Who is Father Michael Seed, this priest that Tories like so much
It is nearly one o'clock, and Father Michael Seed is leaving Westminster Cathedral for lunch. He saunters past the sullen-looking man selling the Big Issue at the bottom of the cathedral steps. The man breaks into a momentary smile and greets him.

"I pinched some money off him once," the priest recalls. "They do quite well there. It's a good spot. But a lot of them spend the cash on drink or drugs. He was one who did, so I took a handful of money from him and stuck it in the box for The Passage." The Passage is the shelter for the homeless people who congregate to beg in the piazza. Ten years ago, as a young deacon, Fr Seed worked here. Some of the regulars remember him still.

"Didn't the man object?" I ask.

"Not really. He knew the money was going for something for his own good."

Perhaps. More likely he could not find any other response to the boyish enthusiasm of the man who is now best known for having led many top Tories into the Roman Catholic Church in recent years. He is an important part of a wider phenomenon. In the Eighties, there were about 400 to 500 conversions a year nationwide. But in the past five years, the rate has soared. In that time, Fr Seed estimates, there have been about 25,000 conversions, and converting to Catholicism has been transformed from a private experience into a public phenomenon by the social standing of some who have been received by Rome.

It was Fr Seed who, having become unofficial Catholic chaplain to the House of Commons, instructed John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe, and Sir George Gardiner, the leading Conservative backbencher, and is now instructing the self-proclaimed roue and highest of high Tories, Alan Clark. They are prompted by a variety of motives, though for many the decision by the General Synod to ordain women proved the last straw in a growing disenchantment with the Church of England; but all of them have been encouraged, in different ways, by Fr Seed's personality. Clark, for instance, describes the priest's beautiful manners. "He's very patient, very serene, extremely convivial, and completely at ease. He can move freely among distinguished and interesting people, and he's accepted as part of the furniture. He's the prime social priest, and it's to his credit that he hasn't been made shallower by it. A lot get into the Catholic society mannerisms and style of speech. But Fr Michael has remained serious."

Widdecombe, by contrast, praises his democratic style. He is, in her phrase, "a very effective fisherman for the Catholic Church, one who works with people from all backgrounds - from, literally, rich men in their castles to poor men at the gate. He is surprisingly informal, and manages to conceal his real seriousness behind a facade of facetiousness."

All this is much in evidence when we meet. "Let's go to the pub before we eat," he suggests, and then barely touches the lager he orders. Is it because he assumes a pre-lunch drink is what boozy journalists are accustomed to? Or is it because he just talks too much to get round to drinking?

It is the first interview he has ever given, he says, and he only wants to talk because so much has been written about him in the past which was plain wrong - stuff about him spending "weekends in country seats sporting his dog collar amid the pearls-and-gum boots house parties where he is wined and dined, and then retires for 'a quiet talk' with his charge." It's all nonsense, he insists. "I've never been to one in my life."

Instead, he begins to tell a seemingly endless series of parochially metropolitan stories, largely against himself, and insists I write them down for the Independent's diary column. He dictates bits of journalese with a curiously old-fashioned, William Hickeyish style: "Spotted late one night: Ann Widdecombe, the minister now in charge of all Her Majesty's prisons and the criminally insane ..." He chortles. He says it again:"Her Majesty's prisons and the criminally insane. Write it down."

It's easy to see why he normally avoids journalists. He starts to tell another story, about a well-known figure. It is fearsomely indiscreet.

"I don't think you should be telling me that, Michael," I suggest, in a curious role-reversal.

"Don't you? Oh, righto," he says, and begins another one. Is he terribly disingenuous, I begin to wonder, or is it a shrewd act to make me feel protective towards him? Alan Clark is quite sure. "He's indiscreet about things that don't matter," Clark tells me later, "but he's got his head screwed on. He knows quite well what he's about."

Now Seed is going on about how recently he came to be in the accident and emergency department in Westminster and Chelsea hospital having his ribs X-rayed. He had been to dinner with Ann Widdecombe, the night after sitting next to the Blairs at another dinner. "I told her that he [Tony Blair] was more Tory than John Major and that they should do a job swap." On the way back from eating with Widdecombe, he had bruised his ribs vaulting over a fence, "but you can make out that she might have pushed me over in disgust".

Contrary to what some newspapers have made out, Michael Seed is not a posh priest; nor is his background anywhere near as jolly as his present persona implies. He was born in Manchester in 1957, the son of a young, unmarried Catholic woman from Ireland, who immediately put her child out for adoption. But there was unhappiness in his new home and, when he was seven, his adoptive mother killed herself. "One Saturday morning, she went out and committed suicide on the railway track. It was just at the place where all the children crossed to go to school. I was tormented by them over it." Twelve months later, his father died. Then, the year after he had gone to live with his grandparents, his grandfather, too, died. Michael Seed was traumatised. "At the age of eight, I prayed not to live beyond 13."

There are no flourishes about the way he tells this story. His words are plain and low-key. Then, suddenly, he is back to the jokes. "I was at school in Rochdale. I remember when Cyril Smith came, we had to open both doors so he could get in."

This was Knowle View School. "All the children were like me," he says, "odd, molested, angry, violent. 'Maladjusted', we were called in 1969; 'children with special needs', I suppose we'd be now." At school, he pretended to the others that his parents were still alive. But, mostly, he said nothing. He was totally withdrawn.

"When I left at 16, I didn't know how to relate to the outside world. I'd done no exams. It was all metalwork. I got a job in a motorway cafe, but I was sacked after two days for breaking plates. I broke everything. I was..." - his soft Lancashire accent has become fey again - "...discombobulated. That's a good word. Discombobulated." He looks disappointed that I don't write it down. I write it down.

"Then I got a job working in a clothes shop in Bolton. I was sacked there, too. I got told off for telling customers where they could buy clothes cheaper. And then, when I was asked to make the tea, I put the electric kettle in the oven. It blew up." Is this another joke? No. He had never made a cup of tea at school: he used just to drink orange squash in his digs.

Finally, he got a job he liked and was suited for, working as a care assistant in a home for the mentally ill and geriatrics in Bolton. He had only just discovered he was adopted. No one in his family had ever told him."It was the headmaster, just before I left. He gave me my birth certificate. My real mother was an Irish Catholic called Marie. I had been baptised Stephen Wayne ..." He pronounces his original surname and then, in a rare display of discretion, asks for it not to be printed in case his mother is still alive. "Which is why I have so many names. I am Michael Joseph Stephen Wayne Seed. My adopted parents were Joseph and Lilian Seed."

It was not just a plethora of names he inherited; he also accumulated religions, which added to the confusion of his adolescence. His adoptive parents were Catholics: "It was the days of the Tridentine Mass. I liked the mystery of the Latin and the incense. I found it awesome." But his grandmother preferred the Salvation Army, so for a while he was taken there. Then, when an uncle, a travelling evangelist, came to preach in a Baptist church nearby, he and his grandmother switched to that. They came to a decision: "It was two buses to get to the Baptists, and only one to the Army." He was unaware of the contradictions then."I used to take my rosary beads to the Salvation Army."

There are some traditionalists, I venture, who would say that is what the modern Catholic Church is like - the Salvation Army with rosary beads. "That's good," he chortles. "You can put me down as saying that, if you like."

He continues. "But I was happy enough with it all. There was the mystery of the Catholic Church, and there was the fun of the Salvation Army. It's all made me immensely sympathetic to people, whatever their background. I don't care if someone is a Catholic or not, because a bit of me is still a Salvationist and a Baptist."

Between the ages of 11 and 14, Seed decided he didn't believe in God at all because of the deaths of his parents and grandfather. But, when he did return to the Church, it was to an extreme group known as the "Particular Baptists", which belonged to the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (the FIEC, to which the Reverend Ian Paisley would be aligned). "To us", he explains, "Catholics were a cult who could not be saved. We considered the Baptist Union to be heretics and, therefore, damned. Even the Evangelical Alliance [highly conservative in most eyes] were thought of as very liberal. Alcohol was sinful, as was the cinema. You only go out with wholesome people who are born again."

At 15, he was baptised again, by total immersion, and it seemed clear that he would become a FIEC minister. "Then, one day, I walked into a Catholic Church. It was to test myself against the evil. It was a Sunday evening mass, a little church next to a pub. Some of the people had obviously come in from the pub." He remembers the smell of alcohol mingled with the incense and the sound of the rosary. "I thought, this is the church of sinners; this is the place for me. The liturgy was dead boring, but there seemed to be an immense devotion and sense of reverence."

After the service, he went and rang the doorbell of the priest. "He said, 'Have you been baptised?' I said, 'Yes, in a Catholic Church.' 'Have you been confirmed?' I said, 'Yes'. 'Well, you are a Catholic already,' he said. 'Would you like a glass of whisky?'"

But, Seed asked him, what about Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the Eucharist, papal infallibility, the apostolic succession, purgatory, prayers for the dead - and all the other doctrine unacceptable to a scripture-based evangelical Protestant?

The priest, he says, poured more whisky.

In the restaurant he has chosen, a modest but agreeable trattoria, he orders a prawn cocktail and a massive plate of pasta, and then gets stuck into a bottle of Amarone. Before long, he removes his dog-collar to undo the top buttons of his shirt. He flattens the long, white strip of celluloid and lays it behind the cruet (when lunch ends, he forgets it and has to nip back to the table). He has no hang-ups about priestly garb, either way. Now aged 38, he raises a quizzical eyebrow at those younger, full- blown traditionalists who say priests should always wear clerical dress in public. But, equally, he is not one of those progressives who insist on man-of-the-people gear at all times.

"I suppose it comes from my Salvation Army background. There, people are proud of wearing their uniform. If you're 'on duty', you should. If we believe in the divine, we don't need to apologise for it. Otherwise, we might as well be social workers."

Being a friar, he is also happy to wear a habit. Oh yes, Michael Seed is a friar, too. He explains:"My attraction to Catholicism at 17 was based on a subjective reality. I needed roots. I suppose it's because I have none. And, because I wanted to be a Baptist minister, therefore it just followed logically that, when I decided to become a Catholic, I'd become a Catholic priest."

He was 18 and working in the Bolton geriatric home when he experienced this epiphany. One of the residents was an eccentric rag and bone man. He came in one day with a brand new copy of the Salford Catholic Yearbook. Seed looked up the number of the diocese's vocations director. But he muddled up the numbers . He found he had joined instead the Society for African Missions. "I thought it was providence. Evangelicals often open the Bible at any page and take whatever they find as a message from God. I thought it was God's will that I should become an African missionary."

It never happened. After an uncomfortable three years, he decided to leave - just before he would have gone to Africa - and join an order specialising in ecumenical work. Given his pedigree of pendulum swings, from one absolutism to another, it was inevitable that this, too, was unusual. He joined the extravagantly-named Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, an American Anglican order founded in 1891 but which had transferred en masse to Rome in 1909. It had only five friars in the UK, so he was sent to the Catholic University in Washington.

Here, he encountered a major problem. His education had been so disrupted, he found he could not do the written exams. In his first religious order, all exams had been oral. Not so in the USA. Now he was told he could not be a priest. It was only after an educational psychologist diagnosed severe dyslexia that he was given dispensation to take his exams orally. "To this day," Seed confesses, "I never write anything down. All my sermons and lectures are off the top of my head. When I have to write letters or reports, the cardinal is always irritated by my spelling and my grammar, which is dreadful. But he has put up with me for 11 years, which is a testimony to his Christian charity and his saintliness."

It was all, none the less, a bit of a problem, for the main function of the Franciscan Friars in the UK is to run the Catholic Central Library in London. So, in 1985, aged 27, ordained a deacon but not yet a priest, he was seconded to Westminster Cathedral to work with the homeless, among other groups. And here came another turning point. His duties included devising a programme for those seeking admission to Catholicism. He drew on his chequered past so effectively that he was asked by Cardinal Hume to continue in it, alongside his job as ecumenical officer. This is the post he has held for the past eight years.

Today, Fr Seed has converted several hundred people, including former Communists, atheists and ministers past and present. "They were converts from all types of traditions. Because of my background, they seem to feel that I understand where they're coming from." Of Ann Widdecombe, he says, "she found it very hard to accept prayers for the dead. She was very evangelical. I understood, because in my own tradition everything had to be backed by scripture. But most converts are Anglo-Catholics; they need no instruction," he added mischievously, "just an apology that Pius XII is no longer the Pope." (Pius XII being the most conservative pontiff this century.) "They have to be told that, if the Pope says good morning, that is not a weather forecast."

The most prominent early convert was the Right Reverend Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London. Fr Seed began to discuss with him the possibility of his move to Rome as long ago as 1988, while he still held office as the Church of England's third most senior churchman. The young priest was then charged with researching the validity of the bishop's orders - during his training, he had presented a thesis to the Lateran University in Rome defending the validity of Anglican orders; his other specialist thesis was on TV evangelists.

More prestigious converts followed, though not all of them handled by Fr Seed. The Duchess of Kent was the first member of the royal family to convert. Mrs Frances Shand Kydd, the mother of the Princess of Wales, followed. Then came the high-profile Tory politicians. And next was Charles Moore, editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Of the 500 Anglican clergy who resigned over the ordination of women, 300 have been received as Catholics.

But it is not all a reaction to women priests, Fr Seed emphasises. "It began long before that. I don't want to sound political - and this is not an attack on Thatcherism because there were elements of Mrs Thatcher which were positive - but, right through the period of the Eighties, you got a sense of obsession and drive. We saw a rise of absolute and total selfishness. And some people began to ask where all this was leading them and what happened to all the people who were getting lost and abandoned. People started to talk about spiritual values."

Even those serving in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet? "There are some Tory ministers who would approve of what I said; others wouldn't." He names no names. But how far do they go? Catholic social teaching has laid great stress in the past century on a series of papal encyclicals, on the notion of the common good - something which fell seriously out of fashion under Thatcherism. Do the new converts understand all this?

"I think so. I always try to stress that Catholic social teaching embraces everyone as an equal, and, therefore, looks to re-ordering the world to the needs of the poorest. There are Communist traits in our teaching, and I'm proud of that. But someone like Alan Clark has elements of that in him, too; he has a strong social conscience. In the Tory Party today there are very strong elements of social responsibility. Mr Major knows exactly what it is to live in poverty: he has a strong consciousness of social responsibility, and at the same time sees the need for people, through their own efforts, to grow in worth and dignity."

So he is after the Prime Minister next? He just laughs, as he does when asked about the rumours he has been giving instruction to the Princess of Wales. He chooses his words carefully: "I've not been involved in anything directly with her."

Not all existing Catholics are happy at the admission of what they frequently perceive as a bunch of right-wing misogynists. Fr Seed insists this is an unfair caricature. "None of them are impossibilists - they don't hold that a woman could never become a priest if the whole Church arrived at that. Catholicism is a religion of absolutes, but whether we can one day have a married priest or a woman priest is not one of them. It isn't impossible." As to the idea that they are still really just Anglicans-in-exile, "I've always said to all converts that we must be non-triumphalist. They mustn't see this as one in the eye for the church they're leaving. But we're all sinners. We all say things we shouldn't," he adds, without actually mentioning Ann Widdecombe by name.

"They're not fools. I tell them about faithful dissent - and that they are joining a church where there are a variety of views on women priests, married priests, divorce, lesbianism and gays. That's all part of the creative nature of the Church. Rome is a long way off. They're joining a very contemporary Catholic Church here in England, in which Mr Gummer has to worship in a chicken shed, and Miss Widdecombe goes to a modest little church on the Millbank estate, and Sir George goes to an ordinary church in Dorking. They're not joining some ultramontane, baroque Tridentine church of the past."

So how much faithful dissent is a convert allowed? "Well, there's not much point in joining if you don't accept the basics. Sir George Gardiner, for example, had a lot of difficulty over abortion. I live with a very high degree of doubt and continued discovery. St Thomas is my great saint, and he's not Doubting Thomas so much as Authentic Thomas because he had the guts to announce his doubts and fears in the midst of his peers."

The great thing about Catholicism, he says, is its sense that understanding can be gradual. "I don't understand everything but I assent to it because I believe in a church that's greater than me and a faith that is beyond my understanding." It is an approach which resonates with Alan Clark, who says that, if faith is a journey, he is "still looking round the room at all the luggage, packed and unpacked. People might think I'm being dilatory, but I'm happy just to be seriously looking."

Seed says that most of those born Roman Catholics, if they are honest, don't fully understand everything. "The difference is that the Catholic Church has this wonderful word 'mystery', so they just set things aside and accept them, whereas converts tend to tussle with them."

Fr Seed demonstrates such sweet-tempered reasonableness that it is almost enough to make you forget the intolerant authoritarianism of John Paul II, the censorious discipline of Cardinal Ratzinger, the shady dealings surrounding Vatican finances, the superstitious hocus pocus of statues that move and bleed, the closeted asperities of Opus Dei, the patriarchal insecurity of many priests, and the pain of women who feel excluded within the Roman Catholic Church. But then Fr Seed does not go out to seek recruits. And he makes no judgement on those who do not seek out Rome. Or, at least, he tries not to.

"Conversion is, in the end, a gift," he concludes. "Some people are given it and others are not. And, if you have glimpsed the truth, then you have just got to go towards it in order to have your life fulfilled."