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A Londoner with the gift of the gab

The new Archbishop of Southwark talks to Anna Arco about secularism, assisted suicide and returning to his home diocese

By on Friday, 11 June 2010

For a man who is about to be installed as the new Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith seems surprisingly relaxed. He whistles as he comes down the stairs in Archbishop’s House, his clerical collar is pushed to one side and the top buttons of his shirt are undone.

His parlour is impeccable, the books and DVDs tidily arranged in glass bookcases, and the only indicators of his recent move from Cardiff are some empty cardboard boxes outside the door and stacks of pictures that still need to be hung. He’s been working on the homily for his enthronement and preparing a talk that he is giving the day before to the Anglican directors of education in Warwick, a promise he made well before he heard the news of his appointment.

After eight and a bit years in Cardiff, where he was parachuted in after the resignation of Archbishop John Ward, Archbishop Smith has mixed feelings about returning to Southwark. On the one hand, he says, he is happy to be coming home, but on the other he says he was really getting settled in Cardiff.
While in Wales, he says, he built up a relationship with the local media and with the Welsh National Assembly, both of which had been missing before he arrived. From BBC Wales he started to appear on Radio 4′s Today programme and PM, among others.

For Archbishop Smith the return to his home diocese – he was born in Battersea in 1943 and was a priest of Southwark – is not as easy as it might first appear. As he says himself, he has not had an intimate relationship with the diocese for a very long time and despite being a Southwark priest, he hardly ever worked there. After his ordination in 1972 he was placed in a parish for two years just behind Stockwell before being sent to Rome for three years where he completed his doctorate in canon law at the Angelicum. Upon his return to London, Archbishop Bowen sent him to teach canon law at St John’s seminary, Wonersh, while simultaneously serving on the Southwark marriage tribunal as a canon lawyer, his only connection with the diocese for six and a half years. A year in a parish in Thornton Heath followed, where he was tasked with setting up a parish council and recruiting Eucharistic ministers. Archbishop Smith says: “It was all kept deadly secret because he [Archbishop Bowen] said: ‘After that I want you to come back to the seminary to become rector.’”

Archbishop Smith says he “only ever wanted to be a parish priest really” but has had surprisingly little occasion to be one. He returned to seminary to act as rector for 10 years between 1985 and 1995. Just as he was making plans to take up a parish he was summoned to Archbishop’s House in Southwark and asked if he’d accept the appointment to become the Bishop of East Anglia. Despite the fact that he hasn’t been here for a while, he dropped into St Peter’s Home last week to visit five retired clergymen he knew.

One of Archbishop Smith’s tasks as a bishop after he is installed will be to meet all the priests in the diocese. For him it will be a question of renewing his acquaintance with a good number of the priests, many of whom he has taught at seminary. He says he has to work out the other challenges that face him: he talks about immigration – there are 40 different ethnic chaplaincies in the diocese. There are ecumenical relationships and interfaith matters that he has to get to grips with. He says he has a lot of listening and learning to do. He will consult his auxiliary bishops and vicar-general when he has appointed him to see what the real difficulties will be. “I’m sure that here, like in other dioceses, there will be quite a lot to do on reorganising parishes because of fewer priests,” he says.

Archbishop Smith is one of those bishops with a high public profile, in part because of his media work but also because of his role as chairman of the bishops’ conference Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship. He has fought a number of battles for the Church in Parliament, mainly on questions of bioethics and life issues. When I ask about what he considers the greatest success and the greatest disappointment in terms of his parliamentary work, he cites the Mental Capacity Act for the former and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act for the latter.

In both cases, Archbishop Smith was heavily involved in consultations with the Government and civil servants, pointing out weaknesses in the Government’s legislation and getting MPs to table amendments. He says the Government wasn’t aware of the loopholes left in the Mental Capacity Act, because of its definition of euthanasia as a positive act – a needle injecting a fateful dose – rather than euthanasia by omission, by inappropriate withdrawal of care or withholding of treatment. After 18 months of discussions the Church man-aged to persuade the Government to close the loopholes and include a clause, drafted by Professor John Finnis of Oxford University, which stated that whatever was done, it should never be done motivated by a desire to kill someone.

Archbishop Smith also talks about the recent draft guidelines about whether the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would prosecute in cases of assisted suicide, which the Church criticised under Archbishop Smith’s direction. He says he felt badly for Keir Starmer, the current DPP, for having to produce the guidelines at all, because it left very little to his discretion, but that aspects of the draft document were simply untenable.

Starmer asked Archbishop Smith to visit him, and they sat together for an hour going through the various points of the document. He took up the main suggestions made by Archbishop Smith and Professor David Jones, a renowned moral theologian, but when he asked whether they could suggest another word for compassion they were stumped. Archbishop Smith says: “It was interesting he asked that because you see the word compassion is often mis-used and certainly mis-per-ceived by many of the general public. You know there’s a nice warm glow. Oh dear, we don’t want people to suffer, so being compassionate is bumping them off. The Latin root of compassion is to suffer with: cum passio. You can’t do anything but you’re there suffering alongside the other person.”

He waxes voluble on the subjects of euthanasia and abortion. On whether the Church will be able to prevail on the subject of euthanasia, he says he hopes so but things at the moment are not looking positive. The Church, he says, is trying to convey that it is not a religious issue. He says: “There are many, many people of no faith who are dead against assisted suicide because what it’s doing is opening up some of the most vulnerable people in society to great danger.

“I’ve said often before, the right to die becomes, before you know where you are, the duty to die. We saw that in the parallel situation with the Abortion Bill when that was set up in 1967. It was surrounded with restrictions and all the rest of it. This will be very limited, only in severe medical circumstances. I don’t understand why they want to liberalise abortion law because it is as liberal as it could get. I mean the thing of getting two doctors to sign is no longer for medical reasons, it’s for social reasons.”

Southwark’s new archbishop has the gift of the gab and we’re sitting for quite some time. He quotes Scripture and relates Gospel stories when we discuss the challenges the Church faces in a world of aggressive secularisation. He says if people only read Church history more, they would realise the Church was in difficulties from the very beginning.

“We have to remember whatever the culture we happen to be in, the Lord doesn’t abandon his Church. And I think that’s the message (maybe I’ll say something about that on Thursday but I have to phrase it right). You know there’s a danger that we can get so overwhelmed with the criticism of the Dawkinses of this era. His assertions are extreme. Even some of his atheist companions think he’s gone completely over the top with it.”

But he agrees that there is an aggressive secularism that would like to see religion relegated to the private sphere. He says: “I think it’s the Holy Spirit telling us we’ve been complacent in recent years. We’ve too readily accepted the culture of the day and it’s now turning against us. There are many good people out there who are not ideologues or fanatics, they’re just rather indifferent.

“There is certainly a core element there which would like to see the end of all religion. And we have to stand up to that with courage and we have to sink down our spiritual roots. We can’t do it from our own resources. We need that empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

“It’s like the little story in Mark’s Gospel when they’re in the boat across the sea and the Lord’s having a kip in the back. The waves are coming up over them. And they’re trying to wake him. And they’re jumping up and down, prodding him and shouting ‘Oy, oy, oy! We’re sinking. Don’t you care?’ He looks at them and says: ‘Have you no faith? Why are you so afraid?’ Which must have been extremely galling for the Apostles, their hearts probably jumping out their breasts. But reflecting on those sorts of passages makes me smile, and I think nothing’s changed, really.”