IT MUST BE NEARLY four years since Bishop Lindsay Urwin and I agreed that he would be the subject of a New Directions interview. Finally, at a recent meeting of the Church Union, of which he is the President and has been preparing major plans for its renewal, we got our diaries out and got serious. So it was on a grey January morning that I found myself, on what used to be British Railways, heading for Gatwick Airport station where the Bishop had kindly agreed to pick me up.
It occurred to me that the last time I had been on this train had been pre-dawn, replete with Sara, three children and hernia-inducing amounts of luggage, on the first stage of a wonderful Mastersun holiday to the Turkish coast. Though the immediate destination was certainly not as romantic, a solitary railway journey is one of those rare times when, free from the persecution of the telephone and the inevitable daily demands of family and parish life, you are free to think about not very much for an unusually long period.
Outside the station the Episcopal car was waiting, complete with "Bishop on Call" sign and warm smile and handshake.
Urwin is small, warm and intense with sparkly eyes. There is a seriousness and directness about him which is not oppressive because it so often bubbles over into enthusiasm. We were scarcely five minutes into the car ride when we were deep into a conversation about mission - it's his speciality and I'd just been scouting part of Kent for the Walk of 1000 Men there in 1999.
The Bishop's house is the old gate house of an estate now developed into splendid retirement apartments, ironic for the youngest episcopal appointment in recent years. Relations on the whole were pretty good, he assured me, though there had once been a complaint about the inappropriate brevity of his secretary's skirts he added with much amusement. Ready, as ever, to give my view on matters of such importance, I was disappointed when a charming and attractive lady greeted us - wearing trousers!
I was ushered into a large room with, in pride of place, St. Augustine of Hippo's great statements on the task of a chief pastor. As the third or fourth one down is "to rebuke agitators" I felt truly premonished. On a more serious note, Augustine's statement is one of the great guidelines and, as I later discovered, Urwin keeps it there as a daily reminder and inspiration to his ministry.
Across a coffee table over a steaming pot of Colombian I asked him:
WHERE DID YOU BEGIN?
"Australia. I was one of six children in a christian household. My dad was an accountant and had been a Church Warden of a country parish outside Melbourne. Mum was a Catering Manager at the hospital and played the organ at evensong. One of my earliest religious experiences was hearing mum on the harmonium in the back room playing "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so". We pretty much all went ,though Dad drifted away after he had an accident and lost an eye. He said it was because the Vicar never visited but I think he'd become spiritually dry".
DID YOU EVER DRIFT AWAY?
"I did experiment with giving up for one month but I'd joined the choir at 11 and that kept me in. I taught myself the organ and got involved with some of the youth work later on".
WAS IT A CATHOLIC PARISH?
"No. Very low church - north end! I was intrigued by a man in the choir who crossed himself and there was a man who wore a lace cotta. I wanted one of those. Then an Anglo Catholic couple took me to the Holy Week liturgy at St. Peter's, Eastern Hill - the dawn vigil, everything. That was my introduction. But I've always been grateful for a bible-based Sunday School background. It's hugely important for the way I see faith now".
WERE YOU GOOD AT SCHOOL?
"Yes. I did my A levels at 16 and then deferred university because I wasn't very confident socially. I loved history and wanted to do that but I spent my year out in the Civil Service and meantime the Vicar and Curate at the church persuaded me to read theology at Melbourne".
WHAT DO YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS DO?
"Michael is the Headmaster of an Anglican School, Julia is a medical librarian in the States, Justin and Tim run a printing business and Katie is a priest".
THAT MUST BE DIFFICULT FOR YOU?
"It's taught me how to disagree in a Christian way. All of us are practising Anglicans, in fact Justin was converted walking to Walsingham".
WHAT ABOUT SPORT?
"I liked playing hockey. I also coached a kids Australian football team. Conversations at home were either about home improvements or Aussie rules football. The family team is the Hawthorne Hawks. It would be unimaginable to support anyone else".
"I lived at home and studied at Trinity, Melbourne. The Bishop, James Grant, was very good, treated me like an aspirant. I knew I wanted to be a priest but not quite yet. Being too young was catching up with me! I saw the Bishop and he told me to "go out and sin a bit!". Go and learn that you need to be forgiven. Good advice. Omnicompetent clergy are no advertisement for grace.
So I went to St. Mark's, Fitzroy a tough inner city parish while working back in the Civil Service.
The Vicar, Fr. Michael King, was a huge influence. It was modern catholic, social gospel, open church and vicarage, daily mass, high profile, imaginative use of buildings, delight in the oddballs. It was also my first exposure to the celibate model of ministry".
HOW DID YOU COME TO BE IN ENGLAND?
"I just woke up one morning and decided to go. I intended to visit the Franciscans but simply ended up in London. I had two contact phone numbers. I arrived, got digs in Bayswater and walked to St. Paul's Cathedral across the living monopoly board of London. It was a boyhood dream. There, in the cathedral that day, were the two men whose phone numbers I had been given, Canon Dunstan and an ordinand working as a part-time verger, Nigel Kirkup. Absolutely providential.
I got a job in Harrods for 3 weeks before Canon Dunstan introduced me to Fr. Martin Heal and I got a flat at St. Mary Magdalene, Munster Square in return for being barman in the crypt club and playing the organ. Members of that congregation were tremendously supportive and have remained in touch.
WHEN DID YOU PURSUE THE NEXT STAGE?
"I was behind the bar in the club and a young girl said to me one day. "I hate .......ing Priests. Priests are ..........ing hypocrites". I said, "I'm going to be one" and she said "Then I'll hate you too". I wrote to the Bishop that day."
WHERE DID YOU TRAIN?
"Well, Staggers (St. Stephen's House, Oxford) and Mirfield were full, Kings was not me and Chichester turned me down. A senior prelate had said to me "Don't go to bloody Cuddesdon" but I was reading a book on Bishop King and got to the chapter on Cuddesdon and wrote off to it. It wasn't an easy place to be a catholic and I had a love hate relationship with the college but I came through it".
"Difficult time. I wanted to stay in England - Melbourne wanted me back and so, in order to stay, I had to pay them back.
I served my title at St. Peter's Walworth under Fr. Paul Jobson, a fascinating guy though we're much better friends now I'm not his curate. I lived over the Wimpy, ran the mixed race discos, parish school, East Street market, vibrant, teeming, classic inner city stuff. I was not an easy curate - full of my own ideas.
Then I was loaned, part time, to Bishop Michael Marshall as his Chaplain. I was very much influenced by his preaching. It exposed me to the life of a bishop and its loneliness. There's a temptation to feel only as good as your last "performance". You have to sort out what is important. I tend to confirm midweek so I can go to parishes on Sunday and join the "ordinary " worship too. I like to see priests in their parish, at home, kids going off to school, all that. With six of us we used to eat off the ironing board. Then an hour with the priest and round the parish. A wise old Bishop once said to me, you must look at your clergy as they were on the day of their ordination and rekindle that zeal.
It's going to be the same for the Lambeth fathers. Forget the issues and reclaim the apostolic gifts or the church cannot pastor or teach".
Urwin is passionate about these things and this passion lies behind the Caister annual event - one of the major morale boosters for Catholics since the annus horibilis of 1992. The gifts, he argues, are already given, at our fingertips. Whatever chaos or destruction is going on the special power to do God's work remains. The sacramental life and the real presence is given - let's proclaim it.
"Let's rediscover our roots" - he's a constant reader of the early fathers of the church - "Read Chrysostom on the education of children - spot on. Why do we have difficulty believing someone might have been wiser in a former age?"
And preaching ........ "We have to look every which way to get to the nation. Preaching is a place of encounter - crucial to evangelising. We are diminished as a movement by a lack of preaching. We limit ourselves in case we're bored after 10 minutes instead of being moved after 5 and whoever said worship was an hour - no film, opera or soccer match only lasts an hour - giving time is a witness and in good worship you don't notice time".
WHERE WERE YOU VICAR?
"St. Faith's, Redpost Hill. 80% council estate, shared with the Methodists - a relatively small congregation. It was a sink or swim job. Looking back I feel sorry for the people there, I dragged them from pillar to post to achieve a steady growth and stability and raise £1/2 million for a parish hall, community and education centre. I sat on the floor in Southwark Borough Council 'till we got the money. It was an exciting five years, pilgrimages, youth work, open house vicarage, collaborative ministry. A Priest has to be a loving prophet.
Sometimes you need to break out of traditions - you can have tambourines and incense. Worship should lift you beyond and encourage fullness. We're too prissy by half".
AND SUDDENLY DIOCESAN MISSIONER?
"Yes. The Bishop asked me. I felt guilty at leaving St. Faith's unfinished but missioner was a wonderful job. It was helpful to know about being a priest with a small congregation too because so much of the job was the ministry of encouragement as well as preaching and teaching. Not there to be a rival or a star but a brother to the clergy. It allowed the evangelical side of me to emerge.
It also taught me that evangelical clergy tend to be won from the Nave, catholic clergy are won from the Sanctuary, one of fathers' boys. Being missioner dragged me into the nave.
AND THEN SUDDENLY AT 39 A BISHOP?
"It was a surprise to many people, I know. It was a surprise to me too. I'd been looking to go back to a parish and had just asked about one.
Bishop Eric asked me to be Bishop of Horsham. I felt a deep unsureness and asked for time to think and pray. Bishop Eric said that was fine and the consecration would be on this date.
Actually I decided in Westminster Cathedral during the singing of the Salve Regina and faxed Bishop Eric saying "I hope it won't be too much of a vale of tears for both of us".
WHAT DO THE LETTERS O.G.S. STAND FOR?
"Oratory of the Good Shepherd. It's a world wide detached order for those who try to live the religious life in the apostolic ministry in the world. We belong to chapters, share a vision and retreat together. One hour's silent prayer a day and total consecration of life. It's helped me enormously, not least with the loneliness of the celibate life".
THIS IS A BIG ISSUE IN TODAY'S CHURCH?
"Of course. While there is certainly ferment, disagreement in our Church about how Christians may appropriately form relationships and express and explore their sexuality, for a bishop there can be little question as to his response. It would be untenable for a bishop to fail in this matter. I'm a celibate bishop - there is no other option. Whether heterosexual or homosexual or the grey in between, a bishop has no choice. The Church has a right to expect that he will be an example to the flock.
He may have all the compassion in the world for others; be sympathetic, tolerant and respectful to those who feel unable to embrace the Church's teaching, and number them among his dearest friends. In his own mind he may even wonder about the current stand of the Church on marriage or homosexuality, but if he accepts the gift of episcopacy, his personal duty is clear. Whatever the wonderings and wanderings of his former life, for which he must repent, as a bishop he must embrace the discipline of chastity as a gift.
As a single person, my life as an Oratorian has helped immeasurably as I come to terms with its aloneness, but it is a hard way. Of course I need people's prayers, encouragement, and I need my friends. And like every celibate, I need people to honour and trust my commitment to it as a way of life. Sadly, it is my experience that the response is often cynical or unbelieving.
This submission which seems to me to be part of being a bishop, is not just to the moral life as traditionally understood, but to the apostolic doctrine too, and the evangelistic imperative, which were so much a part of the life of the early bishops."
YOU'VE LARGELY PRE-EMPTED MY QUESTION ABOUT THE KUALA LUMPUR STATEMENT.....
"What Kuala Lumpur shows is that our church needs a catechism. We have a problem in the way the church tackles moral issues.
The Roman Catholic Catechism sets everything in the context of the saving work of Christ. Then it moves on to our response and then to sacramental grace - how to deal with human failure.
You can only cope with ideals in that context. Issues and lobbies and counter lobbies end up dealing with particular peoples sins. When I haven't lived up to the ideal I go to confession. Our ideals and our dusty humanity always live in tension. But we must avoid the modern cultural trap of - "if it feels good - do it". Feelings are not ideals. Arguing that because I like doing something or there are lots of good people who like doing something doesn't make it right.
But we need to be equally serious about other scriptural demands too. For example the bible makes it abundantly clear that a man who has unruly children cannot govern his own household, cannot be a bishop over the household of the church either. We don't hear much about that".
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TEMPTED TO GO TO ROME?
"Yes. But I have to follow my calling here as a bishop. I have a great respect for Protestants but I don't want to be one and I don't have rose tinted spectacles about Rome. I am clear that the Anglican church needs a catechism - if it can't do that it's not a church. And if we don't want the papacy in its present form we would have to acknowledge that it has maintained unity in a way that has utterly eluded protestantism.
I'm not someone who can say "do that and I'm out of here" because I take the Ezekiel passage about the shepherding very seriously but I do worry about our church elevating provincial autonomy above communion and doing things so contrary to the unity upon which the very task of evangelisation depends. The Church of England is delinquent in its behaviour at the moment. I can't collude with that but I can't walk away either because I love it and, like all delinquents, it has some wonderful good qualities about it".
WOULD WOMEN BISHOPS FORCE YOU OUT?
"I don't believe they are inevitable here at all. I don't agree that there is a theological case that says women priests must, sooner or later, produce women bishops".
WHAT'S YOUR VISION FOR THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND?
"That it would depend less on establishment as its motive for caring about everyone and be more trusting in the catholic gospel as its motivating force. I'm actually more concerned with the vision for my Episcopal area. I want vibrant local Christian communities so following the way of Christ that others will want to join the procession. Most people are won for Christ on a person to person basis and in community. Thankfully most people don't decide on the basis of the national church.
WOULD YOU FAVOUR DISESTABLISHMENT?
"I'd be happy to see it go. One of my heroes, Fr. Stanton, said "whoever heard of an established pilgrim?"
WOULD YOU SUPPORT A THIRD PROVINCE?
"I'm not opposed to a Third Province but I would have to ask, who is going to join? How practically do you decide? Also because this is not geographical but doctrinal it's hard to see how unity would remain. Then again I think this question may come up for the wider Communion at Lambeth this year as different provinces already have some of these differences of view. The problem of Anglican unity is not unique to England."
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese
of St. Alban's
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