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Former Abbot Hugh Gilbert is turning out to be an impressive Bishop of Aberdeen. What a splendid Archbishop of Westminster he would have made…

I still believe the speculation that that’s what Rome would have preferred was true

By on Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen

Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen

The Scotsman newspaper had a rather good story earlier this week, about Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, who, when asked a question about the Scottish government’s plans to introduce gay “marriage”, replied, provocatively but rather splendidly: “The truth is that a government can pass any legislation it likes. Why is it all right for a man to marry another man, but not all right for him to marry two women? If we really want equality, why does that equality not extend to nieces who genuinely, truly love their uncles?”

He added: “As Bishop of Aberdeen, I know there are gay people among the community of the Church. I promise I will always respect and love them and uphold them in their relationship with the God who loves them. But I won’t marry them. It just can’t be done.”

This clear and vigorous response made me wish, oh so much, that at the time when there was a great deal of speculation about his succeeding Cardinal Cormac at Westminster, this real possibility had materialised.

So much would have been different. I do not believe, for example, that as Archbishop of Westminster he would have thrown his weight behind the Labour government’s introduction of same-sex civil partnerships; nor do I believe that he would have allowed the Soho Masses to continue with the full support of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

There were many reasons (of which more presently) why this would have been the best outcome for Westminster. First, though, I was interested to see on the Catholic World Report blog, under the headline “Bp. Hugh Gilbert states the truth. Usual suspects are ‘offended’ ”, the comment “What, exactly, is offensive about the bishop’s remarks? After all, if people really do believe in ‘equality’, isn’t it bigoted of same-sex marriage proponents to consider their understanding of marriage to be superior to that of polygamists or relatives who wish to be married? On what basis do they separate their efforts from those of a man who wishes to have three wives, a woman who seeks two husbands, or an uncle and niece who are pursuing nuptials? If “equality” is simply an arbitrary marker that moves according to personal tastes, social fads, and other whims, who is to say that “gender-neutral” marriages are any better than what we might call relation-blind marriages or numerically flexible marriages?”

The Catholic World Report emerged again, when I made a Google search for more information about Bishop Hugh: in a post dating from the time when speculation about the search for a new Archbishop of Westminster was raging, the blog Clerical Whispers had a series of quotes from various writers, including one from me, which I simply couldn’t at first remember having written. “The Pope,” I had said, “needs to find a man who combines ability with both orthodoxy and charisma. Rome is looking for someone outside what has been described as the episcopal club of largely liberal English bishops: one candidate who fits all these criteria (and has been noticed where it matters) is Abbot Hugh Gilbert of Pluscarden, who would be the first convert Archbishop of Westminster since Cardinal Manning”. Well, it’s true that that’s what I thought. But where did I write it?

A bit more searching on the net turned up an article I had completely forgotten about, which had been commissioned by the aforementioned Catholic World Report; and I hope my readers will forgive me if I proceed, in a spirit of regretful nostalgia, to go over once more not only why it would have been a most splendid thing for him to be, as in the end he was, appointed to the episcopate (lucky old Aberdeen), but exactly what were the needs of the Archdiocese of Westminster that he could have fulfilled.

For the article, I considered a number of candidates, including the one who was finally appointed. He had, as Archbishop of Birmingham, I wrote, surprised everyone by his support for the Magisterium. “But,” I added, “however unambiguous his present support for Rome and all its works, there remains a suspicion that at heart he is still the unregenerate liberal everyone supposed him to be when he was — as a result — prevented from succeeding Basil Hume.” My feeling was that Rome would probably prefer another candidate, a fresh start. And despite what actually transpired, I still think I was right: “the conviction has grown in Rome”, I wrote

that — in the words of one very senior and very influential cardinal (one of those responsible for the speedy election of Pope Benedict) — “it is time to go outside the episcopal club of England and Wales.”

The search has been on for some time now and has ranged far and wide: and more and more, it is focusing on one name. A number of Vatican officials have now made the long journey to Benedictine Pluscarden Abbey in the northeast of Scotland, and some of them have made retreats there.

They have all been deeply impressed by the abbot, a stirring preacher, much sought after as a spiritual director, who seems to fulfill, uniquely, all the criteria for Westminster. He is well outside the English episcopal club. He has presence, and could “move on the national stage”; as an abbot he is perfectly at home as a public figure and often meets the bishops of Scotland. He is a man of prayer, with that most rare of qualities — a palpable charisma that really is a matter of personal spiritual quality rather than a self-conscious communicator’s personality. And his name is now circulating in Rome among senior cardinals.

He is Dom Hugh Gilbert, an Englishman born in 1952, a convert to Catholicism. He was educated at St. Paul’s School (famous for producing original and independent minds, among them one of the greatest of English converts, G K Chesterton) and King’s College in the University of London, where he read history. On leaving university, he entered Pluscarden in 1974. He was ordained in 1982 and was made novice master. He was elected abbot in 1992 at the early age of 40. Under his leadership, the abbey has grown and flourished, founding two daughter houses in Africa and the US. This compares strikingly with the decline of other monasteries and religious orders.

Abbot Gilbert is a man with a very definite and impressive presence. He has a dry sense of humour; there is about him an attractive sense of vitality and sparkle. He is also genuinely humble and self-effacing, and is said by one source to be “mortified and embarrassed at the attention he is receiving.”

There were various stories about why this perfect appointment did not — or could not at the time — come to fruition. I do not know what the explanation is. Simon Caldwell, still from time to time of this parish, wrote in the Mail that “Dom Hugh Gilbert … originally said he would be happy to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as Archbishop of Westminster. But then one of his key aides left the abbey – after falling in love with a woman. Worried that his monastic community would break up, Dom Hugh told the Pope he had changed his mind.”

Is any of that true? I simply don’t know. All I do know is that I’m sorry, very sorry that he didn’t become Archbishop of Westminster. “For of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘it might have been’.”

  • Richard Collins

    Indeed, Westminster would have a very different feel to it had Bishop Hugh Gilbert been appointed as Archbishop. For a start it would feel Catholic.

  • teigitur

    He is a very gentle, humble, deeply God-centered man. Anyway that was the impression I got when I met him a few years ago at the Abbey.

  • kentgeordie

    Bishop Gilbert would have been a wonderful appointment. As would the other Nichols, Aidan.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    “The truth is that a government can pass any legislation it likes. Why is it all right for a man to marry another man, but not all right for him to marry two women? If we really want equality, why does that equality not extend to nieces who genuinely, truly love their uncles?”
    This is a great point and it’s one that I’ve been making for a while now.

    If we accede now to the gay marriage lobby whose argument is that they genuinely love each other and that they want equality, then we really have no answer whatsoever when the “legalise polygamy” lobby and the “legalise incestuous marriage” lobby come calling in a few years time!!

    Either marriage means something definite that cannot change, or it doesn’t. There is no third option. 

    Having said that though, we really should have had this scrap when divorce was legalised, as that was the point when society decided that the meaning of marriage could change!

  • EdinburghEye

    To be fair to Hugh Gilbert, after 37 years in a monastery he probably isn’t used to women explaining to him that really, they don’t love the “uncles” who rape them: he’s presumably only listened to confessions from the uncles claiming their nieces are to blame.

    I do feel sorry for him in his inexperience, and hope that he awakens to the wider world now he’s a bishop.

    But what’s your excuse?

  • Catholic Youth Work

    That’s miles away from the matter in hand.

    The fact is that some people do want polygamous marriage. Some people genuinely do want incestuous marriage. The fact that abuse exists is true and very sad but it’s not part of this discussion really…?

  • awkwardcustomer

    Dr Oddie, do you think Bishop Gilbert will finally incardinate the monks of Papa Stronsay into the Diocese of Aberdeen?  They’ve been waiting nearly four years now.  This Traditionalist monastic community – formerly the Transalpine Redemptorists but renamed as the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer since they were reconciled to Rome – cannot ordain their seminarians nor offer Mass outside of their tiny, island location.  Bishop Gilbert’s predecessor didn’t get round to formalising their situation. Will his successor?  

    Bishop Gilbert may have spoken out against gay marriage, as did Bishop Tartaglia who was recently announced as the new Archbishop of Glasgow.  But neither individual has the slightest sympathy for the Traditional Mass or for those Catholics attached to it.  It takes more than an opposition to gay marriage to make a true Catholic Bishop. 

  • nytor

    There’s still promotion possible…Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh after O’Brien, maybe?

  • Philothea

    The fact that some people may want incestuous or polygamous marriage is not proof that they are going to be legalised in any foreseeable future. I think the bishop was indulging a not entirely serious reductio ad absurdum argument, but if the Catholic Church wants to stop gay marriage it will have to come up with something better than this.

  • Charlemagne

    Incest was quite normal in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations with marriages between brothers and sisters and 1st cousins. Polygamy has been quite common in many Islamic states. Christianity has defined marriage as between one man and one woman. If people argue that there is no reason why it should only be between men and women then there is no real argument against it being polygamous, several men or several women. Why not 3 gay men? And birth control can prevent any biological consequences of incest so why not a brother and sister or how about two brothers or two sisters? The rabbit hole will never end unless someone has the courage to establish clear standards based on logic and reason.

  • teigitur

    Yes, indeed. I wish he would do this soon. Unlike Bishop Tartaglia, Bishop Gilbert is not antagonistic towards the Traditional Mass.It is offered from time to time by visiting groups in the Abbey. Unlike in Paisley Diocese where there is an outright ban.

  • Lago1

    In actual fact, polygamous and incestuous relationships can be marriages.  Its just that Christianity does not regard them as good forms of marriage. 

    However, in the case of same sex relationships, its simply a matter that they just cannot be marriages.

  • Uidhessan

    You are quite wrong in your assumption.The Benedictine in Pluscarden say the Gregorian Mass and Chant.I attend frequently.

  • theroadmaster

    Bishop Hugh Gilbert raises a very interesting corollary to the present demand for marriage to be legally extended to same-sex couples.  As he explains, why should this offer of marital “equality” be held back from other permutations e.g uncle and niece.  It is an  uncomfortable scenario to raise, but is worth stating in relation to the current context that the putative attempts to legislatively redefine marriage are sought.  The bishop appears to be Aberdeen’s gain and Westminister’s loss, as he proclaims in unambiguous language, the Church’s understanding of the essential criteria which defines the condition of marriage.

  • EdinburghEye

    Not at all. Hugh Gilbert spontaneously brought up the idea that uncles rape their nieces because their nieces “love” their uncles. No one else did. Now he either has to apologise for saying it, or deal with what it says about his character at almost the very beginning of his appointment as bishop of Aberdeen.

    Moving on:

    Sixty-five percent of the population of Scotland support same-sex marriage – this is solid, confirmed by several different polls and the recent consultation (once you strip away the various methods anti-gay groups used to try to distort the figures).  Assuming that the 6-8% of the population who are LGBT all support same-sex marriage, that means well over half the heterosexual population of Scotland believe that LGBT people should have exactly the same civil and human right they themselves have, to marry the person of their choice: and an even higher proportion (68%) believe that churches and synogogues and Quaker Meetings that want to be able to celebrate the weddings of same-sex couples should be allowed to do so.

    (An even higher proportion (93%) believe that no religious celebrant who is opposed to same-sex marriage should have to perform the service: celebrants from churches opposed to same-sex marriage already have their right to refuse protected under the Equality Act 2010: the Scottish Government has asked Westminster to amend the Act so that celebrants from churches that support same-sex marriage will also have the right to refuse.)

    There is absolutely no equivalent support for polygamous marriage in Scotland, or anywhere else in the UK. There is no political movement to make poly marriage legal. All attempts to claim that poly marriage is equivalent to same-sex marriage have failed. The claim that same-sex marriage will lead to poly marriage has been made by anti-gay campaigners for years, and has – in 11 countries so far – always been shown to be mere malicious scaremongering.

    No one except the Catholic Church in Scotland is trying to claim that incestuous marriage is something people want. No one at all.

  • EdinburghEye

    As he explains, why should this offer of marital “equality” be held back from other permutations e.g uncle and niece.

    Odd how keen so many Catholics are to argue for legalising incest between uncle and niece.

  • theroadmaster

    How odd(perhaps not) that you seek to distort the point that Catholics make about  the logical extension of the present attempts to redefine marriage in such an elastic fashion, as distinct from it;s well-understood meaning over 2 millennia or more.

  • gabriel_syme

     Sixty-five percent of the population of Scotland support same-sex
    marriage – this is solid, confirmed by several different polls and the recent consultation (once you strip away the various methods anti-gay groups used to try to distort the figures)

    Intellectually bankrupt delusion.

    67% of Scots are against gay marriage, as per the consultation.  Only a fool would claim otherwise.

    The “methods to distort the figures” you mention include:

    1) being against gay marriage
    2) replying to the consultation via postcard or letter, which was perfectly legitimate.  There was no obligation to use the online form.

    What you say above is just pathetic and an affront to democracy.

    No one except the Catholic Church in Scotland is trying to claim that
    incestuous marriage is something people want. No one at all.

    In Canada they wanted gay marriage, not polygamy.  But they still had to rule against pro-polygamy court cases.

    In Europe, they wanted gay marriage, not incest.  But the ECHR still had to rule against a case to uphold german incest laws.

    This will be no means the end of such court cases.  Indeed, it is only the beginning.

    Wake up.

  • Peter

    I think we can take our local swimming baths to court for providing only a communal changing rooms and communal showers for men.

    Now that men can officially marry other men, one man becomes an object of sexual desire to another, and therefore it is inappropriate that men undress and shower in front of each other.

    The permission of men to marry other men ought to coincide with widespread court cases throughout the country demanding that changing and shower rooms in swimming baths and sport centres provide private booths and showers.

    It is only the logical extension of allowing men to marry.


  • Daclamat

    Many Catholics of the Leeds diocese will remember the pastoral letter ordered by Bishop Heenan to be read on the first Sunday of the  month:  the faithfaul are warned of the grave dangers of mixed marriage. Although many exemplary Catholics are children or partners of such marriages, many lapse from the faith or lose their fervour. Deathless prose.  I have just remembered that David was required by the King to provide 200 Philistinian foreskins in order to marry his daughter. How do we interpret this?  It seems something of a setback to marital equality. I’d like to hear the bishop proclaim in unambiguous language the Church’s understanding of the essential criteria defining the condition of marriage. Seems to me the exegetes have a lot on their plate.

  • James

    Got there before me.

    Two-thirds of Scots are against same-sex “marriage,” despite which the government have decided to press on with their plans anyway.

    I don’t know of a single instance where same-sex “marriage” has been introduced where it wasn’t imposed by either legislators or judiciary against the expressed wishes of the people.

    “EdinburghEye,” is a troll.

  • chiaramonti

    The bishop is quite right. The legilsature can introduce anything it likes; it doesn’t make it right. Same sex marriage is a logical nonsense and a lie. If it becomes law, it will simply be a legislated lie. Parliament thinks it is supreme in all matters. As a constitutional principle this is correct, but Parliament has usually recognised that certain matters are, in reality, beyond its competence. I doubt if legislation would ever be passed to make a triangle a four sided figure or suggest that a square should henceforeth be treated as if it were a circle! Same sex marriage is simply an attempt to mess with a well recognised concept and, I have no doubt, will in future years, be regarded as a mistake and a nonsense. The problem is it will probably do immense damge before common sense returns.

  • teigitur

    Indeed, but it is the Missal of 1970.

  • teigitur


  • W Oddie

    This man is a troll (i.e.
    (wikipedia) “someone who posts inflammatory … messages in an online community
    with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of
    otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion”. The best thing is not to
    respond to him. 

  • W Oddie

    See my note above: just ignore him

  • awkwardcustomer

    Catholic Herald blogs, not just this one, are swarming with trolls.  Is that because the other Catholic blogs would send them packing in no time at all.  

  • awkwardcustomer

    I posted the following comment to teigitur by mistake.  

    ‘Catholic Herald blogs, not just this one, are swarming with trolls.  Is that because the other Catholic blogs would send them packing in no time at all.’

    May I also ask:  Is it the deliberate policy of Catholic Herald bloggers NOT to keep out the trolls?  

  • EdinburghEye

    “I don’t know of a single instance where same-sex “marriage” has been
    introduced where it wasn’t imposed by either legislators or judiciary
    against the expressed wishes of the people.”

    Well, Scotland: where same-sex marriage will be introduced in accordance with the support of 65% of the Scottish people.

    That’s according to the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey, the Ipsos-Mori poll carried out a couple of months ago, a YouGov poll carried out earlier this year, and the recent consultation, in which (discounting the English responses from anti-gay organisations and the pre-printed postcards distrubuted by the Catholic Church) 65% of people who responded via consultation form or letter supported same-sex marriage.

  • EdinburghEye


  • EdinburghEye

    There are various things I might say in response to this, but finally, I go with the right of the OP on a blog to set the rules.

    If you prefer me not to comment on your blog posts, then fair enough: I won’t.

  • Julia

    If this is John Carmel Heenan, that must be a long time ago.

  • Julia

    Dr W’ Ooodie has, in my view, no right to summarise the postings of this person in such a summary way. It seems very high-handed and intolerant of him.

    I think Ed’Eye is looking for reasoned and logical discussion, and not “emotional responses”. I think we could well do without the latter.

  • Julia

    “The truth is that a government can pass any legislation it likes. Why is it all right for a man to marry another man, but not all right for him to marry two women? If we really want equality, why does that equality not extend to nieces who genuinely, truly love their uncles?”
    I have read so many answers to these questions on this site (alone!) that I wouldn’t know where to begin.

  • Julia

    Dear Oddie,
    Do try not to appear so arrogant. Have a go – really TRY.

  • Alexander VI

    “someone who posts inflammatory … messages in an online community” ….sounds a bit like yourself Dr Oddie…..

  • Daclamat

    It was in the late fifties and sixties. He went on to greater things – minor earth trembles to tsunamis.

  • JabbaPapa


    He’s a troll.

  • Bob Hayes

    Bishop Hugh Gilbert has done no more than point out that moral and ethical considerations can and do shape legislation governing human relationships. On the basis of those considerations some conduct is deemed outside the law. 

    What appears to have caused so much ire, and generated so much hot air, is that over the years many sexual rights campaigners have attempted to ground their claims in logic, reason or science. Of course, such a strategy has the great advantage of being able to brand opponents as illogical, lacking in reason or flying in the face of science. 

    Laws prohibiting polygamous and incestuous relations are rooted in moral and ethical concepts – not science. The majority of sexual rights campaigners wish to posit their claims on ‘rights’ they claim are based upon science precisely in order to avoid a debate shaped by morals and ethics.

    The Bishop was not being flippant; he has drawn attention to the moral and ethical dimensions of human relations and related law-making. Well done!

  • Uidhessan

     The Benedictine`s also have the Gregorian Mass in the Missal 1962 or 63.I had the booklet here but can find it,so could be earlier.

    Anyway,what this difference is it to you in the year ? Is it not still Holy Mass in Latin?

    Dont understand why there is hardly any Latin Mass in Scotland.I am sure it would be well attended.

  • Dorotheus

    Is the bishop not being just a bit too clever? His logic may work, but there may still be other reasons why incest and bigamy continue to be prohibited. Each issue must be looked at on its own merits. 

    If the bishop’s argument is seriously advanced people at large will probably think, “Here they go again, these dotty religious types in their fancy costumes going haywire as usual about sex.” Let’s concentrate instead on marriage as being for men and women and the reasons for that.

  • teigitur

    Hardly any Latin Masses in Scotland, especially the OLD RITE ones because the Bishops do not allow them.
     The 1962 Mass is Old Rite and completely different to the Mass of Pope Paul V1( 1970)

  • South Saxon

    Perhaps the other Nichols, Aidan, might be appointed to East Anglia.

  • awkwardcustomer

    The 1970 Missal of Pope Paul VI gives us the Eucharist celebrated by the People of God gathered around the altar with the priest presiding.  Whereas the Traditional, pre-Vatican II Missal gives us the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered by the priest acting in the person of Christ. 

    The inclusion of Latin does not turn a Eucharistic meal celebration into a Holy Sacrifice.

  • Uidhessan

     What was wrong with the old Rite that they changed it?Why on earth would All the Bishop`s not allow them? They must be a genuine reason for this surely. 

  • Uidhessan

     Priest presiding and the Priest acting in the person of Christ?I thought at all Holy Mass the Priest act`s as the person of Christ. I assumed because the Priest Consecrate the Host he does take the place of Christ.Never thought to question the Mass,although at all the Latin Mass  ever had the chance toI attend, I believed that  Mass said in Latin gives God the reverence due to Him.

  • JabbaPapa

    Both forms of the Rite provide the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered by the priest acting in the person of Christ.

    Only abuses of the Rite pretend to offer anything else.

  • Bob Hayes

    Gosh Philothea – that is your name on this post, while it is Dorotheus on the email alert I received and Theophilus on your profile. Have you set yourself up as an alternative trinity? I think we should be told.

  • sandygrounder

    If marriage can be redefined to include two persons of the same sex, why can it not also be redefined to include temporary arrangements?   Is it not discriminatory to hold that marriage must be a life long commitment? It might be argued that at the very least legislation should enable “temporary marriage.”

  • Bob Drury

    Of all sad words of prose or rhyme, the saddest are, ‘They have no wine.’