I have been reading some of the tributes to the late Canon John Redford who died last week. I only knew of him slightly through his excellent series on the Faith in the Universe newspaper some years ago, but reading the reminiscences of others now makes me realise what a fine priest he was. In particular, Deacon Nick Donnelly writes warmly in his blog about the late Canon, who was the director of the Master’s degree in theology at Maryvale for many years.
Donnelly provides a link to a BBC West Midlands broadcast in September 2010 when Pope Benedict was about to visit Britain, in which Canon Redford joined a short debate about the Catholic Church and women priests. It is worth listening to, if only to illustrate the Canon’s confident but courteous response when faced by a woman called Pat Brown from an organisation called Catholic Women’s Ordination.
Redford did not brush aside Pat Brown’s belief that “women are called to priesthood by the Holy Spirit”. He simply explained that some teachings of the Church are non-negotiable, citing the Letter of John Paul II in 1994 which stated that the Church did not have the power to change the teachings of Christ.
As Canon Redford put it, Christ was incarnated as a man and the priesthood is reserved for men because in the Mass, the central act of the Church’s worship, they are acting in the person of Christ.
He made it clear that the Church does not thereby devalue women, citing Our Lady as “the second most important person in the world – and she wasn’t a priest, either.” He suggested, slightly mischievously, that as cardinals can theoretically be lay people, women are not excluded from this office. Pat Brown did not take him up on this. In contrast to the Canon, who made it clear at the start of the discussion that the Church doesn’t “respond to every wind of change that blasts” and that “we believe something is right and we stick with it”, she referred to Galileo (as people often do in such discussions) as an argument for the Church “changing” its views from time to time.
The Canon briefly distinguished between teaching that cannot change and the Church’s “changed” attitude towards dissenters (like Pat Brown). He spoke of a “greater spirit of tolerance” in the Church today as a good thing. Of course he is right about this – but “tolerance” is interpreted so widely today that it can cause confusion. For the Church it is simply an exercise of greater charity toward one’s opponents; for the world it generally means that anything goes, and that my view is as good as yours.
Deacon Donnelly summed up the death of Canon Redford as the loss of “a great theologian and priest who was passionate about teaching and defending the fullness of truth of Catholic doctrine”. He added that “He was one of those rare priests who was not embarrassed or apologetic in public about being Catholic” and that he was always “gracious and understanding but firm with opponents of the Church’s teaching.”In the broadcast the Canon referred to Pat Brown throughout as “the good lady”: polite and in no way patronising her. Imagine though, if he had been up against Polly Toynbee on the subject, for example, of the Church and AIDS in Africa; calling her “good lady” would have caused a feminist meltdown. Somehow I do not think Canon Redford would have been perturbed. May he rest in peace.