THE ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEW

Martyn Jarrett

 

WHEN I ANNOUNCED, to my eldest son, that I was off to Burnley for the day, he combined the one fact he knew about the place with an impeccable sense of logic. It was obvious that, eccentric to a fault, his father had acquired a ticket to see Arsenal's greatest goalscorer, Ian Wright (now playing for Burnley) help the men from Turf Moor to promotion in the final fixture of the season. There could be no other compelling reason for the old man to play truant from the parish for a day unless it was intimately connected to that other weekly worship that long pre-dated the Low family's conversion to christianity. (Truth to tell it was the only fact I knew about Burnley too. It was 40 years since Bob Lord's great teams had been in the top flight and seriously troubled the trophy cabinets.)

As the mid-morning train from Watford Junction rumbled through the Midlands on its way to Preston (another once great side now resurgent!) I reflected that the object of my journey might be of considerably less immediate interest to my son but would have a major influence on whether he and thousands of other catholic youngsters could continue to treat the familiar turf of the Church of England parish church as a home match.

I was on my way to meet Martyn Jarrett, bishop of that bleak rain-soaked Lancastrian outpost, who had recently been announced as the new Bishop of Beverley, in succession to John Gaisford.

Contrary to all my southern prejudice, the sun continued to shine vigorously all day and only seriously began westering home as I passed through Crewe at 8.30 in the evening.

Contrary to the bishops experience, my Virgin train was actually two minutes early. One of his few bug bears, I discover, is the near five-hour trip from home to London for occasional meetings, - that's without delays!

Jarrett is there to greet me. He is a tall lithe man with a boyish face that belies his 57 years, a warm smile and handshake and simple unaffected conversation. There is a West country burr and no "g" on the "ing" endings. Bristol?

He eschews the purple and is in a simple black clerical shirt and unadorned silver pectoral. He has kindly driven over to pick me up at Preston to save the delays in changing trains and we drive through a surprisingly green landscape to a substantial but not palatial stone house on a main road with a beautifully kept garden. (Today is one of the gardener's days.)

Jarrett's wife, Betty, is there to greet us and her warm and friendly voice on the phone translates into a warm and friendly person in the flesh and we are ushered into a tasty lunch of home-made moussaka and delicious pudding. We adjourn, with coffee, to Jarrett's study annexe, a nice, light, book-lined room, purpose built by his predecessor, while Betty prepares for her next appointment with a client - she is a highly qualified psychotherapist.

Comfortably ensconced in a couple of armchairs we pray and I asked him,

Where did you begin?

"I was born into a working-class family in Bristol in 1944. The area, Kingsdown, has now been slum - cleared. My dad was a Sergeant - Major and then a bus driver. Mum was a housewife."

Was yours a Christian family?

"Their church-going was irregular. Sometimes they went often enough to be on the P.C.C. Other times they didn't go for years. My mother would go to Mattins while father cooked the Sunday lunch. I was baptised at St James at the Horse Fair."

Jarrett has a brother, David, who is two years his senior and a stockbroker, so God and Mammon are fairly represented in the family. David must prove quite a useful source of insider information for Jarrett's articles on christian socialism, I reflect. We both agree that someone has to do this awful sacrificial job.

Where did you go to school?

"St Michael's Church Primary. Three of us passed the 11 plus and went to Cotham Grammar School. John Saxbee (Bp. of Ludlow) was in the year below me and, in spite of our differences, we have remained very good friends over the years. John was a long distance runner while I was captain of chess - an obsession which had an adverse effect on my examination results."

What were your best subjects?

"English and History. I struggled with languages and only scored 29 per cent at French A - level."

This is a capital reply for a civilised Englishman. Whenever asked if I have any real theological problems I return to the baffling question, "How could a good God have created the French?"

When did you first sense a calling to priesthood?

"I had wanted to be a priest since I was seven years old and even after being expelled from confirmation class for bad behaviour and not attending for a while didn't shift that desire."

Had Jarrett not been a naughty he might never have left his "Keswick Convention" Church and found himself in a strange church at Benediction.

"I knew then I was home", he recalls. "The Canon was said in secret, the Angelus rung and confession was the expected norm. And you had to queue. I've been a penitent since I was 15 and grateful for it."

This wasn't Jarrett's sole experience. The Plymouth Brethren ran a mission hut with activities for children and Bible classes.

"My disciplined biblical knowledge grew out of that and I've never stopped being an evangelical. The Jesus we meet in personal encounter and experience, in conversion, at the altar, in the scriptures, in the confessional, they are one."

Were you ever tempted by Rome?

"In my teens. And, after 92, having looked at the Roman option I made a serious recommitment to Anglicanism. The Act of Synod made it possible for me to stay. I love the Church of England and it would break my heart to leave her. Reception has given us space. Some may say that's to give us a chance to catch up or go away but, in my naughtier moments, I think it's the other way round."

Jarrett was selected for training while in the sixth form and given a place at King's College London. But first he had to do a year out in Birmingham on the Spring Hill project under Ronald Gordon who was a great influence along with the burgeoning French worker-priest movement which Jarrett believes paved the way for Vatican 2. (He became a semi-- skilled guillotine operator. Friends have often teased him that he would be immensely useful come the revolution but they're not so sure about the "semi-".)

"This period taught me that we must not be so defensive about orthodoxy within the Church; that we are not open to exciting renewal movements. I was a great fan of Bonhoeffer, excited by the early Hans Kung and, of course, the "Honest to God" debate was in full swing. There was much more theological interest in wider society than now."

How was Kings?

"John Taylor (former Bishop of St Albans) once asked me, in astonishment, how I had got through three years of Kings without becoming a liberal. John Broadhurst was a year ahead of me so it wasn't an unique miracle. We've remained good friends, sometimes sparring partners but fond of each other. John is a really good pastor and was good to me when I hit a rough patch."

How did you meet Betty?

"1965 - home with some student friends and invited to supper. Betty was another guest - a teacher and a Methodist."

Who knew it was the real thing first?

Pause .... "I did... But maybe she was just playing hard to get."

I tease him that a man with a psychotherapist for a wife has a unique complaint, "My wife understands me too well."

They were married in 1968 in the Easter before his deaconing. 32 years on and they have two grown up daughters Mary, 30, a social worker and Judith, 27, a schoolteacher, both married and one granddaughter, Ruth.

How did Betty get into psychotherapy?

"Bishop Hewlett-Thompson started the Willesden Training in Pastoral Relationships Scheme. I went on it and then Betty. She progressed to be Family Life Officer and then to the Westminster Pastoral Foundation. She got a place at the Jungian Institute but had to forgo it when we moved and ended up doing Freudian work at Leicester with Michael Jacob."

Later, when I am leaving, Betty offers me a session, jokingly, I think. You're never quite sure with psychotherapists. I tell her she couldn't possibly afford me but her husband and I are both envious of the 50 minute appointment system and the 30 fee. Why can't the Church of England be more professional?!

We discover a great mutual friend in common, a remarkable lady woman spiritual director who looked after me for five years and turns out to have been trained by Jarrett. This, humblingly, makes me his spiritual grandson. We spend a considerable amount of time on the ministry of spiritual direction, healing ministry and Requiem and Reconciliation which are long-standing mutual interests.

Where did you serve?

"St George's, Bristol, for two years then, because of pastoral reorganisation, St Mark's, Swindon for four and a half years. Our children were born there and five junior staff served under the remarkable Canon Cratchley - seven degrees and a genuine (not honorary) DD. A very happy time."

And then?

"St Joseph the Worker, North holt. Very tough. But I also did some spiritual direction at Harrow School. My other connection with Harrow was a tramp who regularly inherited my old vests and used to sing my praises to the evangelical caretaker. If found drunk or dead my name was still in the vests. I followed Bill Ind ( now Bishop of Truro) there. Bill was a modern saint Francis. Everyone knew him. A very prayerful and a very godly man - a real estate priest. He made a profound contribution at Lambeth in 1998."

Where next?

"Uxbridge but that was brief. Pastoral reorganisation and a difficult situation meant the only way to go forward was for me to stand down. I didn't want to unsettle the children so applied for the job at ACCM, got it and moved into John Broadhurst 's old parish. I was unusual at ACCM in having 17 years parish experience and went on to become a Senior Selection Secretary. I know some catholics are paranoid about ABM (the new name for the selection board) but the procedures are absolutely fair."

At the end of his time there he went to Chesterfield and renewed an acquaintance with Tony Benn who had, of course, once represented Bristol.

"We fitted out the vicarage to spend the rest of my 17 years there - so someone inherited good carpets! I fell wildly in love with Chesterfield. Beautiful music - 40 man choir - when 4 vacancies occurred for boys we had 100 apply. A roll of over 350 and plenty of civic opportunities for building bridges with the community. And then suddenly, there was a phone call out of the blue.

Bishop Alan (Chesters) had consulted his diocese and they wanted an internal arrangement not a PEV. My name had been put forward by Bishop Dawes, not a traditionalist, and Alan asked me to come to Burnley. We had a ding-dong within five minutes of meeting but he simply said, "I didn't appoint you to agree with me." and I've loved working with him. It is a model arrangement and it's a pity other dioceses haven't followed this example. If there was a fairer distribution of suffragan appointments the Church would not be as polarised as it is in some places."

Jarrett is profoundly fond of his bishop and his Archbishop. "When the history of the last 20 or 30 years of Anglicanism is written people will realise what giants Bishop Alan and Archbishop David have-been for the Catholic cause." He worries terribly about Chester's work rate and feels let down by the apparent lack of support for Chester's Section 28 deal with the government. Chesters has encouraged Jarrett to maintain his work and study on Catholic Social theology, get a place on the bishop's urban group and oversee the chaplaincy to the prisons (six of them - a major industry in the diocese.)

Life in the diocese?

"Clergy are very happy to work here. We have more "A" and "B" parishes pro-rata than anywhere in the country and a solid Prayer book Catholic base. We are the biggest exporter of ordinands, more Church schools pro-rata and the second largest confirmation in the country after Oxford. I wouldn't take the Christian Research figures too seriously (they showed the biggest electoral roll decline in the country over a decade). We're one of the last dioceses to bring electoral roll figures into quota assessment and there's a huge fringe of "belonging" people that can no longer be sensibly counted for financial returns. It's a pity, I always used to put every communicant on my rolls. I've tried to be Bishop to all the diocese and that's also meant a lot of inter-faith work."

Why can't women be priests?

"I'm not an impossibilist. It's an ecclesiological issue for me. The idea that Anglicans can make a change in the Universal Church is a travesty of our position. We always condemned Rome for taking unilateral action and the Reformation was an appeal to antiquity and scripture. No one could claim that women's ordination is that. It's like talking about square circles."

Interestingly Jarrett has had four women curates - some now priests and all remained friends. "I find the idea that people of our view can't behave justly, decently and pastorally frankly insulting." Amen to that!

Where do you stand on the communion document?

"I'm in a dialogue with it. There's much confusion on this subject. Churches are in communion - individuals may avail themselves of the opportunity therein. For example, Eucharistic hospitality is not the same thing as being in communion. There are times when it's appropriate to receive and times when it may not be."

What will you do?

"That will evolve. I don't receive from women priests as a matter of theological conviction but I don't demonstrate. I prefer not to be present. I preached for Affirming Catholicism and they promised to do nothing to embarrass me. I went to the Jubilee of a colleague whose wife is a priest, former curate of mine. I preached, he celebrated, she assisted. Traditional Anglicans mustn't dig themselves into holes other churches are just digging themselves out of. There is a great deal of apologetics to show why everyone else is not a true catholic. That was Newman's style - it is not that of Vatican 2. Ecumenism moves toward rebuilding communion. I think Bishops Geoffrey Rowell and Paul Richardson would be quite comfortable with my position. I am appointed by the Catholic Church and not by one constituency within it. I think an over defined line is not helpful and that is why many people have not joined national bodies."

You are in Forward in Faith?

"Yes, I think I must have joined early on but, I've not been involved in the organisation. I soon became Bishop of Burnley and that gave me a distinctive role. Forward in Faith is a key organisation in the traditionalist movement but a P.E.V. must remember that his constituency is much wider. In Burnley there are 70 traditionalist priests. I doubt whether one quarter of them are Forward in Faith."

What's your view of the Third Province proposals?

"When I'm on a ship I like to have lifeboats on board but a holed ship is still better security than a lifeboat. I'm not convinced it's a preferred option. We shouldn't underestimate the practical and ecclesiological issues raised by it. There are non-territorial models in Anglicanism but I'm hesitant because it might weaken us. A bishop is called to lead in Mission - that's difficult enough from a place but from a disconnected series of parishes I'm not sure how it can work. I prefer the status quo if alternative episcopal oversight works."

What about being prepared if things change - as they will?

"The Third Province doesn't solve the problem. There would be more who would not join it than would and that would weaken the protection of the rest. The Act of Synod would probably go. But when I was with the continuing churches in Canada I did ask myself how would I cope with what they have had to put up with. You're right and the context could change. Women bishops would raise new issues. Our relations with the Methodists - reconciliation in a non-structural way -would raise issues and different models of co - existing. I can't envisage myself being a bishop in a college with women - but then I didn't envisage the Act of Synod either. Certainly if the present situation is to continue and flourish it will require far more encouragement and generosity from the majority integrity."

When did you know about Beverley?

"I agreed in March so I must have been asked in February. Archbishop David did considerable consultation and told me the personal profile of the desired candidate pointed to me. I am devoted to David Hope and wherever I live I want to be seen as part of the Archbishop's staff - I'm doing this for him, that's the right ecclesiology.

I also want to be able to carry on my work on inter-faith and urban issues because it's important for catholic bishops to be involved in confronting the major issues."

Jarrett will be inaugurated on the 7th October in York Minster. Curiously, he was a co-consecrator of his predecessor.

Is this a demotion?

"I don't think I think in those terms. To appoint someone who's been a bishop six years shows the importance attached to the post. I won't have to get used to being a bishop. Every move requires some sacrifice but it's an honour. Being a bishop in a place, you get to love it. This will be different and need adjustment; but I will be a voice in the church, passionately committed to the catholic cause. I love it far too much to let it make a fool of itself. To flourish we need a credible apologetic. In Burnley I started a group called "Not just Staying but Rejoicing.""

What excites you about the Catholic movement today?

"Young traditionalist ordinands coming forward expecting nothing but to fulfil their vocation.

Sacred Synod was exciting - not the political bits. I am devoted to Caister-Catholics coming aside to be with God.

Opportunities for a PEV to advance evangelism, spiritual direction and healing.

Also, I've been a member of SSC since 1969."

You mentioned Section 28 earlier - where are you on that issue?

"I voted with the majority at Lambeth. I'm with Cardinal Hume on this who called on bishops to reach out to the marginalised, the disapproved of, sinners and says this doesn't conflict with your duty as a guardian of the faith. He repeated traditional teaching with such humanity and compassion that people heard it.

To be honest I'm more fired up by the abortion issue and issues of race and peace."

It has been a long and enjoyable afternoon. We emerge from the study. Betty has a message from the diocesan office. The man giving the paper on marriage tonight is in Kenya - can Bishop Jarrett say something? As he has just beaten me to the watering hole, I venture, "Tell her that the bishop is in favour of it."

A more substantial input is, apparently, required.

Amid much laughter he kindly drives me back to Preston where, with an hour and a half to kill, I find Tiggi's (Guildhall Street) and indulge myself in Linguini con Scampetti with spinach, chilled and herbed olives and a huge garlic-soaked focaccia plus a refreshing tumbler.

The North is different - it cost me a less than a tenner !

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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