Interview: Fr Tony Churchill, Provost of the Chapter of Arundel and Parish Priest of Ashtead
Interview by Scott Coleman (Second Year student, Diocese of Arundel and Brighton)
Father, can you tell me what Wonersh was like when you were a student there? What were the best bits, what were the most difficult bits?
I think the community life was good. When I went there were about ninety in the house. The following year another thirty came, to make one hundred and twenty - too large a house, really. But we had a very good community life. We came with different expectations.
I arrived in 1965 at the same time as the last session
of Vatican II. The Church was in ferment at that time, and it all seemed rather positive to me at the beginning, because the tensions that have arisen since weren’t there. But I would say we were certainly excited by the Council at that time.
I was interested to read in the seminary history about the sense of optimism at the time, and especially about the television studio with which you were involved…
That came a bit later, with Fr John Stapleton, who had been involved with broadcasting and worked at the Catholic Radio and TV Centre in London. He came to join the staff at Wonersh to lead on communications. The idea was to try to recognise the importance of mass media, and to teach us how to use them, so money was spent to build a television studio in the 1970s, with cameras and equipment so that the students could use it. Many, I think, couldn’t see the point, but that’s always the case with new things. But it was about how to develop skills to communicate. It was valuable in its time, but with the way technology advances, you don’t need a big television studio now, with huge cameras; things can be done much more easily. But it was an important statement of intention.
It’s good for us today to learn how to use social media etc for the sake of the Gospel…
I think some students got very… (The doorbell rings as he goes to greet a parishioner). There was a slight temptation to be tempted by the toys, if you like. There is a danger of knowing how to communicate but having nothing to communicate. Hence the importance of serious study and regular prayer.
What was your first curacy like?
I only ever had one curacy; I was with Fr Scarborough in Caterham, which had a parish priest and two curates in those days. He was a wonderful man; he’d been an army chaplain during the war, captured at Dunkirk, and, more than captured: he’d turned down a place in a boat to come back, so that he could stay with the men. He finished up in Colditz. He was a wonderful priest and a very fine example. I was very blessed. The first curacy is terribly important. It can make or break a man.
Did you feel well prepared when you arrived, or were you nervous and uncertain?
I probably felt more prepared than I should have done (!) in that I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. But that’s always the case. You learn on the job; you can’t be prepared totally. But having a good presbytery that we lived in helped. Fr Weston, the other curate, had been in my home parish, Leatherhead, until six months earlier, so I knew him very well. And Fr Scarborough was a great character, with a great sense of humour. If I could be half as good as him I’d be doing well.
And after that - did you go to be a parish priest…?
No, no, in those days one couldn’t be a parish priest until one was much older! No, Bishop Michael Bowen sent me to Rome to study moral theology. The original plan was that I would have gone straight from the seminary, but Michael Bowen wisely thought that, for moral theology particularly, the experience of parish life and hearing confessions would be useful, which it was. So I spent three years in Rome at the English College where Cormac [later Cardinal Murphy O’Connor] was Rector.
And what other things after that? [Fr Tony lists his appointments in order, as I’m increasingly impressed by the variety of jobs he’s undertaken and his evident happiness in simply being in a parish:]
Taught moral theology at Wonersh for five years.
In London working for the Bishops’ Conference first on liturgy, then for the Catholic Media Office. He was Press Officer for the Catholic Church in England and Wales and worked for Cardinal Hume, which was a great experience.
Keymer, parish priest: 7 years.
Sacred Heart Hove, parish priest: 5 years.
Sabbatical year in Berkeley, California.
Seaford, parish priest: 8 years.
Bognor, parish priest: 8 years.
Sabbatical year at St Leonard's and in Rome
Ashtead, parish priest: since 2016. Bishop Richard Moth made Fr Tony a Canon on the day of his induction as parish priest, and also Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism. He was also asked by Archbishop Bernard Longley to be part of the English Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee (English ARC) as Catholic co-secretary.
What has been most successful about your ecumenical work, and what have you found most difficult?
This will take about an hour and a half! I think the challenge is that there was a real optimism in the 70s that reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury could be achieved. Looking back, there was a naivety on our part about that. I think probably we were overly sanguine in our attitudes to the Church of England and Anglicanism in that we didn’t fully take on board then how comprehensive it tries to be. So, after Agreed Statements, each Church was asked to comment on them. Our response was to the question, “Does this statement accurately and adequately express the faith of the Church?” Whereas the Anglicans were answering a different question: “Can you be an Anglican and hold this?”, not “Do you have to believe this?” Now that’s a very different question. Now when Pope St John Paul II came in 1982, there was a great deal of optimism, that was the high point.
We have the imperative of the Lord’s command to pray for unity, and therefore we have to pray for it, and work for it, even if we don’t see how it’s going to happen. So now, in English ARC, we are seeing how much we can work together. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission is doing theological work, which Cardinal Cormac used to call ‘money in the bank’; it’s valuable; it doesn’t amount to an agreement, but it clearly gets us behind the Reformation language of controversy, to how we can understand each other better. That’s a work in hand that will go on for a long time. And it helps us see what we can do together.
Despite the widespread nature of the Anglican communion, we do what we can together: we work together and pray together. For example, at our last actual meeting of ARC, we were able to discuss the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and to share at quite a deep level our experience in facing up to a terrible chapter in the life of both our churches.
What hopes do you have for the Church and for priestly ministry in the next generation?
My experience of meeting the current generation of students gives me encouragement, because I think there is a certain level of realism and openness amongst the students, both of which are important. Also, there is a strong Catholic identity. Ecumenism teaches us to bring the riches of our tradition to the other, so there’s no question of denying the Real Presence or the role of Our Lady. I hope that the present generation will be good listeners. We need to take time to listen to people if we are to help them. We need to be ready to adapt to the needs of the time. This means knowing our faith and its demands and being able to distinguish between what is essential and what is not.