ROBBIE LOW: THE INTERVIEW

George Austin

 

DARK IS GATHERING. Along the Goodramgate and down the Shambles the shop lights have been going out one by one. The last dying light of a sunshot winter day has retreated across the great moors and a light dusting of snow is beginning to flicker around the massive grace of the Minster. St William's College has shut its doors behind the last group of Keble Conference revellers who have enjoyed an intellectual and historical feast on the Oxford Movement, courtesy of Cost of Conscience and Frs Davage and Macnab of Pusey House.

A black Mondeo eases its way across the cobbled yard to rescue me from the icy wind. Overnight bag in the back and thermal coverings removed, I sink into the warm and classical music-filled air next to George Austin, Archdeacon of York. A figure emerges from the dark to the driver's window. It is a very senior lay employee of the diocese.

'I'm sorry to hear you're retiring, George.'

'It's the right time,' he replies.

'Well, I am really sorry. We'll miss you. We need people like you around'.

The disappointment is genuine, the praise is sincere.

As we begin the quarter of an hour journey out to the little village where Austin has made his home and intends to retire, I asked him if the man was one of ours.

'It's the first time he's ever given an indication of what he really thinks. It's not only difficult for clergy in the current political climate, you know.'

By the time we arrive home, it is snowing hard. Bobbie, Austin's wife of 37 years, wraps us round some mugs of hot tea in front of a warm fire and puts the finishing touches to a delicious meal. They are keen to catch up on parish news and old friends, many of whom they have kept in touch with. Austin was my predecessor at St Peter's, Bushey Heath, for over eighteen years and, though he's been gone eleven years now, we have always kept in touch. Though initially unappreciative of Austin's legacy, there were two significant turning points in my assessment of his ministry. One was, after a year, reading through a pile of his old sermons - they were all solidly biblical. The second was, about three years in, when it became apparent that the significant pillars on which I was able to support and develop the ministry here were all people that had been faithfully and carefully prepared by him He planted, I watered. If I've done anything like as good a planting as Austin, my successor, whenever, will be blessed indeed.

Well fed and watered, I was informed that no interview could begin until after the ritual observance of Coronation Street. (This was like being at home with my parents!) Eventually released from the inadequate heirs of the great Violet Carson and Doris Speed, we trudged out to the long, low outbuilding which Austin had made a garage at one end and a study, interview room and retreat at the other. Comfortably settled in our chairs between walls of books and Archdeacons' files, I asked him:

Where did you begin?

'I was born in Bury in Lancashire in 1931. It was a typical mill town - most people worked there. My earliest memory is of the clip clop of clogs going past as hundreds of men passed our house on the way to work each day. Back a generation or two before that, my forebears were Cornish fishermen.'

What about your parents?

'My father was a turner and fitter by trade but had become a wholesaler and retailer of tobacco. When the war started, he was 39 and he volunteered for the Navy. They wanted him to run the NAAFI but he told them his trade and he was sent to work for Ferrantis on gyroscopes for torpedoes in a converted weaving shed ten minutes' walk from our house. My mother took over the shop and it opened a whole new world to her - no longer dominated by Grandma.'

(Anyone who has read Austin's auto-biography, Journey to Faith, will recall Grandma as the black shadow over the family home. 'I was convinced she was a witch,' George recalls, 'and, as a little boy, was sure I caught her transforming back into her normal shape one day!')

'Mum and I used to meet for chips every lunch time at the United Cattle Products Cafe - though I never ate tripe!'

Austin's love of food (he's an excellent cook) has never left him. Bobbie has fought a long battle to regulate his diet and, although he's two stone lighter than when we last met, he's never been entirely free of what the horizontally challenged call 'S.A.S.' (Snack Attack Syndrome).

School?

'St Chad's Church School, then Bury High School. I became School Captain though I was not good at anything and worse at sport. I got six credits in school certificate but not enough passes at higher. I loved English. The teacher, Dippy Bryant, took us to see Wolfit in Lear at Manchester Opera. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the theatre. Bobbie and I go wherever we can and make our annual pilgrimage to Stratford.'

Where next?

'I wanted to join the RAF as air crew but, after a few months of national service, they said my medical showed a spot on the lung which might be tubercular and discharged me. The Medical Officer asked me what I would do and I told him I would be a priest. He seemed more troubled by that than by the threat of T.B.'

Why a priest?

'The vicar and the curate had both challenged me about vocation after I was confirmed and the conviction never went away though I tried hard to escape it.'

Was your family 'church'?

'My mother was a Baptist who prayed and read Scripture daily but never went to church because of grandma. My father had been impressed by a local preacher and started going to church. I joined him for a Harvest Festival in the hope of meeting some girls from the local school. In the event, it didn't help my love life but I got confirmed.'

Where next?

'Lampeter, aged 19, as an ordinand. I loved West Wales. St David's Cathedral - the pearly gates will be like the West Front and the inside is like heaven. You weren't allowed any women in your room - not even a sister. This didn't stop fraternising with local girls and I think half the clergy wives in Wales are probably Lampeter girls.

I discovered I needed to go to Mass every day and this made me a catholic. Evangelical friends prayed for my conversion and this made me even more catholic. I owe the Society of St David (now the Anglican Society) a great deal and have been very grateful for friends from those days like Noel Jones (now Bishop of Sodor and Man.). I made my first confession there before going on to Chichester.'

Why Chichester?

'There were good teachers there like John Moorman (Church History) and Lowther-Clarke (Old Testament). It was straightforward English Catholic - no Romanism. I was told not to apply for Westcott or Cuddesdon because I wasn't public school!'

Curacies?

'My first one was at Chorley but it wasn't a happy experience - a mismatch really. The Vicar of Bury put me on to Notting Dale in London where I went for three and a half wonderful years under Ronald Arthur. My time there coincided with the riots and the media descended. Rosamund Essex (Editor of The Church Times) knocked on my door and asked me for 1500 words by the day after tomorrow.' (George Austin the journalist was born - a talent that was later to blossom also in his son, Jeremy.) 'Next day I was on a TV panel with Tom Driberg MP and then the producer of the epilogue contacted me and I did that for six years.'

And then?

'A year in London University Chaplaincy. I wasn't a particularly good chaplain but Ivor Smith-Cameron, who was very conservative then, told me I'd survive if I steered clear of the senior chaplain, Gordon Phillips. He was a brilliant preacher but rather eccentric. I fell foul of him and, thank God, ended up for four of the happiest years of my life at Dunstable Priory under Christopher Mackonochie. He was a wonderful trainer of priests - gave you confidence to do the job. Eight of his choirboys were ordained!'

It was here, at an Epiphany party, that life changed dramatically. Dennis King, a curate friend from a neighbouring parish asked if he could bring 'a beautiful blonde'. He did. George was smitten and desperate to know if she was Dennis's girlfriend. She wasn't. George collected her from the school where she was a teacher, skipped evensong and met her three times in six days. On the sixth day, he proposed to Bobbie and she said 'yes'. The wedding was six months later to the beautiful Missa de Angelis and thus began one of the happiest clergy marriages I have encountered. The Priory was George's ideal of Anglicanism: Prayer Book Catholic; the faith taught; beautiful music.

'Then to Eaton Bray. You went where you were told in those days. At first it was a difficult time and then it all changed and we had good, happy years there and still have friends in the parish.'

What made it change?

'I discovered a big PCC ledger, going back years, which faithfully recorded how they had resisted or undermined a succession of clergy and missioners over many years. I read it out to them so they could see the pattern and overnight the atmosphere changed.'

And then on to the centre of Christendom - St Peter's Bushey Heath?

'Yes, 1970. Bishop John Trillo asked me to go and look at Bushey Heath. I was grilled by my wardens - they really cared and wanted to get it right. One of those wardens was Alan Taylor.'

Taylor is typical of George's inheritance and legacy. Thirty-five odd years of faithful service and responsible for so much of the drive and enthusiasm that surrounds the parish priest. He is not alone - a remarkable number of that PCC and that vintage are still here and very active and faithful.

'St Peter's was in the vanguard of lay ministry, reading, serving, teaching, administering the chalice, doing baptism and marriage preparation etc. I loved my eighteen years on the Heath. I've always loved being a parish priest - part of a great family, watching them grow. (In the kitchen there are photos of old friends from the parish with their latest grandchildren.)

What was St Alban's diocese like in 1970?

'A lovely diocese, the envy of the C. of E. People would tell you how lucky you were to be in a good catholic diocese with such wonderful pastoral care from the bishops. You will know as well as I do how tragically all that changed in the Runcie and Taylor years.'

It would be hard to exaggerate Austin's dislike of Runcieism. His assumption of personal gentrification, his ambition, his apparent lack of conviction about much else and the way he seemed to play the patronage system as an old pals club have been the subject of many of Austin's most outspoken comments. Those who regarded these assessments as personal malice must have been stunned to find them substantially confirmed from the horse's mouth in Carpenter's withering biography.

You stayed a long time?

'Yes, but after 14 years I knew it was time to move on and confided in my wardens. Moving, it turned out, was not easy.'

As Austin was a well known figure on Synod, a writer and broadcaster of national repute, this may seem strange. Appointments proved elusive. A major London appointment was vetoed by liberal patrons, 10 Downing Street intervened to replace him for another senior appointment. As this is something that Prime Ministers do not do without advice from the Episcopal hierarchy, a familiar pattern was beginning to emerge. He was asked to apply for a Theological College and then not even short-listed. A friend on the Crown Appointments Commission vouchsafed: 'Every time you get put forward for something, it's vetoed.'

Only last year, an old friend said how disappointed he was that George had never taken up the senior appointment he had been offered at the cathedral. This was the first time George ever knew about it. It had been declined on his behalf! Later on, Austin himself sat on the Crown Appointments Commission. So I asked him:

What's it like?

'The system is corrupt. The problem is secrecy - not confidentiality. I've seen references for men I've known for thirty years and you wouldn't recognise them. Good people are rubbished in the nicest possible way, 'A good man but...'. I used to come home and watch that episode of 'Yes, Minister' about Episcopal appointments. It ceased to be funny because it was too near the truth: character assassination by evasion, innuendo and half truth.'

But then, suddenly, York?

'Yes. As you know, I was off to St Leonard's, Flamstead, a beautiful village church and holy place. I was quite happy to go there and we'd already planned the kitchen and study. York came out of the blue.'

Didn't you say it was like being sent to Siberia?

'Never. The newspapers said that. They said that, instead of being 'promoted, I was being punished for believing too firmly and standing up to the Establishment. John Habgood and I had had some very public disagreements but had remained friends. I agonised about it for three months before finally accepting. The very first synod I attended I had to speak against the Archbishop. So I went and saw him afterwards and said how sorry I was to have to do that. He just smiled and said, 'Nonsense. That's why I appointed you!'

You're obviously very fond of him.

'Yes and I admire him. He was a big enough man to have all views round his table. He had a vision of the church that would enable us to live together in this strange compromise and set an example to the world that, in spite of our differences, we could walk in the House of the Lord together as friends. Sadly most bishops have not honoured that vision from day one and, as they have destroyed that opportunity, so they will be judged for it'.

Have you enjoyed being Archdeacon?

'I've loved it. I never thought I would. I thought of all the Archdeacons I'd suffered under and remembered Basil Snell who'd been a good man - vicar to the vicars - and I've tried to follow that pattern. It's a very pastoral job done properly and yet you hold history in your hands in all these churches. The other day I was holding a chalice that was used by Charles I.'

Talking of Charles - will there be a third?

'That all came about by accident. I was asked: If Charles had a mistress or was divorced, would that present problems? I said: Yes. Some people will ask about the seriousness of his vows. The heavens opened just as I went to spend three days with the Archbishops - they were not thrilled.'

So what now?

'It would be weak of the church to change the rules for them. They mustn't do that. We can't pretend Camilla doesn't exist and she's clearly the love of his life. The best solution would be a civil marriage and a dedication service. People will not accept her as queen but they would accept her as consort, Duchess of Lancaster, for example. In those circumstances, I suspect he will make a good King.

Can Establishment survive?

'I'm not in favour but, if it does, some aspects must change. The oath of allegiance insulting the Pope is offensive. The oath of bishops to hand over the spiritualities is deeply offensive. 'We have no king but Caesar' is not a Christian sentiment. We have to overturn the scandalous Lightman judgement which puts worship and doctrine in State hands. The Establishment was so keen for Lightman not to question women priests that they didn't make a peep when he robbed the church of its history, doctrine and authority.'

Do you think the Archbishops' Council will restore CofE fortunes?

'It's beyond me how General Synod has handed over its power. There are some very dangerous people on the Council and it is not at all representative of the C. of E.'

A critical liberal journalist once remarked that 'getting an opinion out of George Austin is like getting blood out of an artery.' Such witty or even rude comments and cartoons can be found on Austin's study walls as a source of amusement. What people may not know is that for many years, Austin has replied to press enquiries by suggesting they speak to a bishop first and, only when they cannot get a comment, come back to him.

It is also worth noting that, in his 25 years on Synod, years on Church Commissioners and Crown Appointments, few people know the C. of E. better. His decades in press and radio mean that he has met and had to do with a huge number of politicians and journalists.

His extensive travels in the world church have given him a tremendous insight into the state of the battle, continent by continent. His comments are often controversial but they are never dull.

How do you cope with the pressure of controversy?

'I've always had the ability to switch off, pull up a chair and have a snooze or watch some TV. It's Bobbie that has really hated it.'

And will you really cease to speak on the CofE after August?

'Yes. I shall be one of yesterday's men and it's time for other people to speak up now.'

What will you do in retirement?

'Stay in Yorkshire - we both love it. Cook, go to the theatre and finish my novel.

Novel?

'Set in 2026 in a church near you.'

So you will still be controversial?

'I recently did a Yorkshire cookery programme, which I very much enjoyed. At the end of it, I said to the producer how nice it was to be doing something uncontroversial. She replied, 'A recipe that includes Lancashire cheese, bacon, banana and mustard could not be described by anyone as uncontroversial.'

 

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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