ROBBIE LOW: THE INTERVIEW
TWO YEARS AGO, in the dead of night, a team of vicious and deluded thugs waited in the shadows of the north wall of the church, to bring their campaign of terror to a hideous climax. For several months, the vicarage had been the object of threats, violence, attempted break-ins and night time assaults as large slabs were heaved through the windows.
This particular night what was intended was nothing less than the total destruction of the church and, as the vicarage and school were part of one continuous Victorian building, one can only assume the annihilation of the parish priest, his wife and the whole sign of the christian presence in the parish.
A window was broken and a petrol bomb burst into flame by an old curtain next to the gas supply. They had done their homework. The curtain blazed, the door and floor caught, the pipe split and belched huge jets of fire, like some demonic flame thrower, across the nave and sanctuary. The building seethed like a cauldron of blazing gas and smoke.
By some miracle, the vicarage family escaped and the speed of the emergency services response saved the vicarage and the school. The christian community could only stand and watch as their holy place was put to the holocaust and, in the morning, wander stunned and tearful amongst the soaked and charred ruins of a lifetimes devotion and ministry.
The church was not the victim of persecution in some far off benighted land. It was the little church of St Peters, high on the East Cliff in Folkestone. It is the tragedy of liberalising legislation to confuse christian virtue with the toleration of evil.
The survivors of this murderous assault were Michael and Diana Houghton, the parish priest and his wife. Earlier this year I went to see them.
Michael and I had met on a number of occasions at Forward in Faith meetings but not to talk or get to know one another in any depth. I was aware that he was regarded by many in the constituency as a real man of God and held in great affection and respect. So I went hoping to get an interview but, also, to get help with something more pressing. I had been persuaded by good old Daniel Cozens, of Walk of 1000 Men, to galvanise Folkestone for the 1999 WALK KENT MISSION. In desperation I had phoned Michael and Diana to pull my chestnuts out of the fire. To make a long story short, within forty eight hours Michael had arranged for me to see practically all the Folkestone clergy in a series of meetings and co-ordinate the resulting response with his own church as the first signed up. It became apparent at these meetings that the very positive response was in no small measure due to the regard in which he is held by his fellow clergy across the denominations. As one very protestant pastor put it to me, rather touchingly, "I know hes very high church and all that but he really is a lovely and godly man."
So, at the conclusion of a hectic forty eight hours, Michael and I sat down in his kitchen for a late morning coffee, I asked him:
WHERE DID YOU BEGIN?
"I was born in Birmingham in 1949. My dad was controller of traffic at New Street Station and my mum kept house and looked after the family."
The family consisted of Michael, his twin sister Gillian - now a nurse in California and elder brother David - currently rural dean of Clapham. Michael has inherited his fathers love of trains.
WAS IT A CHRISTIAN FAMILY?
"Yes, low church and practising. My father was a Quaker but they married in St Gregorys, which was very high, and went to the local church."
His father died when Michael was 13 and the hardships of that time and the love and commitment that kept the family going have been very much part of the formation of the priest and pastor.
WHAT ABOUT EDUCATION?
"I was very drawn to History and Theology and eventually went to Lancaster University. It was there I came in contact with Fr Matthew Shaw SSM (Society of the Sacred Mission). The fathers had a new priory at Quernmore Hall and, while some of the brothers were going to college, they were keen to get some ordinary chaps to fill the spare rooms. I had to choose between a room in a Morecombe landladys house and an eighteenth century country house with a private chapel!"
Needless to say...
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER THE RELIGIOUS LIFE?
"Yes, I did. I wondered about it, but not fiercely. It didnt pursue me".
It wouldnt be difficult to see Houghton as a monk. He is tall and lean with a patrician face, a gentle manner and a sense of deep inner calm. All of this is coupled with a sharp mind, a strong spiritual discipline and a great humour and sense of joy.
INSTEAD YOU GOT MARRIED!
"Yes, I did a post grad. cert. Ed. at Durham and taught for two years in Bolton while living in Wigan. But youre quite right, I married! Diana was a second year environmental sciences/physical geography student who went on to Newcastle to do landscape design. We kept in touch and got married."
There is a twinkle in the eyes and a big grin. After two days in their household John, my warden and I are in no doubt as to why you would choose Diana over the single life. She is warm, attractive, lively and nobodys fool.. The landscape designer, restricted to a narrow cliff top strip, has turned the interior of the vicarage into Kew Gardens and works part-time in a local nursery. We felt welcome and at home from the moment we set foot in the vicarage and, when we had all finished a long day, part of the family over a late evening glass or two in front of a roaring coal fire in the book-lined upstairs drawing room overlooking the infants playground and, in the distance below, the berths of the cross-Channel traffic.
AND THEN ORDINATION?
"No. We volunteered to teach on mission for USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel). They arranged a mission parish in Lesotho. This meant working at a big boarding school up country and pretty remote. It was there that our son was born and there also that I resolved my call to the priesthood."
The Houghtons son is called MOTLALEPULA (PULA for short). His birth coincided with the end of a big drought and the waters broke just as the waters broke. The name means "the one who came with the rain." Although Pula is also called Thomas, he stuck with his distinctive name on returning to England. In Africa, rain is prosperity (unlike in Manchester) and at least one nations currency is the same word!
WERE YOU THERE UNDER BISHOP JOHN MAUND?
"A great man and a mentor to me. Bishop John was a remarkable pastor and father in God to many."
Maund was indeed a remarkable bishop in Africa for twenty six of his thirty seven years there. His pastoral visits were on horseback and no-one who met him will forget the encouragement of his friendship and deep commitment to Our Lord. On his return to England he was much sought after as a spiritual director and lived for some years in the ecumenical community at Hengrove. He is now nearly ninety and very frail but there are many catholics who look to his ministry as a model of episcopacy if we are ever again allowed catholic bishops in the C of E.
HOW DID YOU GET BACK TO ENGLAND?
"Bishop John arranged an English sponsor and a grant. The visitor of SSM was another extraordinary bishop, Douglas Feaver (Peterborough). He examined me personally in the palace, sitting behind his desk in a purple cassock at the end of a long study. "I suppose youll do was all he said! People always said Feaver was rude and difficult but that wasnt the real truth. He was the only bishop who came to visit his ordinands rather than deal through the Director of Ordinands. He was unfailingly kind and attentive."
It is a curious and unattractive feature of Anglicanism how often it seems to prefer a politeness and charm which may mask carelessness or deceit to the robust directness of a passionate heart. It is an institutional weakness with tremendous cost.
DID YOU SERVE IN PETERBOROUGH?
"Yes. Four years in All Hallows, Wellingborough. When the vicar was injured, the Bishop came and took personal care. It put flesh on the bone of the diaconate continuing throughout the ministry".
AND THEN BACK TO AFRICA...
"The smallest diocese in the Anglican Communion, St Helena. No airstrip, one ship calling every two months. Only four parishes, three on St Helena, one on Ascension. In many ways it was small, neglected and forgotten - it was stripped of its citizenship in 1981.
But it was very self-sufficient. Industries were fishing and forestry but there was considerable unemployment. Migrant workers were often used for the high tech. operations - the Space Agency, Cable & Wireless, the BBC, and American and British armed forces. Obviously there was some extra work during the Falklands crisis too. Because there are no outside resources to hand, you need a complete community there, its a real microcosm."
Houghton obviously loved his time as Vicar of Jamestown, the beautiful harbour town. The house has memories, photos, books at every turn. The island is only forty eight square miles and is full of startling beauty - from The Gates of Chaos to Turks Cap Bay, from Sugar Loaf Point to Lots Wifes Pond. Amongst the books Houghton gave me on departure was his own history of SSM in Lesotho, a remarkable autobiography of a surgeon, coroner and fellow priest on the island and a book of beautiful views. The text of this latter turned out to be highlights of the local papers medical advice column over the years. So as I perused the delights of Plantation Woods or Mount Pleasant, I found myself the beneficiery of how to avoid blood pressure, reduce the likelihood of gout and what to do if my condom breaks!
AND THEN BACK TO ENGLAND?
"The children had good primary education but their secondary education began at boarding schools in England. We needed to be home."
In addition to Pula, the Houghtons now had a daughter, Martha. While I was staying in Folkestone, I only saw some of her art - shes a student at Central St Martins - and then a couple of weeks ago I met her at John Pellings brilliant exhibition in Dover Street. It was a real treat to be in the company of someone talented and knowledgeable in the field of art to lead a poor Philistine around.
"No. Initially I went to be a tutor at the College of the Ascension, Birmingham. It wasnt long after that the patron of St Peters contacted me and asked me to come. Curiously enough Martha had been baptised there because my mother-in-law lives and worships locally."
St Peters is a small but thriving community in the poorer end of town. The church was beautifully kept and well attended with a popular school on the complex. It is a perfect example of the Victorian catholic revival wisdom of having all your kit on one plot.
The Houghtons have worked hard to build this up and it must have been a devastating blow to watch it burn. But they seem, miraculously, to have avoided that bitterness which sometimes afflicts the best of men when undeserved disaster strikes. They have simply got on with the job.
WHAT ABOUT FORWARD IN FAITH?
"Well wed only been here less than two years when the fateful vote took place. I was asked to be Diocesan Chairman by the clergy here and set about trying to learn to live and operate in a radically different Church of England. It meant working closely with the Bishop of Dover and the provision of PEV (flying bishop) here has worked well."
In the diocese only six parishes have taken the resolution C, fourteen others have registered A and/or B, between forty and fifty parish clergy are registered with Forward in Faith but, as in so many places, this is but the tip of the iceberg of those concerned with the Anglican drift from orthodoxy.
WHAT ABOUT THE ORTHODOX CHAPTER?
"Very strong in this area. We meet regularly, there are retreats in France and a good degree of solidarity. I had to resign the chairmanship after the fire and Fr Michael Morris took over. Fr David Herbert became Area Dean and, as a fellow victim of fire, has been very helpful to us in advice and encouragement."
WHAT ABOUT THE
"We have a Chrism Mass at the Cathedral and it is my firm impression that he is concerned to see that the two integrities works."
Most orthodox who have had to do with the Archbishop would assent to that. The difficulty is that evidence is largely personal and anecdotal. It is clear that he has asserted his determination to replace the retiring Ebbsfleet in the face of considerable opposition from many diocesans. But it is also clear that he and York have sat on the Crown Appointments Commission as it has produced some spectacularly awful results and that his exhortation to diocesans to appoint good orthodox suffragans where appropriate has foundered on his own dioceses lack of example.
It is a curiosity that the Archbishop is regarded with a personal affection in many senior orthodox circles, unthinkable a few years ago, but this in no way reduces the frustration of living in the division he helped create.
"WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE FIRE?"
"We arranged an emergency work party for the Wednesday morning to clean, clear up and organize a place to worship. At 6.30 am, just before Mattins, the doorbell rang. It was Bishop Edwin who had driven from St Albans. He stayed and worked all day with us. Then he and a server organized a chapel. He dedicated and celebrated mass before going home that night. Hes been brilliant and weve had good support from our fellow F in F parishes."
It has been a hallmark of the ministries of the flying bishops that this simple pastoral dedication has revived the New Testament gift of episcopacy in service and closeness to the people.
The fire is in the past. The church, repaired, restored, repainted and re-everythinged is just about ready to be reborn. The faithful offices and daily mass in the re-ordered vestry are nearly at an end. On St Peter's feast St Peters, Folkestone, will rededicated by the Bishop of Richborough.
The Lord being my helper, I will be there along with the prayers and good wishes of all our churches and the many friends of Michael and Diana Houghton across the denominations, across the Kingdom and across the world.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's
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