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Bishop Philip Egan: Combating secularism requires creativity, not just tradition

The Bishop of Portsmouth on making converts, his teenage crisis of faith and his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage

By on Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Bishop Philip Egan (Photo: Mazur)

Bishop Philip Egan (Photo: Mazur)

I try to keep up with Bishop Philip Egan as we race through the corridors of Bishop’s House, Portsmouth. A short, energetic figure, he sweeps through a series of doors then up a picture-lined staircase to a simple, but elegant reception room. Since he was appointed to the diocese last September he doesn’t seem to have wasted a minute. He has overhauled the diocese’s governing structures, issued four pastoral letters, commented on everything from same-sex marriage to the Royal baby, and given a series of thoughtful lectures on secular culture.

In person, he is kind and self-deprecating, but also brisk and purposeful. He seems to know exactly what he wants to do in his still relatively new role and is keen to get on with it. After we said goodbye he zoomed off to another meeting, clearly happy at the helm of what he calls his “can-do diocese”.

When did you first sense a priestly calling?

I must admit I did first think of it when I was 11. I had a rush of religious fervour. But then in my teenage years it was in the background a bit. It was only really when I was about to go to university that I thought of it again. I thought: “Well, I’ll choose a subject that might be useful but is one that I’m interested in.” Somebody asked me the other day what I studied at King’s [in London] and I said: “Real ale and having a good time.” But technically it was Latin and Greek.

Did you ever have a crisis of faith?

I would say, yes, I did as a teenager. I went through a period of wondering: “Does God really exist? Is there life after death?” Those two questions are always there in a way. I came to this conviction that somehow, especially through Mass, God is there. He is love. He loves us. It gave me that confidence. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like now to say that God doesn’t exist. It’s just part of the whole sacred canopy of life.

Your predecessor, Bishop Crispian Hollis, led the Diocese of Portsmouth for a quarter of a century. What legacy do you think he left?

I always think it is never the legacy of an individual. The Church belongs to Christ. Anything that we have is really the fruit of the Lord’s work. But I feel Bishop Crispian has left us in a good place in all sorts of ways.

I really want to get to know the priests of Portsmouth. I find a great spirit among them. We are, as I’ve got to know through our trustees and many of the lay people I meet at Confirmations, a kind of can-do diocese.

In your episcopal ordination address you spoke of the need for Catholics to make converts.

I spoke about the need for evangelisation. Making converts? Yes, in the total sense. I suppose traditionally the term “converts” makes one think of people coming from other Christian communities. I spoke about evangelisation. I think that’s the central theme of what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do.

Why do you think that, according to figures compiled recently by the Latin Mass Society, the number of conversions to Catholicism in England and Wales peaked in 1959 and is now just a third of that level?

I think the fact that 5,000 people convert, or are received in the Church, each year is a wonderful thing, because the whole culture has been radically altered since 1959. OK, we can look at internal weaknesses within the Church, but the critical and crucial thing has been the emergence of a post-modern, secularised society. I’d say that the reason there are less converts today is not because the “product” is defective. The key thing is that people can’t hear that call in a comfortable, affluent, consumerist, totally secularised culture.

The great thing of the Latin Mass Society is the tradition of the Church, but I actually believe that we don’t need more tradition. We need more creativity to respond to the challenges of the secular culture.

So you are saying that the sole answer to this problem wouldn’t be to have a Latin Mass in every parish?

That would be wonderful, but it’s not enough. Making available the Catholic tradition is a wonderful thing, but I think the time has come to put all the Church’s resources – its spiritual tradition, the 2,000 years of ascetical theology, the lives and example of the saints – at the service of helping people to pray and discover God at work in their lives. Because I think that from there will come the basis for the new ardour, the new passion for the Lord. It will catch on like wildfire.

I’d like to ask you about same-sex marriage. Could I ask why you spoke out individually about it, as well as through the bishops’ conference?

I tend to think that as a bishop I never speak out individually as such, because I’d always want to do that in communion with Pope Francis and my fellow bishops, the College of Bishops.

But first of all, there is no such thing as same-sex marriage. It’s a re-definition of marriage. My anxiety is really the redefinition of what it means to be truly human. I’ve been concerned as well that in the campaign the Church has focused very much on the details of what is or what is not going through Parliament. I’ve been thinking to myself: “We’re going to lose this one.” My concern was, right, we’re in a dark wood here. Let’s switch the headlights on. We’ve got to be proactive. With so many things we are often caught on the back foot, whereas we need to be planning ahead. We need to be thinking: “Are we going to have inter-species marriage? Are we going to have polygamous marriage? Are we going to have marriages of four, five, six people together coming up?” What’s going to be next?

For a full version of this interview, see the latest issue of The Catholic Herald