A popular priest to incense the fogey brigade

The new Archbishop of Liverpool will not fit easily into media pigeonholes, says Paul Vallely
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The eccentric author Alice Thomas Ellis was the only Roman Catholic invited by Radio 4's Today programme to comment yesterday on the appointment of the new Archbishop of Liverpool. Given the outrage this traditionalist writer has provoked with her rebarbative criticisms of the previous incumbent, the late Derek Worlock (whom she dismissed as a disastrous progressive), it was an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement to broadcast her views unchallenged.

But it was an illuminating insight into the extent to which the media have fallen for the bogus notion that the Catholic Church here is riven by a civil war between conservatives and progressives. The appointment yesterday of Patrick Kelly, Bishop of Salford, to the Liverpool post reflects a different reality.

Intriguingly, Dr Kelly had immediately been dubbed a "conservative" by the media. Presenters on Radio Merseyside even began to ask whether the appointment was a rebuke by Rome. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Certainly the new archbishop is doctrinally orthodox. But then so was Derek Worlock; you don't get to be a Catholic bishop in the UK without playing by the rules. Certainly he is a traditionalist, but one who, in the words of a senior theologian, "believes in a living tradition which is in touch with the reality of the world around it".

Dr Kelly's Salford diocese has, under his tutelage, enthusiastically embraced ecumenism, inter-faith dialogue and new methods of religious education, all of which are anathema to Alice Thomas Ellis's incense and Latin brigade. It has also taken to the social justice agenda which the Pope insists is central to modern Catholicism. In Salford Patrick Kelly's public pronouncements have included denunciations of the impact on the poor of the Government's confused handling of the economy, of the privatisation of prisons, of the lack of progress in converting the arms industry to other uses, and of the neglect of the Third World in general election manifestos.

He has been in charge of the English bishops' foreign affairs policy. He also flew to Singapore to defend members of its Justice and Peace Commission against charges of subversion and to testify that their actions were in line with Catholic social teaching. He has protested personally to the French ambassador over nuclear tests in the Pacific and has travelled widely in Latin America, to which he posted Salford diocesan priests.

Yet no one has accused his social action of being politically rather than theologically grounded. A scholar who reads the New Testament in Greek, he is considered to be an able theologian. He taught dogmatic theology at the seminary at Oscott of which he was rector and was secretary to the Bishops' Theology Conference.

It is learning worn lightly. Warm, kindly, authentic, holy but down to earth are the epithets used of him. The files of the Catholic press are full of photographs of him with children, the handicapped and the elderly. He has a touch of the cheery chappie which Liverpool will love. His first Salford diocesan year book pictured him on the cover not in episcopal regalia but in his shirtsleeves. He is an unstuffy man; at conferences he is unafraid to whisper questions to his neighbour.

Generally less autocratic than Archbishop Worlock, he is none the less his own man. He has shifted the traditional order of the sacraments for children in Salford: confirmation comes before confession and communion. He alters liturgy, sometimes significantly changing it, as for the needs of handicapped children, sometimes singing the whole canon of the mass - in English, the fogeys will be sad to hear. He can also be firm on matters of doctrine. He sent a group of would-be Anglo-Catholic converts off with a flea in their ear, telling them there was more to Roman Catholicism than being anti-women priests.

Many will try to read the runes in the Vatican's decision. Has the youthful Bishop Vincent Nichols been passed over? Or is he being kept to take over from Basil Hume in Westminster? Or will the Pope refuse the Cardinal's oft-offered resignation until after the millennium? There are too many variables to predict. But in one respect the message from Rome is clear: "Carry on, you're doing fine." There is not much of a story in that, of course. But then we can depend on Ms Thomas Ellis to supply one.

The author writes a column for 'The Tablet', the leading Catholic journal.