The Robbie Low interview
I looked it up in my diary. It was Saturday 24th March last year. The faithful remnant in St Albans diocese were gathered at Holy Cross, Marsh Farm in Luton for their annual general meeting. After the celebration of Holy Communion, Bishop Edwin addressed us. It was, he told us, the best possible news. The bishops or our constituency had been to see the Archbishop of Canterbury about Bishop Edwin's successor. The Archbishop had named his candidate. His choice was greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude, not least because it coincided with the bishops' overwhelming preference. The meeting was brief and they went on their way rejoicing. We would, Bishop Edwin assured us, be delighted when we knew, and the Archbishop had already asked the priest concerned. We waited with bated breath for the wheels of the Church of England to grind round. The official announcement came just in time for Bishop Edwin's retirement six months later but, by then, speculation had long since hardened into certainty. Those who knew ‘the candidate’ were as enthusiastic as our bishops. Those who didn't were relieved to know that it was to be someone so highly thought of by trusted colleagues. By the time Forward in Faith National Assembly came round we were all able to know that it was Fr Keith Newton and see him make the most assured and acute ‘Maiden’ speech of any of our Fathers in God.
On a bright crisp December morning Father Newton and I met up, before the Forward in Faith Council meeting, at All Saints, London Colney. Over a cup of tea we sat down in one of the rooms on the Oratory side of the quad and I asked him –
Where did you begin?
‘I was born in Liverpool in 1952 in the Walton prison area. We were a working-class family, dad was a gas welder and mum was a shop assistant and I had one brother, five years older than me. I went to the Church of England primary school, passed the eleven-plus and then on to the Grammar. My brother had gone to the Secondary Modern, and I'd seen his plight. It made me pretty left-wing and pro-comprehensive then. In retrospect you see what was needed was reform rather than revolution.’
Newton is a neat compact man, short dark hair combed forward framing a boyish face with sparkling eyes and a ready smile. He talks easily, briskly and with engagement. Passion is not far from the surface but he is also a relaxed and good listener. Twenty-five years of Anglicanism have done little to dull his enthusiasm or diminish his gentle Scouse accent.
What were you good at in school?
‘Physics, chemistry, maths and biology and a bit of running though I wasn't a great sportsman.’
There is a brief diversion recalling doing cross-country with his classmate, the comedian Alexei Sayle.
Were you a church family?
‘No. Dad was confirmed, but a non-attender as he had to work most Sundays. Ma sent us boys to Sunday School and after we were confirmed she got confirmed and then really became very regular after I started training for the priesthood.’
When did you first sense vocation?
‘When I was eight or nine and then very seriously at fifteen. When I told the priest (Father Basil Fletcher-Jones, a great influence) he replied, ‘We've all been waiting.’ Mum was not thrilled, though. I was sent to ACCM at 17 and accepted. They couldn't tell me to take time out and go and see how the other half lived. I was the other half.’
How did you choose a college?
‘Fr Sidney Evans came to preach in the parish and simply told me that if I wanted to do theology I should come to King's College, London. In the meantime, my parish priest was overruling the diocese's anxiety about my age. Things don't change very much. Just the other day somebody referred to me as the ‘boy bishop’. Only the Church could regard 49 as dangerously young for leadership!’
Did you enjoy King's?
‘They were great days and I loved being in London too. We had tremendous teachers – people like Brian Horne, a great loss to the CofE, Eric Mascall and Ulrich Simon. They were giants.’
(Horne, the great student of the mystical novelist Charles Williams, has become a Roman Catholic).
How did you meet your wife?
‘I've known Gill since we were eleven years old in the parish. We ended up as Chairman and Secretary of the youth club and started going out at sixteen. Gill went to Birmingham to read Geography with a view to teaching and we got engaged and then, after graduation, married in 1973.’
‘I was too young to be ordained and had to fill in a year. I wanted to go overseas but we would have had to finance it ourselves so I did a teaching certificate at Christ Church, Canterbury and then a year's pastoral training at St Augustine's while Gill taught in Ashford. Fr Ken Leech was one of my teachers. It was a happy two years and, living in one of a row of cottages, a good start to married life. I even did ten weeks as a verger at Canterbury Cathedral which taught me a lot.’
‘I would like to see clergy a bit more pastoral to their staff! The Dean was a kind man and you realize what a key pastoral role vergers have. ‘
Your first curacy?
‘It was arranged for me to serve with Ken Leech in Bethnal Green but, sadly, that fell through, so I answered an advertisement in the paper for St Mary's, Great Ilford. The priest there was Father John Barnes, a traditional parish priest, who started there as a boat boy and ended up serving for 30 years as their priest. Fr Barnes visited his people, by bicycle, every day and never, to my knowledge, attended a Deanery or Diocesan meeting. It was the strongest parish in the area – no coincidence, I think. He was an example of fidelity and diligence.’
What do you think about long incumbencies?
‘Most incumbencies these days are too short. Too many are keen on getting an ‘important’ parish, as they call it. That is [expletive deleted]. All parishes are important.’
Amen! Alleluia! Bishop Douglas Feaver once remarked that there are two sorts of parish – the important and the self-important.
‘I really wanted to work overseas, experience Christianity in a different culture. Gill didn't want to go until we had started a family and we weren't having any luck. I had this very romantic view, since I was fifteen, inspired by Trevor Huddleston, about mission; but we put it on hold and Sidney Evans sent me off to a second-curacy daughter church in Wimbledon. It was much more varied than I had imagined. I had St Matthew's – a church built to catch those who otherwise would have gone to London for their extremes of worship! We were there seven years, during which time it became a team ministry and two of our children were born.’
Lucy is 20 and studying Mathematics at Nottingham. Tom is 17 and deep into A- levels with a view to History and International Studies. Jamie, who is 14, was born in that finally achieved overseas posting! Newton's dad died during the deacon year and Mum married a widower who was one of his great pals. He, in turn, died last year, but not before being a marvellous Grandad for so much of the children's lives.
And so abroad ?
‘Yes. No excuses then. It was now or never. I went down to USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) thinking I would see the man on the Caribbean desk, as I only spoke English. He was out, but the lady for Central Africa was in and, by the time I left the office she had practically booked my ticket. Several jobs were open, but they decided on parish priest of Blantyre – the largest city in Malawi.’
In order to prepare him, Newton was sent to Selly Oak. A priest there told him that the parish priest of Blantyre was also the Dean and perhaps he could learn how to be a Dean at Salisbury Cathedral. Grateful for the warning and the advice Newton rightly assessed there would be little in common between Salisbury and Blantyre and set-off to Bulawayo to get some serious orientation from Bishop Robert Mercer of Matabeleland.
What was malawi like?
‘Malawi is called ‘the warm heart of Africa’. It was warm and encouraging and I was never afraid there. Of course, politically Hastings Banda ran a one-party dictatorship and people were careful not to talk politics knowing that prison could follow. The Dean is involved in everything as well as running this huge parish the size of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. There were 20 out-stations and much travelling. The Great Rift Valley and turning up at isolated communities, so poor but so generous, who would kill a chicken for you, which was a real sacrifice.’
The size of his cure, the out-stations, the travelling are providential preparation for the task awaiting him. Among those laying on hands will be the Bishop of Botswana, an old friend and, for those who were at Aylesford some years ago, the very forthright no-nonsense orthodox preacher!
How long were you there?
‘Six and a half years with one of mid-term break. I still miss it. The first five years back in England were so hard after giving up Malawi.’
Why did you return?
‘Our parents were getting older and our children thought of England as a foreign country.’
This, I reflect grimly, is the increasing experience of many of us who have never left the shores.
Where did you return?
‘We spent five months in a USPG flat in Bournemouth job-hunting and missing Africa. This was 1991 and my first job interview I was asked if I was in favour of women priests. Michael Scott-Joynt was very kind and helpful and came up with two posts, but I turned them down because, on reflection, I didn't really want to be in England.
When St Margaret's, Leigh-on-Sea came up, I contacted Archdeacon Ernie Stroud. He told me, regretfully, diocesan policy was ‘no new priests’ but he wondered if I'd be interested in his childhood parish of Holy Nativity, Knowle. The Bishop of Bristol invited me to look and was very helpful, as indeed he has been since the announcement of my appointment to Richborough.’
This is good to hear and certainly in stark contrast to the behaviour of the deeply insecure Diocesan bishop who is known to have vetoed an earlier proposed preferment for Newton.
‘We were there ten years and I was made Priest-in-charge of All Hallows, Easton, another ‘C’ parish but not contiguous. We had a lot of young families in traditional Victorian housing and Edwardian villas covering the triangle from Temple Meads Station to Somerset. It was a mixed community with an average ninety communicants. There was a large Asian population, either Muslim or Methodist, and I had a curate for a training parish.’
It was the parish our much missed Bishop Michael Houghton and Diana made their base and there is little doubt that Michael made no secret among his colleagues and his Archbishop of his admiration for his parish priest.
You belong to SSC?
‘Yes. SSC (Society of the Holy Cross) is a very important part of my spiritual life. I joined in 1978 and have much valued the support of fellow clergy and that sense of belonging through regular and Chapter meetings.’
In the wake of '92 did you consider leaving?
‘Why should I be forced out of my Church and they would have to force me out. I wouldn't go easily. We have a gospel to proclaim. Non illegitimi carborundum. ‘
When did you know about Richborough?
‘George wrote to me in March and asked to see me. In one sense, it was not a surprise because I knew my name had been around, but I was surprised that he thought I was up to it.’
What was your first reaction?
‘My heart sank. I knew it would mean a very different life for the family. Gill was worried because she wouldn't see much of me. How did we know it was the will of God? We were buoyed by other people's confidence and encouragement and although we woke up every morning with a sinking feeling in our stomachs that has gone now. It departed the day of the announcement and the moment all our people knew and started praying for us.’
What is your vision for the future?
‘I don't know the future. It’s one year at a time. I have no clear vision, though I am clear that the advent of women bishops would change everything. We have a duty to present the consequences of such a development. A third province is certainly one scenario.
We can't predict the future. We couldn't have foreseen today in 1992.
The future of the Catholic movement in the Church of England is to be found in strong parishes. Catholics can be obsessed by great events, ‘dos’ and gatherings. That isn't everything. We must concentrate on teaching the faith, young people's work, Sunday School and so on.
How do you see yourself as a bishop?
‘I'm a parish priest at heart. I hope I'm never anything else.’
Fr Keith will be consecrated Bishop of Richborough on March 7th at 11.00am in Southwark Cathedral.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.
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