Profile: Vincent Nichols, New Archbishop of Westminster

By Greg Watts
Religious Intelligence
April 11, 2009

If Archbishop Vincent Nichols were a soldier, he would be a dashing, though not reckless, general, leading his troops under a hail of bullets deep into enemy territory.

As Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s successor as Archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Nichols knows he will have many battles to fight in his role as leader of England and Wales’ four million Roman Catholics. But it would be hard to think of someone more ready than the straight-talking Liverpuddlian.

The late Cardinal Basil Hume regarded Nichols as a son, and it’s no secret that he was his choice as his successor in Westminster. The cardinal had been greatly impressed by his abilities as general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and also as the auxiliary bishop for North London.

When Bishop Nichols was put in temporary charge of the archdiocese, following Cardinal Hume’s death in 1999, many expected his appointment would be made permanent. But instead Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Arundel and Brighton was appointed to Westminster and Nichols received the consolation prize of the archdiocese of Birmingham.

It’s not hard to see why the youthful-looking 63-year-old from a working-class district in Liverpool and who had the Liverpool Football Echo delivered to him each week when he was a student in Rome has long been considered the golden boy among the English and Welsh bishops. He’s intelligent, decisive, confident, and charismatic.

In 2001 Archbishop Nichols was given one of the toughest jobs in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales when he was appointed chair of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA), the body set up by the bishops to carry out the recommendations of Lord Nolan’s report into clergy sexual abuse.

While he provided COPCA with clear leadership, many priests expressed concern that their rights were being ignored. And when Archbishop Nichols addressed the annual meeting of the National Conference of Priests of England and Wales in Leeds in 2006 he received a bumpy ride.

That same year, he fired off a strong letter to BBC director general to take him to task over the way a TV documentary entitled Sex Crimes in the Vatican had tried to implicate Pope Benedict in a cover-up of sexual abuse.

If he believes he’s right, he never backs away from potential conflict, especially when the Church is under attack. When the Government published the Sexual Orientation Regulations, forcing adoption agencies to include gay couples, Archbishop Nichols called on Catholics to write to their MPs in protest.

Although he lost that battle, he defeated the Government over its plans to force faith schools to allocate up to 25 per cent of its places to children of other faiths or none. Anglican, Jewish and Muslim leaders joined him in his campaign.

Like Cardinal Hume, he is an aggressive defender of faith schools and has met criticisms that they are divisive and don’t promote ‘social cohesion’ head on, arguing that ‘there will never be a truly cohesive society that does not take seriously the spiritual quest of its people, in all the forms of that quest, and which does not give a space in its public culture for the religious beliefs of its people.’

Unlike Cardinal Murphy O’Connor he has never been that interested in ecumenical discussions about theological matters. He prefers the grassroots approach, looking for practical ways to build relations with other Christians, which was why he agreed to be vice-president of Bible Society.

He has fought with Bishop Peter Selby of Worcester to prevent the axing of hospital chaplains, and in January he invited the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, to preach in St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham.

As Archbishop of Westminster – one of three dioceses covering London -- he has the pastoral care of 216 parishes and 500,000 Roman Catholics, although only 150,000 attend Mass regularly.

Because of the influx of migrants from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa, and the number of overseas clergy, Westminster hasn’t had to close or merge parishes, unlike most of the other 21 dioceses in England and Wales, but that situation might change.

For all his qualities, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor never managed to establish the kind of authoritative national presence Cardinal Hume had, and he always seemed awkward and uncomfortable when interviewed by the media.

Archbishop Nichols, on the other hand, relishes the limelight and understands how to use the media effectively; he once remarked that he was just as at home in a TV studio as he was in a church.

When he is installed in Westminster Cathedral on May 21, we can be sure Archbishop Nichols will lead the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales from the front. And he knows he is likely to come under heavy fire from those who want to exclude Christianity from the market place.

He will have to choose a motto when he is in office. ‘Who dares wins’ would be a fitting one.


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