Andrew Burnham interview: Full transcript

Andrew Burnham at the launch of his book Photo: James Bradley

On the Feast of the Epiphany, the former Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet Andrew Burnham spoke to me about his journey towards an ordinariate. He had only just been received into the Church. Today he will be ordained to the diaconate and on Saturday, he is ordained a priest. What follows is the full text of my interview with him over lunch at Brown’s, near the Oxford Oratory.

I see from your scarf that you were at New College?…

I was at New College from 1966 to 1971.

I read music from 1966 to 1969. The story is that when I was at school I already was going to be a priest but I didn’t know whether I was going to read music or theology. And I thought if I read music first they will pay for me to read theology, whereas if I read theology first, nobody would pay for me to do music. (In those days people would pay for whatever you did). So I did music from 1966 to 1969 and then from 1969 to 1971 I did theology with a view of moving to theological college for two years and then becoming a clergyman. It all went hideously wrong, because as soon as I started reading theology I stopped believing it. It was the end of the 1960s, the end of a time of theological demolition. I thought to myself, it would be ever so nice if this stuff were true but it’s not and what do I do about it? So I went to see my tutor who said: “If I were you, having started, I would finish the degree, and then go off and be a teacher.” Which I did, very badly. I got yet another award from the local authority and went to Westminster College and did my teaching diploma, my PGCE. I was then head-hunted, as you were in those days, to be head of music at a Nottingham grammar school.

I remember they rang me up late one evening and said “When would you like to come up for interview?’” and I said: “When would you like me to?’”

And they said: “Tomorrow morning”. This was after my just making an inquiry about the job, and I got there and we had an interview. It was like an Eastern European show trial because there were other candidates there too. And then after the interview they said: “Would you like to fill in the application form?’”So I did and I got the job.

After 18 months I had a nasty car accident. I then moved back to my hometown in north Nottinghamshire and was head of music in a comprehensive school, a job I did for a further four or five years. Then I was getting so busy as a freelance musician, out of school hours, that I went part time and I did bits of conducting, mainly choral stuff, and bits of teaching. Then, in the early 1980s (by which time I was just into my thirties), I decided that it was all true after all. Well, certainty looks different when you’re 30 than when you are 20. And I went forward for ordination to begin with as a non-stipendiary, because I carried on doing my music. I used to conduct the Christmas carols and Messiah at the Royal Concert Hall in front of a couple of thousand people in my dog-collar. And it was getting a bit too difficult. It made some people uncomfortable.

I got married in the autumn of 1984 and my wife said: “Why don’t you do this properly and do it full time?” So I became the curate of Beeston in Nottingham in January 1985, and I then did a couple of years in Beeston. The vicar retired and I found myself running the parish and there was the obvious petition for me to be the new parish priest. But the bishop rather sensibly decided that this wasn’t a particularly good idea.

I was moved to a new parish and I became the vicar of St John’s Carrington, in Nottingham and I was there for seven years till 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. 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.

Had you done a stint at St Stephen’s House before, before your ordination?

I cheated: I did it non-residentially. I went along and dished up a few essays and then went home again. It was all very half-hearted at that stage, I was just dipping my toe in it again, but they were quite sensible and quite gentle with me. They said: “We don’t mind if you do that. We don’t mind if you only do it part time to start with.”

So people were very good to me. I always said that my stint as vice-principal was the Lord making me do a proper ordination training before allowing me to be a bishop.

Then you were Vice Principal of St Stephen’s House for how long?

Until the end of 2000, so six years. I was then asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to be Bishop of Ebbsfleet and I’d been in the meantime Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod, as it’s called, and therefore quite a high-profile person in General Synod. (I’d been on General Synod for quite a long time, from 1990 to 2000. Then in second half I was of that time the Chairman of the Catholic Group, and that’s why, I suppose, I got asked to be Bishop of Ebbsfleet). I said to the Archbishop of Canterbury that, if I became a “flying bishop”, it would be because I’m buying into seeking Christian unity with a group of people rather than seeking on my own. Up to that point the question had been “what do I do next?” but this became “what do we do next?” I was consecrated on the November 30, St Andrew’s Day, in the year 2000.

After doing it for about a month, on Christmas Day I was taken ill and rushed to hospital with pancreatitis. It was a nasty attack of a disease I’d had for years and immediately people said: “This chap needs retiring on health grounds.”

They were all rather embarrassed that they’d got this new bishop who wasn’t up to doing the job. And, of course, it was physically a very demanding job. Anyway, by God’s gracious Providence, I gradually picked up strength and went on to do the job for 0 years, although I had heart disease in 2004 and had to have stents in my heart. Once again it looked like I’d have to resign for health grounds but I carried on. I’m now fitter than I was then. I need to be careful about what I take on, but I’m fitter than I was.

You said before you were basically setting up the See of Ebbsfleet. What does that mean?

My predecessor, Michael Houghton, who died after a year (which is of course why they were nervous about me), had taken to calling it the See of Ebbsfleet as if it were a proper diocese. And I took the view that what we were aiming to be was a diocese, an orthodox diocese: bishop, priests, deacons, and laypeople. And therefore that, even though we weren’t an actual diocese, we should organise ourselves as if we were. So I wrote a pastoral letter to the people every month, more or less every month for 10 years. I had a council of priests. This was before anyone else was doing this sort of thing. I had a lay council and a lay congress. I had deaneries, with clergy organised in deaneries for pastoral care.

We did all this as if we were setting out to be a diocese, which irritated people no end. It was done in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury because it was all about how best to care for people. And the apologia I gave was that of the Apostolic District, which was the term in canon law to describe a group that is not yet a diocese but might become so and has an apostolic administrator. Of course an administration, a jurisdiction, was the one thing we weren’t. We didn’t have the legal authority to do any of it. But that was what we were in search of becoming. And it fitted in with the Forward in Faith Free Province rhetoric and fitted what we needed to survive in the Church of England. It was a good way to organise people and get them to move forward together.

Of course my dream would have been that when I said: “We’re going to submit to the Holy See.” Everyone would have followed me and done so that the priests, the churches and congregations would do so en bloc, which they haven’t.

It irritated people, but it did give us a real coherence and cohesion, and it meant that such things as evangelism and mission were always at the forefront of the agenda. And we had a children’s and young people’s eucharistic festival at Brean Sands, Somerset every year with 700 kids coming together for the day. We had parish evangelism weekends to train up younger leaders to replace the older men and women who were struggling to keep their churches going.

I’m very proud of all that and it was all very good. 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 community. Who knows why they get together? One wouldn’t dream of asking them because you might get the wrong answer. For all sorts of reasons, therefore, going forward together hasn’t quite worked, neither on my side of the country, the West and South West, nor elsewhere.

I finally realised it was all going to go bad a couple of years ago, and in April 2008 I went to Rome. I’m claustrophobic so I don’t fly and I don’t travel very easily, (one of the ironies of my last job). But I thought, I have to go. It was my 60th birthday so I thought ‘lets go to Rome’ and I went to Rome.

So did you end up flying?

Took the car.

How long did it take you?

Ages. But it was nice. We had a little charabanc and took my chaplain and my driver. It was new thing for me. I’d never been that far before. It didn’t take that long at all. It was nice. We stayed in Canterbury then went to Beaune, and stayed the night there, then went on to Notre-Dame de Laghuet, a community at a Marian shrine just outside Nice, and then we went on to Florence, where we stayed the night in the former British consulate which is now a hotel, and from thence to Rome. We stayed on the Borgo Pio in a nice little hotel and some of the family flew out to join us.

So this was all designed as a birthday treat and I had thought: “While I’m here I might as well sort it all out’.” So I had asked if I could see someone at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (PCPCU), and was surprised to find that no less than Cardinal Kasper himself was going to see me, with his staff. I had then asked if I could see someone at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was told that Cardinal Levada, no less, would see me with his panoply of staff. So when I got these two interviews fixed up, I told my friend Keith Newton, the Bishop of Richborough, and he said: “Well, I’ll come too.” So he flew out and the two of us went to these two dicasteries.

What was it like?

The PCPCU, which has moved since, is somewhere down the Via della Conciliazione. It was like going to a posh apartment building. You went upstairs. It wasn’t frightening. We were shown into a reception room with comfy chairs and then they joined us. It was quite informal.

And you just chatted with Cardinal Kasper?

Chatted with Cardinal Kasper and Bishop Brennan and the Mgr Donald Bolen, who at that time manned the Anglican desk. The next day we went to see Cardinal Levada at the grand palazzo of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We were ushered into a boardroom and then in came the cardinal with his staff: half a dozen of them. We sat around and chatted about things and they told us: “We will be helpful.” And lo! it came to pass.

How soon did you then hear from them again?

Victoria Coombe had reported the whole visit very accurately in the Tablet. But there was then what I call “the Elizabethan espionage story”.
There was a nasty leak in the Guardian, and that revealed the fact that we remained in touch with Rome during the process. That story was very overblown. Everyone is so jumpy: the Catholic Church pours confidentiality over everything like custard (a favourite phrase of mine). Whereas an Anglo-Catholic secret is something you tell to one person at a time, a Catholic secret, a pontifical secret, is a secret everybody knows except the Pope.

In fact, we weren’t responsible for the writing of Anglicanorum coetibus, we weren’t consulted on the contents of the document, and we didn’t know what it said until just before it was published, 18 months later.

Were you expecting it when it came?

It took a bit longer than we thought it would and if anything takes longer than you thought it would then you are in a sense expecting it. We weren’t on the inside track—in that we didn’t know until immediately before it was going to happen that it was going to happen.

And you didn’t know it would take the shape that it did?

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.

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.

So they do lose their pensions?

Well, they don’t lose their accumulated pensions but they do lose their prospective pensions. Take, for instance, the case of a priest who is in his mid-30s, with a wife and two small children. I’ve got one or two of those. He loses his stipend of £22,000 or whatever it is, he loses his vicarage, he loses up to two thirds of his pension entitlement. He may get some sort of settlement, but we don’t know what the ordinariate is going to do. We don’t know what the general Catholic culture is going to do. Essentially such priests put everything “on the line” Now I must admit that, though I was ready to do that in 1994, as a family we weren’t able to do that, and I think many families aren’t going to be able to do that now. There are no time limits and people will do what they can.

Somebody told me that there were quite a few younger priests driving the move to the ordinariate. Is that true?

There are quite a few younger priests and also quite a few married priests. You’d imagine that the person who would be interested would be, first a retired person because it would have no material consequences and secondly, a retired single person, because it would be the most natural thing in the world, but actually we have a disproportionately large amount of interest from younger priests and married priests.

How have you been preparing the lay people?

Well, we haven’t. We haven’t been in a position where we’ve been able to recruit at all. Because to recruit would be against our mandates as Anglican bishops and I was an Anglican bishop till December 31

I don’t think I have ever suggested to anybody that they join the ordinariate, lay person or priest, but what I have done is respond to people when they have asked me about it. And I think the way it’s been done is that, typically, the leadership for this project has been from laity. They’ve led their little groups.

As for the clergy, I’ve always advised them to be chaplains to the groups, so that they are helping people without pushing them, and without forgetting their responsibilities to their existing congregations. So I think all the clergy, bishops and priests have all taken the view that we’re there to help people and encourage them but not to recruit and so we haven’t been in any sense running it.

What we’ve suggested is that all the groups do the Evangelium course, because that’s a good way of focusing on the essentials of Catholic teaching. Whether or not they proceed to the ordinariate, it won’t do them any harm, and probably a lot of good. And the group which has been more successful than any other has been a group to which the priest who will likely lead them hadn’t been going. He eventually went, but not till the group was well and truly established.

Do you think that your experience with setting up Ebbsfleet and all of that will serve you well?

I think there will be the same sense of isolated but profoundly linked communities.

In a way what you’ve done over the last 10 years will be very similar because you’d been acting as though you were a real diocese even though it was not geographically bound in the same way.

The difference is because it’s all so very much smaller: the whole country will function like one of the flying bishop areas. Now, that means there are three of us who are going into it, and two of us won’t be doing what we were doing before, so it will be different in that sense, and I think the idea of the three of us going rushing around the country is ridiculous. Talk about too many chiefs and not enough Indians. So I think actually it’s going to be very different.

So in a way will be similar to the old vicariates in mission territory?

Yes, because I think, although we haven’t recruited and made a virtue of not recruiting, once we get going we are recruiting. We’re trying to win people for Christ and for the Catholic faith and so each of these little groups will be an emergent congregation, what the Church of England calls “fresh expression of Church”. And so we shall be doing everything we can do to encourage these groups to grow: evangelism, catechesis, mission, but also Catholic apologetics, explaining to people the beauty of orthodoxy. It is all part of the task, really. And that’s exciting.

How do you see the ordinariate working alongside existing dioceses and existing churches?

I think we’ll be very close because there are so many ex-Anglicans in existing churches. And also in order to function the ordinariate clergy will want to – and have to – work in the Catholic dioceses. 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.

So it will be quite porous?

I think it will. There are stories we are getting already of people where the priest is saying to an ordinariate priest: “Well, I have two churches and two presbyteries: why don’t you have one of the presbyteries and one of the churches, if you don’t mind looking after that congregation as well as your own?’

Do you think that in the next two or three generations there will still be a need for an ordinariate?

I don’t know is the answer to that. I can see two equally likely eventualities. One is that this will have proved to be a very useful bridge for individual Anglicans and individual Anglican congregations to explore the future. And the bridge is permanent. The Apostolic Constitution is permanent, so it will be a bridge that can always be crossed and nobody is ever going to shut it down. So one outcome is to see it growing and growing and growing and seeing it as hugely influential. Indeed one commentator said that the Catholic Church in this country, in five years’ time, will be unrecognisable as a result. That is one possible outcome.

Another possible outcome is that, after an initial interest, this will not become the way that people do it and that just as in 1994 there was an initial flurry of interest from them, it will all quieten down again. And it may all quieten down again.

So I really don’t know and I don’t think it matters actually. I think that the important thing is that all those who should be Catholics are able to be so and, whether or not they live in an ordinariate or a diocese, who cares? Many Catholic and many Anglican laity are hardly aware of what diocese they’re in. What is important to them is their parish priest.

Do you think that the Ordinariate will shift the way in which the structures of the Church work? The structure of the ordinariate seems more democratic than the Church structures normally are.

I think it’s interesting that the document has some procedures for the governing council and for the pastoral council, which are, from a Catholic point of view very progressive. They are, I think, an attempt to anticipate what Anglican patrimony might bring. Some Anglicans will see what is offered there as inadequate and tokenistic because it isn’t a full synodical system, a kind of early version of what Anglicans have managed to achieve.

I’m not talking about people joining the ordinariate: They will be very happy with what they see. But people who are looking for ammunition against the ordinariate would say that all this is inadequate: inadequately participatory, inadequately representative, the Ordinary has too much power, the laity have almost no power.

But from a Catholic point of view, it’s much more participatory. There are several matters, which are not decided by the Ordinary alone but by his council. The pastoral committee instead of just being a ‘good idea’ in normal Catholic life is something you have to have, and I think those two things are really quite important.

Where you surprised with that? Was it something you’d asked for?

We hadn’t asked for any of it. We asked for none of the detail, negotiated none of the detail, but were pleased by nearly all of it really. The only bit I am a bit unsure about is the bit about former Anglican bishops dressing like bishops even though they are not bishops. It reminds me of the saying “Walks like a duck, looks like a duck, sounds like a duck”. In this case it will be all of those things but not a duck but a former Anglican bishop. That’s the only part I’m not so sure about.

So is it a sop for…

…wounded pride? Well, there is a sense in which becoming a priest and not a bishop in the new structure is a loss. There is a real sense of loss. You were talking earlier of being married to your people, and in that sense there is a real loss. The hardest thing so far has been giving up being a bishop. It has been very joyful being a lay person. It will be very joyful being a priest. But giving up being a bishop, I think, is very hard and that’s a permanent deprivation because, apart from St Peter himself and a few striking exceptions in the history of the Church, there are no married bishops.

I suppose also you’ve had such an active role in pastoral work in a way that many bishops simply don’t get the chance to.

Oh yes. I’ve always taken the view that bishops are often criticised for being bureaucrats and managers, but that they can’t be blamed for that because it isn’t them who decide on the procedures that have to be followed. So they are victims of over-blown bureaucracy, rather than colluders in it. My suspicion is that most bishops probably want to be out there being hands on, rather than sitting behind a desk. So we’ve been spoiled because we haven’t had very much of the “sitting behind a desk’” stuff to do.

Can you tell the story of when you broke your wrist at Newman’s beatification?

It was nine o’clock in the morning, the time where in the Acts of the Apostles the Apostles were accused of being filled with new wine because they were reeling around, and I assure you I was not filled with new wine. I simply went to the loo because I was intrigued by what a VIP loo would be like in the middle of a field. And secondly I thought it would be just as well to go because the Mass was starting at 10 and I thought it would go on for rather a long time. The grass was very slippy 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, I fell down on my back, first landing on my wrist and smashing it. Along came St John’s Ambulance in the form of a nurse and she said that since I should be four hours in casualty. I might as well sit there for four hours and enjoy the Mass. So she bound up my wrist extremely tightly, 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.

Do you feel or have any special links, connections, similarities to Newman?

I promised myself I would never go to Littlemore unless I was seriously considering converting. So I didn’t go to Littlemore until I was. When I went I met the Sisters of the Work who are dedicated to the memory of Newman and his work, and they began to pray for me and support me.

There’s a lovely story which is worth telling about February 22. On February 22 this last year I asked everyone to join in a vigil of prayer to discover what they should be doing about the offer of an ordinariate. The vigil happened all over the place and we had special prayers and Exposition.

I asked one of the Sisters at Littlemore if she would pray and she said she was going to Rome and she would light a candle in St Peter’s for me on February 22.

And the next time I saw her, she said: “Bishop Andrew I am really embarrassed, because I’ve discovered there aren’t any candles at St Peter’s to light, but I thought I’d take a tea-light in and sit there and hold it till burns down for you.’”

And I said: “Don’t do that Sister. You’ll be arrested as a potential arsonist.”

So I said: “Why don’t you go down to Santa Maria Maggiore or somewhere like that and light a candle for me there? It would be perfectly all right just to know that you will be lighting a candle for me on February 22 will be absolutely fine.”

A few weeks later, I was addressing the Newman Society at the university here and at that meeting she presented me with a candle, half burnt and a photograph of that candle sitting on the tomb of St Peter in Rome. The superior of her order was saying Mass on St Peter’s tomb on February 22 for our intentions.

So that further cemented the link with the Sisters of Littlemore.

And on October 9, Newman’s first feast, my chaplain emptied the tabernacle in my chapel and we went together to Littlemore and we went to the pilgrimage Mass there at 12 o’clock at the church there. And the following day we went to the Oratory for their first observance of the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman. So there’s a link, quite a profound one, and although we are temperamentally very different, Newman and I, great and small, there are so many places where the journey touches.

Could you call him the patron saint of the ordinariate?

Well, he will hopefully be a patron of the ordinariate, but he won’t be the patron of the ordinariate because unfortunately he isn’t a full saint yet. The patron will be a canonised saint. I hope it will be ‘herself’ but we don’t know yet.

Is the ordinariate the end of the Oxford Movement or the fulfilment of the Oxford Movement?

I think it’s the fulfilment of it. I don’t think it’s the end of the Oxford Movement. Or rather it is in a way the end of the Oxford Movement and in another it isn’t, because the Oxford Movement is two things. Sorry this is sounding like an Oxford essay…

It is the end of the Oxford Movement in the sense that we’ve now reached the end of the Romantic movement, to which the Oxford Movement was so closely tied. The Oxford Movement began with the Ecclesiology movement in Cambridge. Here are all these wonderful medieval churches.

People wondered what the medievals did in them, and that engendered a sense of curiosity about the way in which the liturgy was celebrated which tunes in so nicely with all the preoccupations of the Romantic Movement. I think that aesthetic thing has driven the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism for 150 years. And I think that is coming to an end, in the sense of the end of a culture.

In another sense it’s not coming to an end because, as long as there are still those churches and those bits and fragments of the Catholic faith are still alive, I think that we will continue to see an interest in it in the Church of England and we will continue to see ordinands coming forward, country vicars reading their books, and getting more interested in it than they were before, and all that kind of thing. So yes and no.

And also Cardinal Kasper did say at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 in answer to questions following his talk to the bishops that he was looking for a new Oxford Movement, a new opportunity.

In an important sense we are at the end of the Oxford Movement because the Church of England has now moved away from the kind of consensus Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology that it has had for 100 years, which made unity with Rome not only desirable (which it remains) but also possible. I think that now, because of the changes of faith and order, unity between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, in any straightforward, short-to-medium sense, is now impossible.

The Pope described Anglicanorum coetibus as a “prophetic gesture” how do you understand that?

Anglicanorum coetibus, by reconciling groups and allowing them to maintain their customs, is a new ecumenical method. It is a new way of conceiving of ecumenism.

My way of describing it is instead of long-winded ecumenism, where people sit in their leisurely armchairs discussing how their churches will come together eventually, at no personal cost to themselves, here is a way in which people can quickly and immediately, within their own lifetimes, respond not as individuals but as groups. That’s the prophetic gesture.