THE ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEW
AFTER A LONG SPRING and summer of rumour and counter rumour - who was blackballed by the Bishop of X? - who turned it down? - how many people were on the short list and their identity? - the news, when it came, was greeted with joy, enthusiasm and gratitude throughout the orthodox constituency. Father Andrew Burnham, Vice Principal of St Stephen's House, is to be the next Bishop of Ebbsfleet. The West will be in good hands.
Let me declare a personal interest right at the start. Earlier this summer I had written to Burnham primarily to thank him for celebrating and preaching in my parish in my absence. I found myself writing, at the bottom of the sheet, that in the event of his being offered Ebbsfleet he would be very much in my prayers and with the firm personal hope that he would accept for the good of the whole Church. My letter, he tells me now, arrived some 48 hours after the letter from the Archbishop. Several weeks later I telephoned him to ask, in the event of his becoming a bishop, if he would submit to the usual interview treatment for New Directions - of which he has been such a loyal and learned servant in the books department. He replied that, if such a thing ever came about, he would be delighted to do one.
So, on a dank and rain sodden Sunday afternoon in late September, we met in my sitting room at Bushey Heath - Burnham's mother-in-law lives in my parish and he kindly combined a visit.
We began, as always, with prayer and I confessed to him a real worry about this particular exercise. I've always enjoyed interviewing people I don't know; but how do you go about interviewing a friend? There is always the danger of assuming too much knowledge and not asking the question. That, he replied, quick as a flash, is always the danger when you prepare a funeral for someone in the congregation. At this point a minor domestic between my children about the afternoon plans, erupts briefly across in the kitchen and, spookily, the central light fitting above the hearth rug exploded in a thousand shivers around our feet. Undeterred by wars, rumours of wars and localised cosmic signs we ploughed on.
Burnham is a tall, gracious figure with full set and sparkling eyes. He wears his learning lightly but he is unquestionably one of the most intellectually capable men in the Church of England. His voice is gentle and unassertive but without ever losing the proper weight of authority and he possesses a wonderful sense of humour and a rapier wit which can score a palpable hit and leave the target wiser but without resentment.
WHERE DID YOU BEGIN?
I was born in Worksop in Nottinghamshire and was taken to church regularly. In fact I was banned from church when I was four years old because of my misbehaviour. I think I was bored and was caught playing with a threepenny bit under the pews or something.
WHEN DID YOU RETURN TO THE FAITH?
Aged 6. My father became organist at Worksop Priory and I was captivated by the worship - the story of so many anglo catholics. While other children looked forward to the cinema matinee, I looked forward to the feast day High Mass, servers choir etc. Then at eight I went to Choir School for Southwell Minster and was there 'til I was 18 , taking a full part in the life of the cathedral and insisted on being confirmed at 10. Being a bit of a pious know all at that stage I lived in "creative dissent" with the cathedral - which was not high church enough - and gave a lot of unrequested advice. During the holidays I carried on my devotional life at the Priory.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOUR VOCATION?
I was 11. It was in the cathedral, standing there, I was overtaken by the knowledge really as if spoken to, "Didn't you know you were going to be a priest?"
I redoubled my efforts - going to Mass every day in Lent and keeping the score! I had a simple faith and was convinced that anyone who had thought about it for more than five minutes would accept the Christian faith. It was self-evidently true.
WERE YOUR PARENTS DEVOUT?
My father was a typical musician. The service went well if the choir got it right! But underneath that he was firm as a rock. My mother was a Baptist who converted to Anglicanism and likes things done properly and has been a faithful churchgoer as long as I can remember. My brother, Patrick, is also a church organist and musician. His wife is a lay reader and their son is just off to Westcott to train for the priesthood.
WHAT WERE YOU GOOD AT IN SCHOOL?
Music, French and English.
(Burnham remains a considerable musician and, over the years, perhaps unsurprisingly with this background, has been a constant and impressive contributor to liturgical debate at all levels of the Church, not least in General Synod where he has been, of late, leader of the Catholic group.)
WHO INFLUENCED YOU?
A very important priest in my life was Fr. Ralph Foster at the Priory. He put the place on the map. Terrific in the pulpit and one to one but glided through the rest, not being the social whizz and chatter-up that seems to be the model of modern industry.
Another influence was Canon Clement Leaper, a simple anglo catholic who lived the faith and lent me books I didn't understand.
(These, I now reflect, are precisely the kind of volumes that Burnham persistently reviews in our back pages. I am often to be heard at the other end of the editorial board table pleading for an occasional £5.99 evangelistic testimonial that ordinary punters like me can read.)
And Hugh Hayward - very formative. He would always explain the lessons before they were read in Evensong, right down to what the Greek meant.
Oxford, New College, but not theology. I read music on the premise that someone would pay for me to do theology later but no one would pay for me to do music! I started a Bible Study group to unite Anglicans of different traditions. Even OICCU (Ox. Christ. Union) members came so encouraged were they to find someone of my churchmanship reading the Bible!
(It was not difficult for me to imagine this having been with Burnham, in recent years, at private meetings of conservative evangelicals and anglo catholics in Oxford trying to increase our mutual understanding and co-operation. Burnham had an uncanny ability to explain, and, let's be frank, own the Roman Catholic position which, while not making it wholly acceptable to our brothers and sisters in Christ, nonetheless made it comprehensible in the deepest possible sense.)
SO, STRAIGHT TO THE PRIESTHOOD?
Oh, no. I didn't realise it but my faith was being destroyed by the corrosive climate of liberalism and sceptical friends.
I read theology and found it like peeling an onion - after all the layers there was nothing left. I went to look at Stephen's House and was unnerved by it. Ripon Hall seemed to me like bed-and-breakfast. I went to see my tutor, Fr. Gary Bennett, to say I couldn't carry on. He persuaded me to finish the degree, spiritual foresight I suppose, and I went to do a certificate of Education at Westminster College and was then head hunted to be head of music at Bilborough Grammar School in Nottingham.
AND THEN DISASTER?
I'd been there about the year when the crash happened. My car was involved in a motorway pile up. I was thrown clear on to the central reservation. My girlfriend, trapped in the passenger seat, was killed. Sometimes I get a flashback of it, as if in freeze frame and then a unconsciousness.
(Ever since that Burnham has had an anxiety about being locked in anywhere. You wouldn't know it because he handles it quietly and discreetly. He's OK so long as he knows the way out of an unfamiliar building, for example. One of the lighter moments on the announcement of his appointment was receiving immediate invitations to confirm in Stafford prison. He assumes they won't leave the doors ajar even for the bishop.)
HOW DID YOU COPE WITH THE TRAGEDY?
I didn't. My life became a mess - it disintegrated around me. Personally I was completely disorientated and life became a desperate search for meaning and affection. Faith was a long way away. I moved back home with my parents and got a job at a local comprehensive but spent a lot of time performing. Conductor of the Nottingham Harmonic, Director of the English Sinfonia Chorale and then Fr. Wilf Wilkinson took me on as organist for St. Mary's, Clifton.
I was indifferent to cynical. I used to go out for a fag during Holy Communion - very semi-detached and didn't really believe it. I was there for 12 years and it went from surplice and stole and a rickety table to vestments and reservation as Wilf treated me as his liturgy specialist. I remembered what to do and how to do it but it was largely devoid of meaning.
AND THE TWITCH ON THE THREAD?
Wait for it. An old ACCM (selection board) leaflet abandoned on the back table. I read it and wondered if God still wanted me. I pretended that I could do the liberal thing so long as it was done it nicely. But the moment I got back into the tradition I minded much less about the aesthetics. I knew suddenly, again, how vital doctrine was. It either all hung together as the tradition presented it or it was a waste of time.
I knew then what evangelicals mean when they describe conversion. The call back into ministry was accompanied by a sudden new intensity of feeling, belief and purpose. It was an experience of God's unending faithfulness to me. I was off the rails and he rescued me and everything began to fall back into place. I re-entered with the enthusiasm and confidence of childhood .
I looked at the available courses and thought they were a waste of time so I wrote to Dr. Hope. A second selection conference passed me for stipendiary ministry with non-residential training. I fixed up a Staggers (St. Stephen's) course visiting with a few essays and doing placements.
(Students of Father Burnham, in his recent incarnation as Vice Principal of "Staggers", might well tease him with the inquiry as to whether he would be so liberal with himself!)
Then the commitment anxiety struck again. I couldn't give up the music. The Bishop of Southwell suggested I become an N.S.M. (non stipendiary) with the words, "You all end up stipendiaries any way", and I went back to Wilf.
Wilf was an ex Wesleyan and he took it upon himself to teach me to preach. He used to tear me off a strip and one week I had to rewrite my sermon three times.
WHEN DID YOU MARRY?
I met Cathy just before I was ordained - at a resident's meeting. We lived in the same street. We married just after. We'd known each other three months but we both knew this was it.
(The Burnhams have two children Hannah, 14, and Dominic, 12. When I asked him about Cathy's faith he said,
"She's not interested in "religion" like me, she doesn't do it for a living but she has a deep faith and an instinctive spirituality and has always been a great support to my ministry."
I'd like to add she's also very down to earth, no - nonsense and very good fun. I'm not expecting him to quarrel.
It was Cathy who persuaded him to get stuck in and go full-time and so Burnham found himself as curate of Beeston, the Victorian, university suburb of Nottingham. It was an old-fashioned community Church and lots of funerals. Burnham's special ministry to the bereaved began here. The tradition was tractarian and he introduced the full Holy Week liturgy. It was the Burnham's first home, their first child was born there (Hannah) which always makes a parish special somehow. He looked after the interregnum and the parish petitioned the bishop to give him the vicar's job. The bishop, recalls Burnham, "wisely refused". During this time Burnham was called on to conduct the Southwell Centenary Eucharist, 8000 in the cathedral, a choir of 1100.
Carrington from 1987-94. The parish had the 1960s reforms in place but it was a very closed in Eucharist community - no fringe and little outreach. A very high spirituality, half the 80 regulars were retreatants but we'd lost touch a bit with the outside world. I wanted to open the doors and windows and get people in. I told our folk that the last few years had been Easter - communion with the Risen Lord and now it was time for Pentecost. We introduced a non - liturgical "open" service as a tool of mission and I stayed until the parish had celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1993.
1993 WAS DECISION YEAR?
Well in 1994, like many others, I looked at the other possibilities. I explored the Roman Option in the diocese of Nottingham. I was on the point of going, resolved and excited about it. Cathy was far less enthusiastic and very concerned for the family. I hesitated and, not really expecting another job in the Church of England suddenly found myself being asked to go to Oxford to train ordinands.
(And for the last six years and that's where he's been, helping prepare men and women for ministry, trying to square the circle with people of very different theological views. He's also been heavily involved in consulting and teaching on liturgy and mission far outside the walls of the college. He's been an articulate and convincing leader of the Catholic Group and most important of all, the multi-talented, multi-tasked book reviewer of this august organ. If you ever want a pithy comment on the Mozarabic Psalter or the Second Rescension of the Quignon Breviary, Burnham's your man.)
WHAT DID YOU IMAGINE AFTER ST. STEPHEN'S ?
I didn't. I certainly didn't imagine this.
DOES THIS RESOLVE THE ROMAN CALL?
We have to answer the question: in what sense can people live out the Catholic religion in the Church of England? Then, if that's not possible we have to decide on an individual or corporate ecclesial solution.
I have been grateful for George Austin's words, "God has sent you to be a priest now - not in some mythological past when it all worked." And I guess I'm called to be a bishop in the middle of this mess. I've tried to be very clear about that calling and separate it out from any personal vanity and I've been incredibly strengthened by the letters, phone calls messages and emails since the announcement.
It's like being dead but able to read your obituaries - they're very encouraging. People have been what I would call, in different times, affirming.
WHAT CAN A FLYING BISHOP DO?
Well, we've got to get beyond the dynamics of the family row. There have to be decent relations between the churches and bishops, like us, have to be able to be full bishops - selecting, training, ordaining etc. And, to quote George Austin again, "we've got to engage with the emerging constituency of the evangelicals who are nonplussed by our position on women priests but orthodox on everything else". We've got to encourage coherent theology and build up our priests and people for renewal and revival in the spiritual and sacramental life.
DO YOU THINK A THIRD PROVINCE WILL COME?
I think it will be called something else - extended archiepiscopal oversight, whatever- but the framework has to be there and eventually a deal has to be on the table. Women bishops, the pressure on disparate team ministries, the warning signs from America...... there has to be a solution that will allow each side to get on with its life in the maximum possible friendship and co-operation but without compromising principles.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO LIVE?
Dry Sandford Rectory, five miles outside Oxford.
WHEN AND WHERE WILL YOU BE CONSECRATED?
St Paul's Cathedral on St Andrew's day and I'm thrilled about that - not just because it is my name day but because, while liturgy is my strong academic suit, mission is what I care about most. We have a sacred mission to halt the slide of this country into secularism and to hasten the coming of the kingdom in the lives of all. (When Burnham is consecrated he will receive the ring and staff of his beloved predecessor, Bishop Michael Houghton, by the gracious gift of his widow, Diana. Michael, in his turn, received them from the great missionary Bishop of Lesotho, John Maund - an inspiration to so many catholics of our generation. It will be a visible sign of the holy tradition of the apostolic faith and, as those shortly to come under his care are about to find out, they will be in good hands.)
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's.
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