Monsignor Keith Newton, 65, is the ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, headquartered in London, England. The ordinariate was established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI; its purpose is to reunite Anglicans with Rome while preserving elements of their distinctive Anglican patrimony.
Msgr. Newton was a bishop in the Church of England before being received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 2011. Shortly after, he was ordained a priest and appointed to lead the ordinariate. As he explained, “I have the authority of a bishop, but because I am married, I am not able to be ordained a bishop.” He and his wife Gill have three adult children.
The ordinariate has 90 priests, 11 transitional deacons, and five permanent deacons serving 35 congregations throughout England, Wales, and Scotland. Some of its clergy serve their congregations full-time, others also work in diocesan parishes or as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and schools.
Msgr. Newton recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: Tell me about your upbringing.
Msgr. Keith Newton: I was born in Liverpool, in the Northwest of England, in 1952. I was brought up in a proud working-class family. My father was a gas welder for all of his life, though sadly he died the age of 54, when I was just 23 years old, and had just been ordained as an Anglican deacon.
My mother, for most of her life, worked in a small grocery shop—the sort that no longer exist in Britain—where everything was sold, from loose tea to sliced bacon. She worked in the shop at the bottom of our road, which was very much a community shop where everybody knew each other.
My mother was born on the same road where I was born and my father was born four roads away. I have one older brother who still lives near Liverpool.
My mother sent me to Sunday school each Sunday from an early age, although at that time my parents did not practice their religion. I was confirmed in the Church of England at the age of 11 and have continued being a committed Christian ever since then. I served at the parish Eucharist and was involved in the parish youth club, where I met my future wife.
CWR: How did you develop an interest in going into ministry?
Msgr. Newton: I was involved in the life of the church from my early teens. This was a lively Church of England parish with a vicar and often three or four young curates. I felt a calling to the priesthood in the Church of England at about the age of 15, but like many young men was embarrassed to tell anybody as I thought I wouldn’t have the right character, qualifications, or background. It was only when one of the curates asked me if I had thought about ordination that I was able to talk about it openly, only to discover that all the clergy were hoping that I had a vocation.
Like many young men, I was drawn to ordination by the example of the clergy in my parish, particularly my parish priest, whom I admired greatly, and the curates who came from very diverse backgrounds.
CWR: What were some of your assignments as a young priest in the Church of England?
Msgr. Newton: When I completed my training for ordination, we moved to my first parish in the east part of London in the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford, where I served for three years. At the end of those three years, which is called a “title” in the Church of England, usually one looks for another appointment. I had a yearning to serve overseas, but at that time it didn’t seem very practical as Gill and I very much wanted to start a family, but things were not happening quite as we would have liked. I moved from Ilford to the other side of London, to Wimbledon, a very middle-class and affluent area, where I served as what is called a “team vicar,” with a team of clergy and my own church and parish to run. At the end of seven years in Wimbledon, it was time to move on.
I again wanted to explore the possibility of service overseas, and eventually we were selected to go and work in Malawi in the province of Central Africa. We moved to Malawi in 1985, with two children, for me to take up appointment as the Dean of the Cathedral.
Malawi was and is still a very poor country. I was the Dean of the Cathedral and looked after the Cathedral parish, which had about 20 outstations over a large area of the diocese. As well as that, I had responsibilities in the wider diocese. I was on most committees and I oversaw the selection and training of new priests. It was a particularly exciting part of my Christian ministry, and I will never regret spending time working in Africa. The people were warm-hearted and took their faith very seriously.
I came back to England in 1991 and took the post as a vicar of Holy Nativity, Knowle, in the Diocese of Bristol. In the Church of England, priests are not incardinated into dioceses and can move from one diocese to another. I spent 11 years there as the parish priest. It was during that time that the Church of England decided to ordain women to the priesthood and many of my colleagues resigned and became Catholics. Although I made inquiries with my local Catholic bishop, he was not particularly encouraging as I had a young family and suggested I continued my pastoral ministry in the Church of England until my family had grown up.
I ministered in Bristol for about 11 years, until I was invited by the then-archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, to be the bishop of Richborough, one of the three provincial episcopal visitors looking after traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes and some Evangelical parishes which did not approve of the direction the Church of England had gone in ordaining women to the priesthood.
I moved from Bristol in 2002 to live on the edge of London and I ministered as a provincial episcopal visitor traveling around the eastern half of England, visiting about a hundred parishes in my care, until Pope Benedict published the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus.
The time I was a bishop was very difficult in many ways, because I knew that this was not a permanent solution to our problems. Like many, I have prayed for unity with the Catholic Church ever since I was a young Anglican priest and I could see that corporate union between Anglicans and Catholics was becoming less possible over the years as Anglicans introduced new obstacles into our relations with the Catholic Church. The publication of Anglicanorum Coetibus [by Pope Benedict in 2009] was like a lifeline, and I thought it was an incredibly generous solution to those of us who wished to be in communion with the Holy See whilst honoring and retaining our Anglican history and patrimony.
CWR: Is it difficult to have a young family and an active ministry?
Msgr. Newton: The majority of the clergy of the Church of England are married. While it is always a challenge to balance commitment to full-time Christian ministry and family life, it is not impossible. Within the Anglican system, the family is very much part of parish life, an image for the congregation of the domestic church. It can be difficult for the children, as often parishioners put unrealistic expectations upon them: that they should behave in a particular way and perhaps not be like other children. My children coped with this very well, and were always used to people coming in and out of the house for meetings or for parish social events which took place within our home. I think if you understand being a priest and being married as totally intertwined, then there should be little problem.
CWR: Some in the Catholic Church believe the Latin-rite Church should end the practice of mandatory celibacy for its priests arguing, among other things, that it would alleviate the priest shortage in some areas. As a married priest yourself, do you have any thoughts on this?
Msgr. Newton: The fact that I and many other former Anglican clergy are married priests is a pastoral exception, only granted by the Holy Father himself. Within the Latin rite, of which the ordinariate is a part, the norm is priestly celibacy, and I do not think that it is the responsibility of those of us who are married to put any pressure to change this discipline.
However, it is a discipline rather than a doctrine and within the Eastern rite churches in communion with the Holy See, many priests are married. I do personally think it is not impossible to be married and a priest, however, I think the Church needs to be clear that having married priests would not necessarily be a sinecure for the problem of the lack of vocations. If the Church did have a discussion about the possibility of married clergy in some particular places, we would of course have something to offer to that discussion, but at present that is not on the table.
Nevertheless, a married priesthood is very much part of the Anglican patrimony from which we came. Having said that, I think it is important to recognize that within the Anglican Communion, many clergy marriages break down, not least because of the pressures on clergy wives. If they simply see their husband’s ministry as a job like any other job, they would find it very difficult to understand why it takes up so much time. For the most part, it is impossible to divide your life as a priest from your life within the family. In addition, I believe that those who are married to priests in some sense have to share that vocation, not in terms of doing particular ministerial work, but in sharing his understanding of his priesthood and what the Church expects. It does need a very particular and committed person to be able to do this for the whole of her life. It is a sacrifice she shares with her husband.
CWR: Are many of your clergy married? What challenges does this pose for the Church in terms of paying salaries to support families and funding retirements?
Msgr. Newton: About two-thirds of our clergy are married. This does create some challenges, as we try to ensure that everybody would have almost the same allowance as they would if they had remained in the Church of England. Those working in diocesan parishes are often given some extra money to help with their families, but most find that they can manage. Of course, none of them are particularly well off.
Retirement is much more of a concern for us. Older priests, such as me, will have our Church of England pension, which we can take when we reach 65 years of age. But I am concerned that we make provision for the younger clergy. We have set up a Clergy Relief Trust in order to put money aside for clergy retirements or the sick. We are trying to explore ways in which this fund can be increased over the coming years.
CWR: How has the Church of England changed over the course of your life?
Msgr. Newton: The Church of England has changed a great deal in the course of my life. In my younger days, the Anglican Communion was held together by a common order of bishops, priests, and deacons, a commonly held creed, and traditional understanding of moral values. Many of these things have changed over the last 40 or 50 years.
The ministry is very different now, as women are ordained both to the priesthood and to the episcopate. The language with which I was familiar to describe Christian ministry in terms of the priesthood is now not often seen in official documents which talk merely of Christian ministry. In addition, although there were always differences between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics and the broad church in the middle, I think there was a common understanding about revelation and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, even if there were differences about the understanding of the sacraments. I am not sure that is now the case and many people within the Church have varying views about what I would understand as the very core foundation of the Christian faith and the authority of Holy Scripture. This is particularly obvious over moral questions such as divorce and remarriage, abortion, and now particularly same-sex “marriage.” It is certainly not the Church that I recognize from my younger days.
CWR: Why did you decide to leave the Church of England and become Roman Catholic?
Msgr. Newton: The media often think that those who left the Church of England in the early 90s when women were ordained to the priesthood and then with the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus did so simply over the issue of ordination of women. It is true that this was the presenting issue, but it was a symptom rather than the malaise. The question really was over authority: who has the authority to change the practice of the universal Church and to alter its doctrine?
Over the years, as I have said, the Church of England has changed a good deal, whereas the Catholic Church holds on to the apostolic faith as expressed in its catechism. I felt as an Anglican bishop I could no longer encourage young men to be ordained in a church which was not clear about its teachings, both on doctrine and morals, and where one parish would teach something diametrically opposed to another. There are, of course, differences and nuances within the Catholic Church, but it is clear what the faith is and how it is expressed within the liturgy and within its teachings enshrined in the catechism. I felt no longer at home in the Church of England.
Those of us who held to traditional views on these issues were tolerated but often marginalized. It was clear to me when the apostolic constitution was published that this was the way my life must go in the future. As I said, I had always prayed for union with the Apostolic See, but I never imagined it would happen quite in this way.
CWR: What were some of the difficulties you encountered in the transition?
Msgr. Newton: I must say, for me, becoming a Catholic was much easier than I thought, probably because I was a bishop within the Church of England and I was chosen by the Holy Father to be the ordinary of this new structure within the Catholic Church. There was some uncertainty about where we would live for some time, but that was all sorted out in a very satisfactory way. I think it was much more difficult for priests who followed me. I needed to find accommodation and also some financial support in order for them to live, particularly if they were married with a family. I think they were the ones that were really courageous and sacrificial, rather than me.
There have been other difficulties for us. Although we have been welcomed by very many people in the Catholic Church who see the ordinariate as a great gift, others have found it difficult to understand and some think it is an ecumenical setback. We still have some people who will say to us: “Why can’t you become proper Catholics?” as though the ordinariate is not a part of the Catholic Church just as the dioceses, religious communities, or the Eastern rites are. We are still trying, I think, to explain the purpose of the ordinariate to many people in the wider Catholic Church, but I do think it has tremendous ecumenical implications for the future. Its significance is more important than its size. This is the first time in the history of the Church that an ecclesiastical community forged in the years of the Reformation, or at least part of it, has been brought back into the full communion of the Catholic Church whilst retaining some aspects of the faith that nurtured its members. That really is an important model for any ecumenical conversations. We describe it as being “united but not absorbed,” which has always been the aim of discussions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics over the last 50 years.
CWR: What liturgy is used in the ordinariate?
Msgr. Newton: The apostolic constitution is very clear that as well as the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman rite, ordinariate priests and congregations can use specific liturgies provided by the Holy See. We now have our own missal, which uses parts of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer but also has options to use in English some parts which are familiar from the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite, such as prayers at the foot of the altar, traditional offertory prayers, and the Last Gospel. The language of the liturgy, and also of the occasional offices of baptism, marriage, and funeral, is traditional, in which God is addressed in Elizabethan English, using “Thou” rather than “You.”
Not all the groups use Divine Worship but more are using it than I had expected, and there is a growing interest in taking up the use of the missal. There is also a traditional attitude to music. Most of our congregations will use the English Hymnal, a selection of traditional hymns which are appreciated by many people.
CWR: What are your hopes for the future in regards to the ordinariate? What help do you need?
Msgr. Newton: My hope is for us to acquire some church buildings where the life of the ordinariate can be lived out to the full. This is often quite difficult when we are guests in Catholic parishes. We already own one church in Torbay, which has become our first ordinariate parish in England and Wales, and we are looking into the possibility of some others in the future.
The church here at Our Lady of the Assumption Warwick Street has been dedicated to the life of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham although it is still a parish of the archdiocese, and we still use the Roman missal for some Masses. The main Mass on Sunday is according to [our own missal], celebrated ad orientem, and other Masses during the week are according to our own missal.
I would really like some bishops to offer us churches, particularly when they are finding it necessary to close down some parishes. I think this is probably the only way that the ordinariate is going to grow. When we have control of a building it can be a center not only of the liturgy according to the ordinariate’s own forms, but also to be a base for our whole mission and evangelization.
CWR: What is the state of the Church of England today?
Msgr. Newton: I don’t know much about the present Church of England except what I read in the papers. Obviously congregations are falling, though there are many ordinations, particularly as there are a large number of women coming forward for ordination. There is a problem with property as there is a great deal of it in the Church of England and much of it is underused.
Although the Catholic Church has larger congregations, though not so many, I think we should not become complacent. The numbers, particularly in cities, are large mainly because of people who have moved to these islands either from Eastern Europe, or from Africa, the Philippines, and elsewhere. We all need to be more positively evangelistic.
CWR: How is Christianity doing in the UK today? Is England more secular than it was a few generations ago?
Msgr. Newton: Certainly England seems to be a much more secular society than it was a few generations ago. There have been several moves within society to introduce practices which are not in conformity with traditional Christian views, such as same-sex “marriages,” but this is a problem all over the world.
It is troubling, however, that recently, in our general election, one political leader was challenged again and again about his Christian faith and he eventually resigned because he believed it would be incompatible to live out his Christian life and be a leading politician. This is very worrying. In the future, Christians who hold traditional moral values will be found difficult to understand by those outside the faith. We have a witness to give but it will need courage and faith.