Archbishop Peter Smith talks about the Apostles, the history of the Church and moving to Southwark
Full text of my interview with Archbishop Smith. I left out some sections because I was taking too long with transcribing. NB It is all pretty rough. If there are gramatical errors or spelling mistakes, please ignore them.
How does it feel to be coming home?
To be honest I have mixed feelings about it. I was well settled in Wales. It was a very sensitive situation when I first got there after the resignation of Archbishop Ward, so I got kind of parachuted in. It was quite difficult. But over the eight and a half years I’ve been there I’ve got to know the priests and the people. And they’re a great lot.
They’ve got a great faith and a great sense of humour. But I don’t think they could quite work me out as when I first came. They weren’t used to it I think. I’ll miss them an awful lot. It’s a much smaller diocese than this, not geographically but in terms of numbers which makes it easier for the bishop to get to know people. And the other thing when I went there was that there was virtually no relationship with the local media.
How did you do that?
It started with BBC Wales because before I ever got there –don’t take this the wrong way—I was on CRAC (Central Religious Advisory Committee), I think I had just been made chairman, and they phoned up and said could I come on to a programme called All Things Considered. Well I had no idea what that was and they said it goes out on a Sunday and I thought it was a five minute interview but it was half an hour. And anyway as I was at the BBC, the best time… got stuck in studio for 45 minutes. It’s only afterwards that I found out it wd be half an hour. At the end of it, the producer, she just sort of butted in before I took the headphones off and said ‘ Thank you so much for that. It’s a breath of fresh air. And I thought, ‘Well, it’s just me’.
Then the BBC Wales would ask me over the years on news programmes largely and prayer for the day and BBC Wales have a thought for the day on Friday called Weekend Words, a minute 58 seconds. I mean it was the Devil’s own job to do a little script for that. But they were very good and I felt very welcome there and when I was leaving they said they were very sad I was going and hoped that the new man would be as media friendly.
When I finished that last interview for them, the head of news was waiting for me outside. I’d never met him before. But he just said, ‘Thank you for being so willing to come in and talk, especially on difficult topics.’
From Cardiff I also got asked on the Today Programme, PM or the World at One. I’ve always said if I can help, I will. But I’ve always said I wont speak about off the top of me head. I said I want time to prepare because I don’t want to confuse you or the media or anyone listening. And I said I won’t speak about something about which I know nothing, because sometimes they did expect it. I said I don’t know anything about it. I would just confuse everybody. But anyway over the years it developed quite a lot. I thought there’ll be no one listening to this. But it’s amazing. There’d be people coming up who’d say, ‘ Oh I heard you on the radio. On BBC Wales or the Today Programme.’ They were quite chuffed about that in Cardiff I think. It gave the Church more prominence. Also with the civic side, the relationship with the National Assembly was really strained.
Largely I think because of the media campaign against Archbishop Ward, which was in some respects quite unfair, but there we are. So that all built up. I went to all these civic receptions I was invited to. Which can be quite tedious. You see I didn’t know anybody there at all.
And ended up having a great relationship with the assembly government who were really helpful in many ways. I commented on their draft legislation on spiritual care in hospitals. That was one of the last things we did and sending a robust response to their consultation document. Edwina Hart, the minister for health asked if we could have a chat about it. And all the points we made in the half hour were included in the final document. It was great.
So you really established yourself in Cardiff?
Oh yes. oF course much easier than it would be in London because Cardiff is much smaller. It’s like a big family. The city’s relatively small and the other good thing—which Rhodri Morgan the previous First Minister instituted—was what he called the inter-faith forum, which was gathering the faith leaders of the major religions with himself and other politicians to discuss matters of mutual interest. And from that grew the interfaith council with just the faith leaders together…
It was constructive?
Yes because more recently they had the British Defense League, a right wing organization very much against Muslims and they were going to have demonstrations. So the interfaith council organized a prayer vigil. In fact we stopped them from going to Newport altogether. There was something towards the end of this month where they were going to try to have another go…
Ecumenically we got on really well with the Christian bodies . I got on really well with Archbishop Barry Morgan. OF course when I first got there Archbishop Rowan Williams was there as Archbishop of Wales. And I got to know him quite well. We got on well together actually.
Then he got shifted. I pulled the BBCs leg on that one. When they said: Archbishop Williams is leaving, I said: Yes, I’m rather upset about that. They said: Oh why? And I said: ‘Well I was shot from East to West and he was shot in the opposite direction just after I’ve got to know him.’ So it’s nice actually to meet up with him here. I had a lovely handwritten note from him saying ‘It’s nice to know we shall be neighbours again.’
Did you learn any Welsh?
No. I didn’t. I did ask before I left East Anglia. I asked: “Do you think I should try Welsh?’ And the immediate reaction was, don’t think of it. It’s very complex language and you wont have the time. You will have a lot to do when you come down here. And they were absolutely right actually. There’s a Welsh channel called S4C and whenever I’d put on the the television—I don’t much because I don’t like many of the programmes, I would just flick through to S4C and try and follow. And even with the subtitles it was very difficult to follow. So even with the subtitles it’s a language like no other language I’ve learned. I’ve never been a linguist which was part of the problem…Archbishop Smith tells a story in which he taught himself to say the Eucharistic prayer in Welsh
What are the challenges facing you in Southwark?
It’s a much larger diocese than I’ve been used to in Cardiff with many more priests and also to get an understanding of how the diocese has changed over 30 or 40 years because, despite being a Southwark priest I’ve hardly ever worked in Southwark. I was ordained in 72. Had two years in a parish in what they used to call Larkwell Lane just behind Stockwell off the Wandsworth Road.
Then I was in Rome for three years and when I came back Archbishop Bowen had recently been appointed here and he sent me to the seminary to teach and to work up here on the marriage tribunal, so that was my connection with the diocese then for six and a half years. Then he asked me to go to Thornton Heath for a year. It was all kept deadly secret because he said ‘After that I want you to come back to the seminary to become rector. I’ve only ever wanted to be a parish priest really. Being in Thornton Heath for a year is a great parish, we had 2200 going to Mass in 84/85, one assistant priest who I’d taught in the seminary and one Eucharistic minister who was a holy sister in her 80s. So we had to create a parish council and get Eucharistic ministers and all the rest of it.
Anyway, then I went back to the seminary from 1985 to 1995 and I’d just arranged with Archbishop Bowen that I’d only do another year. I said: ‘I’ve been ten years this year, I think it’s time I got to a parish.’ And the next thing was I was summoned up here and asked if I’d be bishop of East Anglia. Accept the appointment.
So I haven’t had an intimate relationship with the diocese for many years now. But I popped round on Saturday to St Peter’s Home and we’ve got five retired clergy there, all of whom I know. And I was astonished meeting them. John Devane, great character—much thinner than he used to be. But they all looked extremely well. Though they’re no longer spring chickens—they’ve got sticks and all the rest of it but they’re in great form. And it was just lovely to meet them after so many years. So I mean that’s another challenge of getting round and renewing my acquaintance with a good number of the priests, many of whom I taught at seminary.
From what I’ve picked up so far is that there’s been a great deal more immigration in South London (there has always been immigration in South London). We have 40 ethnic chaplaincies in the diocese. Now I’ve got to get a grip of all that. I’ll need to consult the auxiliary bishops and the new vicar general when he’s appointed just to see, what are the real challenges of the diocese, what will we have to do. And I’m sure that here, like in other dioceses, there will be quite a lot to do on reorganizing parishes because of fewer priests. Compared with Cardiff we’ve got a huge number of priests here but then there are many many more parishes and people.
Again I’ve got to find out about ecumenical relationinships here. Interfaith relationships as well. So when everyone says, ‘oh well it’s fine you’re going back home and you know all about the diocese, in one sense yes, in another sense no, cause it’s changed. So I’ve got a lot of learning to do. And a lot of listening to do.
You’ve fought many battles on ‘life-issues’. What would you say is your greatest success? What your greatest disappointment?
We achieved an immense amount of good when we were dealing with the mental capacity bill. That in respect to the end of life issues was very badly drafted. And I think what the Government didn’t realize that there were appalling loopholes in it because they defined Euthanasia in terms of being a positive act—putting a needle in somebody and issuing them with a lethal dose. And looking through the draft bill, I said that the problem here is that you can have euthanasia by omission by not treating people properly or withdrawing treatment inappropriately. So there was a great hoo haa over that but it was the Government, senior civil servants, who asked us to go and see them. They were getting a lot of criticism from various groups about this. And we had an initial talk—can’t remember her name now—but she was very keen to know what was the Catholic Church’s view on the end of life. Were we vitalists? You know, keep the body going at whatever cost and whatever expense.
I said: ‘No the Church has never taken that view’ and gave them straight that there are times when it is perfectly moral and legitimate to withdraw treatment or to withhold it and that the Church’s position has always been, you don’t have to take extraordinary means’ was the old moral phrase—disproportionate means to keep somebody going when it was quite clear that someone was coming to their end of their lives and you just kept them comfortable. What you can’t never do morally is actually put someone to death. So we had about 18 months of discussions with the Lord Chancellor’s department. It was Lord Filkin to begin with and then Lord Falconer—Charlie Falconer—and we involved Professor John Finnis from Oxford who is very sharp on these things to propose amendments or point out things. They said, ‘We’re not promoting euthanasia’.
And we said, Unless you make that clear on the face of the bill. There were various amendments we were able to get in. Nothing in the act contradicted the homicide act or the assisted suicide act and the final thing was, we got a sentence in one of the clauses, whatever was done, it should never be done motivated by a desire to kill somebody. The treasury council wouldn’t accept the term ‘intent’ because it was a highly sophisticated legal argument about what you mean by purpose and intent and how do you prove it. It was Professor Finnis actually who managed to concoct the phrase which they finally accepted. The only thing we didn’t get through which we wanted was a stronger clause on somebody had done advanced directive with a suicidal attempt. We argued that any such advance directed..they wdn’t have that in the end. They said there was plenty of scope for a doctor, whether he’s in doubt. In an applicable advance directive…Still not very happy about that.
More recently the DPP guidelines on assisted suicide. We put in an very extensive response to the consultation and I felt for the man Kier Starmer because it was the silliness of the last judgement of the house of lords as it was. I mean to order the director of public prosecutions to spell out absolutely clearly when he would or wouldn’t prosecute. I said at the time, It’s totally absurd. You can’t have that and leave him any discression. You can give general guidelines but he’s got to have that lee-way and discression in each case because each case you have to look at individually. The poor man was stuck with it.
He couldn’t do anything but try and do it and he did his best and we criticized it. Not nastily. The clause for example, one of the reasons for not prosecuting was if the assistance was given by a spouse or close relative. We said not all spouses or close relatives have very pure motives, especially if there is money involved. I can’t remember now. There were four or five points. Anyway, got a very nice letter from him through Westminster, saying he’d very much like to see me. So we had an hour with him and he was—when I’d seen him on the television when this all blew up he struck me as a man of great integrity who’d been given an impossible job so I had respect for him. He’s not a man of faith in that sense and fair enough. But we had a very good discussion. He thanked us and said our contribution to all this was extremely helpful and we went through the various points. The only thing we couldn’t help him with in the end was when he said could you find a different word for compassion and interesting he asked that because you see the word compassion is often misused and certainly misperceived by many of the general public. You know there’s a nice warm glow.
Oh dear, we don’t want people to suffer so being compassionate is bumping them off.” The Latin root of compassion is to suffer with “cum passio”. You can’t do anything but you’re there with you. But couldn’t think of another word, nor could Professor David Jones. In the end he included the main four or five of the points we made he included in the final guidelines, which made it, I think, safer.
The disappointment was the HFE Bill. We knew we were on a very hard wicket because some of the scientists had convinced the then prime minister Gordon Brown that this was going to be the saving of the whole planet more or less. And we said no way. It was an argument on principle and we didn’t get very far with it.
None of the amendments the Church supported got through, did they?
No. But the saving grace when the bill did go through was that there were various attempts to alter the law on abortion to make it more liberal. It couldn’t be more liberal than it actually is in reality. And then some wanted to put amendments to reduce the number of weeks. But that was all. Because they were desperate to get this bill through. We did have a partial success with this bill in persuading them to give a free vote, because again, traditionally and rightly on issues like that all MPs shd have a free vote in conscience but it was a bit of a fudge. They only had a free vote but only on the second reading but not on the final vote.
Will the Church be able keep persuading the public by making its case against assisted suicide and euthanasia?
I hope we will. But we need to be very wary of some of the opinion polls that are being quoted because I think some of them are being generated by those who very much want to bring in assisted suicide.
And again the problem with opinion polls is that it depends on which questions you ask and whether people really understand the implications of saying yes or no. My own conviction is that among the medical profession there is no desire for a change in the law at all. There are some but the majority. The nurses have just gone neutral on it again. They did this once before and then the nurses themselves had a go and said ‘we don’t want that. We’re there to preserve life and make people whole again, not bump them off’.
They had their big meeting and decided they were going to be neutral on the issue which really is just a big cop out. But from our point of view it’s not a good sign. The thing is what we are trying to convey to the public is that this is not just a faith issue. There are many many people of no faith who are dead against assisted suicide because what its doing is opening up to some of the most vulnerable people in society to great danger. I’ve said often before, ‘the right to die becomes, before you know where you are, the duty to die. We saw that with the parallel situation with the abortion bill when that was set up in 1967. It was surrounded with restrictions and all the rest of it. This will be very limited, only in severe medical circumstances. I don’t understand why they want to liberalise abortion law because it is as liberal as it could get. I mean the thing of getting two doctors to sign is no longer for medical reasons, it’s for social reasons.
The problem, the people who say they’re pro-choice– my point is that many young women and older women are not actually given a choice.
The whole assumption is that if they go the doctor and they say, ‘Look I’m pregnant and I didn’t mean to be’. The whole assumption, as I’ve picked up anectdotally is that’s ok. You can have an abortion. There’s no attempt to sit them down and say, how do you feel about this? This is a human life. There’s abortion, but that’s actually killing a human being. You know might you consider the child, having it adopted?
They don’t have a choice and the child in the womb doesn’t have a voice either. And that is why the Church needs to stand up and be the voice for the voiceless and actually help women in those circumstances to have a proper choice. Because at the end of the day God’s given us freedom to do good or ill. And I’ve always supported the Life organisaiton because they offer very practical help and are very balanced about the whole thing. So again on assisted suicide and that sort of thing, I just don’t know. I’m quite certain there will be more attempts probably in the next few months.
Once this Parliament’s settled in, I’m sure they’ll try again and we’ll have to do our best, not shrieking with placards. I don’t think personally that does a lot of good. Others would disagree with me. We have to put forward reasoned and reasonable arguments, not just from a faith point of view but in terms of public policy and the dangers to society and people in it if such a law ever came in.
How do you think the Church in England and Wales stands in the public eye?
Difficult question to make a clear judgement on that just at the moment. Obviously with the child abuse scandal having been all over the press for the last four months or so that would inevitably have damaged the credibility of the Church in many people’s eyes. On the other hand there are many people who still look to the Catholic Church even though they are not catholics themselves for clear guidance on a lot of the social and moral issues, as do other Christians.
From my experience in Cardiff despite all this scandalous business and the inevitable humiliation we all feel because o f that, it did not noticeably affect my relationships with either the media or the assembly government or the interfaith council. I think there was a lot of sympathy in a sense because I think that sensible sound people know that abuse has been committed by a very very small minority of priests. We always said, ‘One’s too many but the vast majority of our priests are hard working holy men.’
But it’s shaken the confidence of ordinary Catholics because it’s all very embarrassing and of course goes clean contrary to what we’re trying to proclaim. But again part of the problem we have to deal with today is we have a society and particularly people in public office who have no idea what religion is. They just don’t understand it.
And time and again I’ve said to over the water there (nodding towards Westminster) that the Church isn’t an ecclesiastical version of Tescos or General Motors because they want to fit us into a business model. It isn’t that, it’s quite unique, the Church. There’s a lot of educating to do and we’ve been saying that for some time and that particularly amongst civil servants, the younger ones haven’t a clue. (Wales has much more sensible approach to faith)
Are Christian values facing a threat from an aggressively secular society?
Yes but if If people read a bit more, the Church was in difficulties right from the beginning. The apostles made a complete hames of it on Maundy Thursday night despite all their supposed loyalty and then they all cleared off. Peter denied, knowing the lord, three times. They had to learn that they couldn’t do it on their own, and that’s what the Lord was saying to them, ‘Listen to me! You’ve got to receive the Holy Spirit. You can’t do it from your own resources.’
We have to remember whatever the culture we happen to be in, the Lord doesn’t abandon his Church. And I think that message—maybe I’ll say something about that on Thursday but I have to phrase it right—you know there’s a danger that we can get so overwhelmed with the criticism of the Dawkins’ of this era. His assertions are extreme.
Even some of his atheist companions think he’s gone completely over the top with it. We shouldn’t lose our confidence because of that. I mean, it was difficult enough for St Paul, you know, going to the Areopagus and arguing with the philosophers of the day. I mean they may not listen but then they didn’t listen to the good lord either many of them. So nothing has changed in that sense. But I think in today’s world, particularly in Europe which has become particularly secular—not just secular, there’s nothing wrong with the secular, you’ve got the secular and the sacred, but you’ve got to work together—but it’s what I would call secularism, that aggressive, ideological thing which says get rid of religion. At best it’s a personal private eccentricity but has no place in the public forum. And that knocks people. We have to be balanced. In the first letter of St Peter, Always be ready to give the reasons of your hope but always with courtesy and respect.
And there we need to be quite acute. If we stand up and jump up and down at every minor sort of attack, people look at us and say well they’re all fanatics, they’re all fundamentalists. That’s religious people for you. They’re bigoted, biased and just wanting privileges. What we’ve got to point out is when the Government goes on and on about equality and non-discrimination that applies to people of faith. It seems to me that the way the interpret some of the rules is that its alright to discriminate against Christians but if anyone else does it in other areas of society that’s totally unacceptable and you get hauled into court and all the rest of it. But at the same time…I think it’s the Holy Spirit telling us we’ve been complacent in recent years. We’ve too readily accepted in the culture of the day and it’s now turning against us.
There are many good people out there who are not ideologues or fanatics, they’re just rather indifferent. There is certainly a core element there which would like to see the end of all religion. And we have to stand up to that with courage and we have to sink down our spiritual roots. We can’t do it from our own resources. We need that empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
IT’s like the little story in Mark’s Gospel when they’re in the boat across the sea and the Lord’s having a kip in the back. The waves are coming up over them. And they’re trying to wake him. And they’re jumping up and down, prodding him and shouting “Oy, oy, oy! We’re sinking. Don’t you care?” He looks at them and says: ‘Have you no faith? Why are you so afraid?’ Which must have been extremely galling for the Apostles, their hearts probably jumping out their breasts . But it’s reflecting on those sort of passage, makes me smile and I think nothing’s changed really. We’re in the same boat in a sense. We think it’s all a disaster, the Lord’s cleared off. But it’s the history of the Old Testament. How many times do the people say, “Lord You’ve abandoned us.”
And God always through the prophets says, ‘I’m here. I’ll never abandon you. You’ve just got to be patient. I’ll sort it out. You just trust me.’ But it means we have to become a much more prayerful, personally prayerful Church, to sink those spiritual roots down.
Do you think the Pope’s visit will help teach people about religion and the faith?
Well. I hope so. I suspect there will be some level of prejudice and bigotry from the beginning. But you know there’s none so deaf as those that don’t want to hear. He is a lovely person. Just in human terms he’s gracious, charming—not in a silly sense, he’s a gracious man, he listens intensely and I think he’s a really holy man myself. And I think he’ll prepare his lectures or speeches and so on very well. It’s whether again people have ears to hear. I’m sure he’ll get great support from the Catholic community here. You know there may well be protests from certain groups but that’s the sort of country we live in. We have freedom of speech and freedom of expression, provided it remains at that.
What about the reports that the visit is going to be a disaster? Will it all go horribly wrong?
I don’t think it is, Anna, basically going horribly wrong. It’s got to be adjusted. You also have to look at the cost. I think, with respect the press want everything sort of now, there’s still a lot of negotiations going on. It’s quite complex. You’ve got the Government, because it’s a state visit, you’ve got the Vatican and you’ve got the Bishops’ Conference, and the nunciature and all the rest of it. So the basic outline is there but all the details haven’t been settled yet. But they will be. I don’t think for one minute that it will be a disaster. The Government couldn’t possibly afford to do that, it’s a state visit, and he’s been invited by the queen.
But what about the parts the Church is organizing?
I’m sure that will all go well. What people don’t realize and I’m only beginning to realize the enormous amount of time and effort that needs to go into actually organizing these things. It’s very very complex. We might say, well, we’ll do this and then you might liase with the Government and the security people say oh well you can’t do that, that’s not wise. You’ve got to decide venues, find the right places. Again all you can do initially is estimate the cost. And then you find the costs have gone up. Well can we adjust that? Do we have it somewhere else? Or whatever. At the end of the day I think it will be well organized and I hope that it will be very much supported by the Catholics. I suspect a lot of people might be watching it on the television. It’s different to when John Paul II came.
I can remember that because I was actually up here in the Cathedral for the service for the sick. I was looking after the Anglican bishop of Southwark. I came up from the seminary to do that. But I mean, that was different. That was a pastoral visit. It was purely organized by the Church so we could do what we would normally do as Catholics without any great fuss. And of course the media attention then was quite good. But it would be much more with 24 hour news.
Our postbag seems to be showing that quite a few Catholics are disgruntled by the fact that it is going to be so small.
Well I mean. The Catholics in Wales and indeed the Welsh Assembly were rather miffed that he’s not coming to Wales and I had to explain that there wasn’t time for it. It’s no good them asking couldn’t he just pop in for two hours. You can’t do that sort of thing because of the security and after all John Paul II was quite young when he came. Pope Benedict is 83 this year which is incredible for his age. So he can’t be running around for hours on end without a break. It’s a pity of people are disgruntled. They want to put their disgruntlement aside.
This is the first time there has been a state visit by a Pope to our country which was at the heart of the reformation. And I think we’d do better, rather than criticizing and sneering and getting disgruntled to say look lets make the best we can of this, it’s a great opportunity. It will be really helpful to all of us on all sorts of issues. As far as the Church is concerned, he is the focus of unity in the Church. He’s coming in the sense from the Catholic point of view to confirm us in the faith, in the difficult circumstances in which we live of which he is well aware.
Which part are you looking forward to most?
I suppose the focus from our point of view will be the beatification of John Henry Newman. A great man and great saint. That would be the focus.