he decided to become a full-time Church of England clergyman and became the curate of Beeston in Nottingham less than six months later. He went on to become vicar of St John the Evangelist in Carrington, where he stayed until 1994.

“By that stage I was looking to become a Catholic but it wasn’t clear how that would work out with a wife and two small children,” he says. “I felt that I couldn’t really carry on being the local line manager for the C of E. But there was a job at St Stephen’s House teaching liturgy and mission and being vice principal and I took that up in January 1995.”

In 2000 he became Bishop of Ebbsfleet at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s request because he was “buying into seeking Christian unity with a group of people”. Despite health problems including a nasty bout of pancreatitis and heart disease, he built Ebbsfleet into a fully fledged diocese, writing a monthly pastoral letter, setting up a council of priests, a lay council and a lay congress. He also set up deaneries, organising his clergy for pastoral care in consultation with his archbishop.

“I’m very proud of all that and it was all very good,” he says, “except that at the end we couldn’t all move forward together, which is the sadness. Partly it was because some priests are too afraid of doing it. Partly it was because of the issue of buildings. Partly it was because for congregations, provided they’ve got that nice Bishop so-and-so and that nice Father so-and-so, the ecclesiology is neither here nor there. And partly it was because the really vigorous parishes, of which there were some, don’t grow because people debate women’s ordination, gay marriage or any other issues of the day. They grow because they simply get people coming together as a community.”

I ask Burnham how he has been preparing his lay people and clergy for the ordinariate. “We haven’t been in a position to recruit at all,” he replies, explaining that it would have gone against his mandate as an Anglican bishop to do so. Instead, the ordinariate has widely been a movement lead by lay people, with the clergy acting as chaplains.

His idea of the ordinariate seems fairly porous.“In order to function, the ordinariate clergy will want to – and have to – work in the Catholic dioceses,” he says. “Some of them will be doing specialist jobs like school chaplains, prison chaplains, hospital chaplains, and some of them will be simply mucking in with the local diocese, helping ease the shortage of priests. So there’ll be thorough intermingling.

“Just as in any diocese there are clergy where you look in the handbook and you are somewhat surprised to find they are a White Father on loan or actually they’re a Benedictine who isn’t in their mother house. You will find that there will be ordinariate priests serving in the diocese.”

After lunch, Burnham takes me to the Oxford Oratory to show me the Christmas crib, which he says he wants to share. We look at the beautifully lit Nativity in the church where he will celebrate his first Mass as a Catholic priest on Sunday.

“It’s all true, you know,” he whispers to me.

Full transcript of the interview here