Bishop Conry and Bishop Hollis have just proved how wrong I can be

Pope Benedict XVI pictured with the bishops of England and Wales at St Mary's, Oscott, Birmingham (Photo: PA)

There are certain English bishops not, how shall I put this, notorious for their doctrinaire fidelity to papal teaching and the traditions of the Church. Take Bishop Kieran Conry. In July last year, for instance, he launched an attack on the Pope’s fight against secularisation (which has to be seen as being at the very heart of Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral concerns); and if anyone wants to know more about Bishop Kieran’s scepticism about traditional Catholic beliefs and practices, have a look (if you are a digital Herald subscriber) at his now famous interview with Andrew M Brown.

During the Pope’s visit, Bishop Conry was asked, in the company of Tabletistas Tina Beattie and Clifford Longley (by that great liberal ringmaster Ed Stourton; surprise, surprise) the question  “Will there be women priests in 100 years’ time?”. “Well,” replied Bishop Conry, with a knowing smirk, “according to Pope John Paul II, this was a definitive statement, wasn’t it, so… [laughter] I couldn’t possibly comment.” “Cue knowing sniggers from Tabletistas,” commented Damian Thompson. “And then he has the bloody nerve to kiss Pope Benedict’s ring at Oscott. Nice bloke, Kieran, but he has no business being a bishop.”

I have noted in the past a certain concentration of these frisky bishops on the south coast, headed by their long established leader, Bishop Crispian Hollis. Someone who has to write regularly likes consistent behaviour: I like to be able to predict how people, especially those of whom I have been critical in the past, will react to certain questions and certain situations. Bishop Conry’s response to to Ed Stourton’s question about women priests, for instance, was 100 per cent predictable. So how does he now assess the results of the papal visit: easy, no? Sceptical at the very least, surely, if not actually hostile. Moving down the coast to Portsmouth, Bishop Hollis was one of those who 17 years ago aggressively shot down the scheme for allowing Anglican converts to be received in community, a scheme which Cardinal Hume still supported and which has now been realised in an even more radical form with the ordinariate. So, obviously: he’s against the ordinariate, isn’t he? Surely?

Well, I am now entirely confused: unless both these south coast bishops are playing a deep and very devious game (which I have no reason to suppose), I have got it dead wrong. Here, speaking to Zenit, is Bishop Kieran on the Pope’s visit:

Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton, chair of the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, told Zenit that nearly six months after the Pope’s visit, “people within our parishes are still talking about it and the outpouring of grace that was witnessed”.

“The papal visit provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to present to everyone the face of contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales, and it was in the main very positively received,” the bishop affirmed.

He added: “It had the effect of reawakening spirituality in many people’s lives whatever their creed or background.”

Well, cor, blimey: who’d a thought it? “Outpouring of grace”? Makes you think. And down the coast, here is Bishop Crispian on the Ordinariate:

There are legitimate questions as to how it will work out, but the sincerity and desire for full communion with the Church of the Anglican clergy and those who wish to come with them in this journey of faith is certainly beyond doubt.

The Ordinariate represents new ground for us all but our new found brothers and sisters deserve to be welcomed and made to feel at one with us all. They feel that they are truly ‘coming home’….

We seem to have three groups …..The laity and their priests will be received into full communion at Easter and their priests will be ordained by me later in the summer.

I hope they will very quickly become valued brothers and sisters in the faith and I am sure that our parish communities will give a warm welcome as they come among us.

This is how the late Peter Hebblethwaite described Bishop Hollis’s attitude to what in the early 1990s was known by Anglo-Catholics as “the Roman Option”: “Bishop Crispian Hollis,” he wrote, “has emerged as the tough cop to Cardinal Hume’s nice cop…. Cardinal Hume is ahead in wanting to make it ‘easy’ for them to move as a group… Bishop Hollis … knows that the Anglo-Catholic party has acted as a political faction, using bluff and pressure to get its own way. It cannot be allowed to do that in a Catholic context. Back to the individual solution.”

Time heals many wounds and informs many misunderstandings and prejudices. Perhaps it was a good thing that the Roman Option did not go ahead in the early 90s. After all, what we have now is more far-reaching: there was no question then of erecting a parallel jurisdiction. And with time, it has become evident that suspicions of the Anglo-Catholics’ motives such as those entertained then by more than one English Catholic bishop were simply not justified. The great accusation then was that the Anglican Catholics were interested in only one issue – women’s ordination – and wanted to come just to get away from it. The fullness of time is a wonderful thing. Now, Bishop Crispian knows that “the sincerity and desire for full communion with the Church of the Anglican clergy and those who wish to come with them in this journey of faith is certainly beyond doubt”.

To which one can surely say only one thing: Deo Gratias. And as for me, mea culpa: my suspicions, it seems, were unworthy. And if I have been, I shall never have been more glad to be proved wrong.