Taking on the job of leading the Catholic community of England and Wales at this period of history is something to be accepted with a degree of trepidation. Archbishop Vincent Nichols hit the right note when he asked for prayers and spoke with confidence and good humor, but also with a sense of great seriousness, following the April announcement of his appointment as archbishop of Westminster.
These are challenging times for Christians in Britain. The word used frequently about the position of Christianity in Britain is that it is being “marginalized.” There has been much publicity recently about a Christian nurse who was suspended from her job because she offered to pray with an elderly patient, and about the banning of overtly Christian symbols or traditions by public authorities.
News of Archbishop Nichols’ first statements jostled for space in the press with reports of the latest statistics on family break-up (more than half of all births are now out of wedlock, and a woman of 25 is more likely to have had a baby than to be married), and of a Christian working at the English Churches Housing Group being suspended for expressing the traditional Christian teaching on extra-marital sex and on homosexual activity.
In one of the first BBC interviews following his appointment, Archbishop Nichols was presented with the recent public opposition by former Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Church’s teaching on homosexual activity. The archbishop’s response to the suggestion that he should support Blair’s call contained a classic understatement: “I think I will take my line from Pope Benedict, actually.”
Nichols remained steady too in his opposition to a projected scheme for the advertising on TV of abortion services. He quoted Pope Benedict in his call to “humanize sexuality” and spoke with warm approval of the Holy Father’s recent statement about AIDS, saying that he had been “speaking up in protection of African women.”
It is unlikely that this new archbishop of Westminster will be given an easy time by Britain’s dominant mass media, which at present seems to take for granted the notion that affirmation of the possibility of living a chaste life is somehow an affront to human sensibilities, and which invariably assumes that the chief task of any Christian leader is to demand abandonment of any teachings or doctrines that appear to be in conflict with currently fashionable and socially acceptable attitudes.
There will also be some battles with officialdom, especially on the matter of education. Opposition to Catholic schools—chiefly because of their popularity and success, which is deemed by some to be an indication that their existence is a form of injustice—is entrenched not only in the minds of some politicians but also in the minds of many in the various structures of educational bureaucracy. Upholding the right of the Church to run schools, and of Catholic tax paying parents to make use of them, will require courage and political wisdom.
Add to this the new waves of pressure for legalized euthanasia, the continued tax-funded campaigns of giving contraceptives to schoolchildren, and the committed enthusiasm of dedicated atheists to eliminating all formal public commitment to Christian traditions or ceremonies, and you have a formidable list of worrisome issues facing the man who moved into the red-brick Archbishop’s House on Ambrosden Avenue, adjoining Westminster Cathedral and near London’s Victoria Station, in May.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols was not an unexpected choice for the post. Indeed, quite the contrary. Until April he had been archbishop of Birmingham for several years, and before that an auxiliary bishop of Westminster. He is frequently seen and heard in the mass media, and gave the commentary, outstandingly well, on a major nationwide TV network during the inauguration of Pope Benedict.
He has for some years had special responsibility, within the Bishops’ Conference, for education. Widely described as being an ambitious man, he has also been one very much committed to the general line taken by the Bishops’ Conference in recent years, which is to be non-confrontational with regard to the Labour government.
But he was a firm champion of Catholic schools when there were UK government plans to demand drastic alterations to them recently, and he has also made it clear that he will not quietly accept the steady secularizing of Britain and the attendant pushing of Christianity to the margins of national life. He has shown skill in his handling of the mass media, and has never wavered in his clear loyalty to the Church while being a warm supporter of ecumenical links and committed to working with groups from all faiths in efforts for the common good.
Some time within the next 12 months there will be a General Election. As archbishop of Westminster he will have to steer a careful course between not sounding too vague on controversial topics (especially those concerning marriage and family life) and not saying something that could be taken as partisan. He also faces a number of very practical matters that require attention: there are churches to maintain, a need for more priests (although numbers in the Westminster diocesan seminary are rising, and there is some optimism there), deep concerns about the drop in Catholic marriages, and a growing recognition that Catholic schools are not succeeding in passing on the faith to the young.
There are some tantalizing possibilities before him as he ponders the months ahead: a papal visit to Britain has been much mentioned, and could be linked to the beatification of John Henry Newman, whose base for most of his life was in Archbishop Nichols’ former diocese of Birmingham and whose shrine would be established there. And as the Church of England moves inexorably toward making women bishops, resulting in further disintegration and splitting, the Catholic Church will increasingly be viewed as a solid and unchanging alternative to it, not least when there seems to be a need for some public comment in the ever-moving debates on ethics, social change, and life issues.
For too long, there has been a tendency among Catholic commentators from other countries, notably those with nominally Catholic majority populations, to see the Catholic Church in England as downtrodden and oppressed by a rich and powerful Anglican establishment, and with a largely Irish clergy struggling manfully to assist a laity who cherish not-too-distant memories of imprisonment and torture for upholding the faith. The reality is rather different. Ecumenical bonds, with Anglicans and with other Christians, are strong both at the formal national level and in local activities such as Walks of Witness on Good Friday and projects for various social needs.
There are Catholics holding all sorts of public offices in Britain. The problem for Catholics lies not in the persecutions of the past but in the realities of the present, and they are largely shared by Catholics elsewhere in the Western world: poor religious education in Catholic schools, abandonment of the moral teachings of the Church, a too-willing acceptance of a culture that denigrates marriage and accepts contraception and abortion, dreary music at Mass with unsingable ditties from the 1970s that are given too much prominence (although this is changing), and a failure to present to the young the glorious truths that they have a right to be taught.
The divorce and cohabitation figures for Catholics are the same as for the population at large. Numbers attending Mass dropped steadily from the 1960s although the figures have leveled out in recent years, perhaps partly because of the large influx of Poles to Britain following Poland’s entry into the European Union.
Archbishop Nichols has proven himself to be a man capable of taking on the very considerable challenges that face an archbishop of a capital city in the Western world as we approach the next decade of the 21st century. He is not a dreamer, nor a passionate campaigner. He has experience and is comfortable with leadership and with being in the public eye.
He is a Catholic from a strong family background who knows the realities of modern Britain and is at ease with the world of government and media as well as with everyday parish life. He is a cheerful person, with a personable style and manner. He has taken every opportunity, in his first statements, to affirm his loyalty to the papacy in an absolutely clear way. He has an evident love for the Church and confidence in her teachings. He has asked for, and deserves, our prayers.