An Interview with a Former Anglican
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The Catholic Herald interviews Fr Christopher Tuckwell, former Anglican who now has the daunting task of preserving the mother church of England and Wales.
LONDON (The Catholic Herald) - As the Church prepares for a new wave of converts we sometimes forget how many ex-Anglicans clerics we have already, and how far many have risen. Few have risen higher than Canon Christopher Tuckwell, Administrator of Westminster Cathedral since June.
As sub-administrator he was expected to take over the role from Mgr Mark Langham, but he says, in his measured drawl, that he was surprised by the appointment.
"I thought that at 62 I was a bit long in the tooth," he says. "Also, as a fairly recent arrival, I thought it was one of the appointments that would not be given to a convert."
It's the culmination of a strange journey for a man who grew up in a "middle-to-low church" family in Surrey and who entered Sandhurst in 1964 and served six years in Germany, Oman and Kenya.
"From the age of 12 I wanted to be a soldier, but from 17 I began to take my faith quiet seriously, started to go to Bible discussion group and early morning Eucharist, and I began to pray. Out of the blue I had a sense that perhaps God was calling me to ordination. I then had to juggle these two ideas, a clergyman and a soldier, and very wisely my school chaplain said: 'Why not go into the Army first and see what God has to say to you?'
"The Army was a testing ground to see whether this idea of a vocation was a nine-day wonder, but all the time I knew ultimately I had to answer this call."
After Chichester Theological College and a curacy in east London he arrived in the West Indies in 1976 and experienced a life-changing friendship. Before that, he says, it had simply never occurred to him to be a Catholic.
"My father's family had originally been Church of Ireland, and neither of my parents were regular churchgoers; while the school I went to was lowish Anglican. The first Roman Catholic Church I ever set foot in was Westminster Cathedral, when I was 14. A cousin of mine had a French exchange student staying, and we thought we should bring him here as well as Westminster Abbey. I remember just this big dark cavernous building with twinkling lights. It all seemed very strange. Not foreign, but just strange. I really knew very little about Roman Catholics."
That all changed in the Caribbean island of St Vincent with his friendship with a priest, a member of the Scarborough foreign missions in Canada. "He and I became very good friends and we spent a lot of time talking and reading Catholic devotional material. It all sort of came together. One day I just knew I must seek communion with Peter and his successor."
Was he worried he'd hurt people's feelings? "That's why I didn't convert in the West Indies, though I spoke with the bishop and he knew my feelings. When I was back in England it was more a reluctance to leave the familiar, a parish I was very happy and content in, to step out into the partially unknown. I kept finding good reasons to not do it yet.
"By the time I came to announce I was handing in my resignation I don't think there was anybody in the parish who was surprised, and there were a number in the congregation who were making the journey with me. Out of 270 I suppose about 10 actually converted."
Instrumental in providing that vital helping hand was the then Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who was, Canon Tuckwell says, the "final straw". He then laughs. "No, that would give the wrong impression, Bishop Nichols was the opposite; he was the catalyst. We had an ecumenical service in my church and the local Catholic parish priest, Canon Frank Hegarty, a very good friend of mine and my sponsor in the Church, had spoken to Bishop Nichols.
"We spoke after the service, at the end of which he said: 'Give me a call if I can be of any help.' I phoned him a week later and he was very kind, arranged an interview, and that was it.
"I was fortunate enough to be here in Westminster and between them Cardinal Hume and Bishop Nichols were very generous and very encouraging. They really put themselves out to assist us in coming into the Church. I can't say it was the experience with some of my colleagues in other dioceses, some of whom received a less than warm welcome.
"I think a popular misconception was we were all ultra-conservative and were going to put the clock back - whatever that meant - and we would be an unsettling force within English Catholicism. Some bishops were very friendly and welcoming, some less so. I don't think it was politics, more a matter of preference or prejudice."
He says he feels "very sorry" for those still in the Church of England who yearn for full communion with Rome.
"I've a number of friends who ought to have converted some years ago given their feelings and beliefs. I wonder why they didn't. The parish is their family, and they are loyal to them, so it's difficult for some people to make that break."
Today, Canon Tuckwell's parish "includes Peabody estates, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament". About a third of the people who come through the doors of the Cathedral on a Sunday are regulars, he says, the rest travelling from further afield.
One of his main tasks, of course, is the Cathedral's major fundraising appeal, which has Ł1m in the bank and another Ł500,000 pledged.
"We're re-launching the appeal in October, so my first task is to deal with that, then to see the completion of the work on the domes and the west front," he explains. His job has been made immeasurably easier by one donor, a man "absolutely dedicated" to the Cathedral, who has personally pledged to continue the mission of the founder to have the schema of mosaics completed. So will the mosaics finally be finished? "You're asking me a question that's difficult to answer," he laughs. "If the donor has anything to do with it the answer is Yes. When I was first asked that I rather foolishly said, 'Not in my lifetime', and he said: 'Don't say that because they could very well be.' His vision and enthusiasm has inspired me to think: 'Yes, they could.'
"The building will always cost us money, and that's something we will just have to accept. But this is a living cathedral, not a monument or tourist attraction. It is somewhere people come to pray, celebrate Mass, to worship, and go to confession. From the moment we open the doors there are people waiting outside on their way to work to make their visit. And it's that prayerful presence which gives the lifeblood to the place."
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