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Called To Be One: an interview with Mgr Keith Newton
Friday 22nd August 2014


The interview below was first published in Westminster Cathedral's Oremus magazine and is re-printed here by kind permission of the editor.

Continuing her series of interviews with leading members of the clergy for Oremus, Natasha Stanic this month speaks with Mgr Keith Newton, the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The feast of Our Lady of Walsingham is observed on 24 September – the cover image of Our Lady of Walsingham is taken from a mosaic on the Cathedral's great pulpit.

Before you began to discuss the possibility of joining the Catholic Church you had had a distinguished career in the Church of England. What was it that led you to want to become an Anglican priest? 

Although my parents themselves did not go to church very often, I was sent to Sunday school, loved it and never stopped going. Because of my encouragement my parents gradually started going to church more often, but it was I who became totally involved in the local parish. I felt a call for ordination quite early in my teens but felt, as many young people do, that I did not have the gifts, that 'they will not have me.' I eventually spoke to my parish priest, who told me that he had been waiting for me to come as he thought that I had a vocation. I went to University, trained for ordination in London and Canterbury and was ordained when only 23, the youngest you can be ordained in the Church of England.

Your decision to leave the Churchof England could not have been an easy one.  May I ask you what started the process of conversion?

In my formative years and the very early days of being an Anglican priest – it was the days of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission which had been set up after the visit of Michael Ramsey to Pope Paul VI in 1966 – there was this great hope of the possibility of unity and I longed for unity with the Catholic Church. I was influenced by what you would call Anglo-Catholic clergy, who were very sacramental, and many of the traditions that were common in the Roman Catholic Church were common in my life as well. I have always prayed for unity and have always hoped for unity. But as time went on it seemed that it was not going to happen. All the hopes of the '60s, '70s and even the '80s were not going to bear the fruit that I had hoped they would, and I also felt that the Church of England, in which I was a priest and a bishop, was actually moving in a direction with which I was particularly unhappy. It meant that the possibility of unity with the Catholic Church became less possible rather than more possible. Going back to your question I should say that entering into the full communion of the Catholic Church has been a long process.

You are a happily married man with 3 adult children. Were your wife Gill, a retired teacher, and the three children a support and encouragement in those times of transition, or did you think you were imposing on them a judgement with which they might never feel comfortable?

By the time I was making a decision actually to become Catholic, my children were all adults and, except for one, they had all left home. My daughter was married to a Catholic and when she became pregnant with the first child, decided to become a Catholic herself. My two boys have rather lapsed from the practice of the faith but they are not averse to it. Therefore neither of them became Catholic but they have been very supportive. As for Gill, it was not an easy time. It was not simply entering into the full communion of the Catholic Church, it was a movement from being part of one ecclesiastical community into another. And for a priest it is also about your stability and security, it is about stepping into the dark, not knowing where you are going to live, who is going to pay you, what you are going to do. None of those things were clear when I made the decision to resign from the Church of England as a bishop and become a Catholic. Gill and I had talked about the possibility of my becoming a Catholic over almost 10 years because I could not see any future for me in the Church of England. She was very worried about that from a practical point of view. But when the actual decision came she was incredibley strong. Every time I went through moments of doubt she reminded me of uncertainties we had been through before. In the '80s we were missionaries and went out to Africa with two small children having never been there in our life. We just had the trust in the Lord and it was all fine. She assured me that it was another example of just stepping out in trust.

After 1 of January 2011, when you were received into the Roman Catholic Church, distinctions have been coming fast and thick. On 15 January 2011 you were ordained to the priesthood by the Archbishop of Westminster and on the same day Pope Benedict XVI appointed you the first Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Those weeks must have been tremendously fulfilling and I wonder whether you felt exalted, or humbled, or simply relieved?

I imagine a bit of everything. I certainly felt humbled because it was a daunting privilege to be appointed the Ordinary by the Holy Father. It was also exhilarating because the ordination was an incredible experience. I remember the Archbishop telling me that I should not let people know about the ordination until 1 January. It was understandable that he did not want to advertise an ordination while somebody was still an Anglican bishop, though I was terribly worried that the Cathedral would be empty. He assured me to the contrary. Yes, it was packed to the door.

It was a great relief too. As a bishop in the Church of England I had been battling about the issues such as ordination of women, Catholic order and Catholic understanding of things. That battle was over because the Church's teaching is clear.

I still feel humbled because I never imagined that I would ever be in that position. When I went to Cardinal Nichols' consistory and sat there with the bishops I was thinking to myself: "How on earth did you get here?"

You will be well aware of the mixed reception the Ordinariate received. Its defenders hail it as a model for Christian unity, while its critics describe it as a  'pick-and-mix' attitude to both the Catholic and Anglican sets of beliefs. Do you think Pope Benedict saw an urgent need for it?

I think his intention was to respond to people who made overtures to the Vatican over a number of years. There were quite a few Anglican bishops who wanted to pursue the vision of the Anglican - Roman Catholic International Commission but could see it not going anywhere because of the new obstacles the Anglican Church has put in the way of unity. They were looking for some sort of corporate way that would allow Anglicans, as a group, rather than as individuals, to bring with them something of their history and tradition. So it was the Pope's pastoral response. It obviously had a mixed reception because some people thought it was the Catholic Church stepping on other peoples' territory and bringing in people from other churches. To me it seems to be a fulfilment of the Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegratio], which sees the Churchof Jesus Christ subsisting in the Catholic Church, but elements of that Church are present in other ecclesial communities. It also offers the possibility of diversity of practice as long as it is in conformity with the teachings of Catholic Church. The OrdinartiateIt shows what might be possible - it is, I think, a small example of receptive ecumenism.

You recently said: "We must be honest and say that  the Ordinariate has not grown as much as we hoped it might. The vision has not been caught." What do you think is the reason for its slow growth?

I think it is because not everybody has the courage to be a pioneer. It does take some courage to leave the security of a place where you are known for years, where you are accepted, where you know what is going to happen and to move to something quite different. There is also the issue for many Anglicans of the church buildings. There is a saying that 'Catholics go to Mass and Anglicans go to church.' There is some truth in that because Anglicans are much more wedded to their buildings than Catholics are. We had hoped at one point that we might be able to use Anglican buildings but that was not possible.

There are many people in the Church of England who are unhappy with the direction in which it has gone, but they want to be clear that there is a home for them in the Catholic Church where they can recognise that something of their traditions has been accepted and taken into the universal Church. This was Pope Benedict's very vision for the Church: you can have the Church with a common faith, a common order, yet a diversity in practice. We have the Churches of the East which show the diversity of the Catholic Church. But this is the first time that a tradition of the West has been given a place in the universal Church.

On the 6 September your group, which has around 85 priests and 1,500 lay members, is preparing an "exploration day" named 'Called to be One.' Could you say more about what you are hoping to achieve and how?

There is no pattern but we felt that our groups ought to be more active in trying to show that they are around and available for people who are inquiring about the Ordinariate. One of our problems is communication. Many Catholic lay people often have not heard about the Ordinariate, and even within the Anglican Church there are some who perhaps do not know much about it and might value an opportunity to learn more.

There are many people within the Church of England who are becoming more and more dissatisfied with its worship and its moral stands over some issues. Therefore we ought to be ready, exercising no pressure, but to be open, welcoming and available. It is more of a marathon than a sprint.

The image on this month's front cover of  Oremus shows Our Lady of Walsingham as depicted on Westminster Cathedral's pulpit. 

A large number of clergyand laity  from the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham will be attending the 12.30pm Mass at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday 20 September, as the Ordinariate celebrates its first "festival". 

For more information on the Ordinariate's 'Called to be One' day, which is being supported by Pope Francis and Cardinal Nichols, please visit the Called To Be One page of the Ordinariate's website. click here

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