Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen has retained his English accent. Despite having lived in Scotland since 1975, when he joined the Benedictines of Pluscarden Abbey, his homilies still ring with the vowels of a man born in Hampshire (in 1952) and educated at St Paul’s and King’s College London. He has come a long way since then: last week, Bishop Gilbert was named as the president of the Scottish bishops’ conference. He told the Catholic Herald he was “touched and surprised” by the appointment, and paid tribute to the current incumbent, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, particularly for his work on safeguarding.
Bishop Gilbert is quick to put the role in perspective. He stresses he is not the “leader of the Church in Scotland”. There will be no “mission statements” from him: the leaders are the eight diocesan bishops, he says – “not to mention Pope Francis!”
Rather, the bishop tells the Herald, his goal is “exploring with my fellow-bishops and the members of our various agencies ways of proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ and keeping the fire of faith alight for the good of our people and our whole society.”
It is typical of Bishop Gilbert to paint on so broad a canvas. In 2015, he gave a “reflection” at the Scottish Parliament which quoted George Mackay Brown’s line “For Scotland I sing…” Bishop Gilbert also quoted Cicero’s De re publica, outlined a theory of statesmanship, and drily remarked that he used to live “in a monastery which, thanks to an act of the Scottish Parliament of 1560, became a ruin for 400 years”. This is a leader not intellectually intimidated by politicians.
Of course, a keen intelligence can be used to avoid facing up to Church teachings. But this does not seem to be the case with Bishop Gilbert. In 2012, he wrote a pithy statement on the government’s plans to redefine marriage. “It is not possible for two men or two women to marry,” the bishop noted. “That is not discrimination. It is not just a human law which can be changed. It is a fact of life.” Bishop Gilbert asked: “If we really want equality, why does that equality not extend to nieces who genuinely, truly love their uncles? And, if you say that such things do not happen, that they are mere freaks of nature, extreme examples dreamed up for the sake of argument, I say you need to spend more time in the parish.” The headlines were as outraged as you would expect.
Bishop Gilbert is largely known, however, not as a controversialist but as an exemplar of the monastic spirit. In 2011, William Oddie informed readers of Catholic World Report that Abbot Gilbert was in the running to be Archbishop of Westminster. Vatican officials, Oddie said, were visiting Gilbert at Pluscarden, and had been “deeply impressed by the abbot, a stirring preacher, much sought after as a spiritual director”. At around the same time the Spectator profiled this “holy man… utterly unPR-ed, an unspun hero, full of the levity that comes from humility”.
Instead, he became Bishop of Aberdeen. Ian Dunn, former editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, observes that the president of the Scottish bishops normally comes from one of the larger dioceses: Glasgow or St Andrews and Edinburgh.
“Bishop Gilbert also differs from previous holders of the position in being a Hampshire-born convert,” Dunn remarks. “However, anyone who has heard one of his thoughtful yet stirring sermons, or met him and experienced his dry sense of humour, deep holiness and clarity of thought will not be shocked in the slightest.”
Hearing this chorus of praise, you may ask a little wearily whether Bishop Gilbert has any known weaknesses. The simplest answer is that, with the Scottish Church facing secularisation, political hostility and sectarian tensions – not to mention the complex national questions around Scottish independence and Brexit – we will find out soon enough.
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