The very model of a modern monsignor

Allow me to introduce you to Monsignor Jim Curry, parish priest of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. A most fascinating character. No, that’s not him in the picture.

But first, a digression. Many of you will be aware of the ongoing dispute around the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. For those of you who aren’t, it may be worth recapping a bit. To begin with, a considerable number of Catholic schools in England – specifically the more successful ones – are lending a sympathetic ear to Michael Gove’s big push for academy status. This is because academy status looks like a good way of escaping the dead hand of the “Catholic Education Service”, a body of bureaucrats whose combined knowledge of education could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp, but who don’t let that inhibit them from issuing detailed instructions to head teachers on the latest educational fashions. It should be noted that neither the incumbent chairman of CES, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, nor his predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, have managed to get a firm grip on CES.

Which background is important for understanding the dispute around the Vaughan. Damian has been doing Trojan work on this if you want to delve further, but here’s the story in a nutshell. The Vaughan is one of the best schools in the country outside of the private sector, and in particular is nationally known for music. The main reason for its success is the school’s extremely strong ethos, which is closely tied in to its admissions policy. No, the Vaughan doesn’t select by academic ability or by social class – it runs a points system giving precedence to children whose parents participate regularly in church activities, which to me seems entirely sensible. This, however, has been a long-running sore point with Catholic educational bureaucrats, who regard the Vaughan as hopelessly elitist and, rather than a showcase, a bit of an embarrassment precisely because of its success, and who’d dearly like it to become yet another bog-standard comp.

Which is where the long-running dispute with the Diocese of Westminster comes in. First the Diocese unilaterally changed the Vaughan’s admissions policy, a move hotly contested by the now sadly retired headmaster Michael Gormally. That was round one. In round two, Archbishop Nichols attempted to stamp his authority on matters by sacking a bunch of governors and appointing his placemen, a move that only made him look bad. In round three, the Diocese referred the Vaughan’s admissions policy to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – in other words, a Catholic diocese narked to the state on one of its own schools for being too good.

All things considered, you can see why Vaughan parents are hopping mad. For more detail, please considering visiting the site of the Cardinal Vaughan Parents’ Action Group, which has justly gained the support of a stellar cast of the Catholic great and good. Which is where we return to where we came in, with this letter [pdf, emphases mine] from the Action Group to Archbishop Nichols:

We write to express our grave concern at the turn of events during last Wednesday night’s meeting of the Cardinal Vaughan Governing Body on 6th April 2011, witnessed by a large number of parents and pupils who had gathered in the School car park at the culmination of the Candlelit Vigil of prayer and hymn singing, held outside the School gates.

At the end of the Vigil, parents and pupils processed into the car park, and were gathered under the window of the library where the meeting was taking place. We have received a number of witness statements which describe what took place, but the salient facts are these:

  • Mr Eynaud, the Acting Headmaster, was seen sitting at the desk in the Head’s office, directly below the library.
  • Parents were singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’; it was observed that someone closed the library windows, presumably to shut out the sound.
  • Mgr Curry (identified by parishioners of Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Grace, although he was not wearing clerical attire) entered the Head’s office and approached Mr Eynaud; clearly very angry, he was gesticulating with his index finger very close to Mr Eynaud, even appearing to prod him in the chest.
  • Mr Stubbings, the Deputy Headmaster, and Mr O’Donnell entered the room; at one point both Mgr Curry and Mr O’Donnell both appeared to be shouting at Mr Eynaud, while Mr Stubbings was trying to interpose himself between them.
  • It appeared that no one in the room was aware of the large number of adults and children who were watching this scene with a sense of mounting shock and dismay. The hymn singing had ceased and a section of the group was demanding the removal of the Director of Education from the Board of Governors; at this, Mr Eynaud emerged into the car park. He asked that the gathering should disperse and appeared pale and very shaken. He spoke to parents and his words implied that he had been given the impression, by Mgr Curry’s words or behaviour, that his career was now ‘finished’.
  • As the group was beginning to disperse, Mgr Curry, followed by Mr O’Donnell, moved towards the door opposite, leading into a corridor. At this, a number of parents began to shout comments such as, ‘Why won’t you come and talk to us?’ They both left the room, leaving Mr Eynaud and Mr Stubbings behind. As the shouting continued, one of the organisers announced that proceedings were at an end and asked everyone to leave. The car park was cleared within two minutes.

We believe that what occurred represents an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship that must exist between a Head and a member of the Governing Body. The Head had no responsibility for the presence of the parent group in the car park; no official notification had been given by the Governing Body that parents were barred from the School grounds (although a request that the Chairman of Governors should meet with parents in the School Hall before the Governors’ meeting had been refused). In any case, there can be no excuse for the bullying and intimidation to which Mr Eynaud was subjected.

Mgr Curry’s continued participation on the appointments panel for the new Head is obviously now out of the question. We believe that his membership of the Governing Body is also now untenable and we request that you replace him as your representative immediately. We also request that Mr Eynaud be given an immediate written apology.

Your Grace, a very large number of Cardinal Vaughan parents have written to you over recent months, asking a great number of questions; none has received a reply from you. On this occasion, we believe that a direct response from you is necessary.

We continue to hold your intentions in our prayers, and would ask you to pray for us as well.

In these circumstances, I would be a little less diplomatic than the redoubtable Mrs Anne Brown is in the forgoing. But eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the reappearance above of Mgr Jim Curry, and his presence requires a bit of explanation.

As you know, I can’t abide personal backbiting, and I really don’t like being nasty to one of our priests, who have enough troubles without me adding to them. But I’m prepared to make an exception for Jim.

For starters, there’s a brief biography here. Some people may wonder how come an East End boy like Jim Curry gets to swank it up at the Athenaeum. My response is that it’s a perfect illustration of that web of patronage known as the Magic Circle. Here we have someone who at a relatively young age got appointed as Cardinal Hume’s personal secretary, carrying on that function for Cormac when +Basil went to meet his Maker, and who since his return to parish work has been remarkably good at getting himself nice parishes. While I’ve rarely heard anyone say a kind work about Jim, there are elements of the hierarchy (naming no names like Cardinal Cormac) who hold him in great esteem.

Not, I hasten to add, nearly as much esteem as Jim holds himself in. You know when you’re leaving Mass and shake hands with the priest on the way out? I often find you can tell a lot about a priest from his body language in that setting. Jim’s body language was always – how shall I put this? – that of a feudal despot having to spend some time meeting and greeting his supplicating peasants. Not the easiest guy to warm up to, no matter how good he is at schmoozing bishops.

Jim is frequently tipped for a mitre himself, most recently with regard to the vacant auxiliary post at Westminster. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that his old mucker Cormac is a member of the Congregation for Bishops, and thus well placed to pull strings in Rome. The prospect doesn’t really bear thinking about. You see, if the behaviour mentioned above was just an isolated incident from an otherwise steady and responsible priest, that would be one thing, but…

Thinking back, some six or seven years ago, when Jim was parish priest at Our Lady of Grace in Chiswick, he hosted a Churches Together meeting with then international development secretary Hilary Benn. Well, these are the sort of worthy events that take place under the Churches Together banner, and getting an actual government minister to speak might even be considered a feather in Jim’s cap. Were it not for the table just inside the entrance of the church before you got to the pews, groaning with DfID pamphlets and CD-ROMs, of which the large majority were on the topic of “sexual reproductive rights” or, in other words, population control. Such was the volume and placing of the material that it beggars belief that Jim hadn’t seen and okayed it. A priest having a display of population-control literature inside his parish church? Back in the day, that would have meant a stern phone call from the CDF.

Then there was the time he allowed an enormous banner advertising a mobile phone company to be draped from the church railings. This actually made the diary page of the Tablet, which thought the affair hilarious. Perhaps, but perhaps not the decorum you’d expect from a man who’d deeply like to be a bishop.

That’s Chiswick. Since Jim’s move to Kensington, he’s also hit the headlines for replacing the weekly sung Latin Mass with Filipino folk singing, something that wasn’t universally popular even with Filipino parishioners.

Then there was that mysterious affair of the forty grand bet. Back when Cardinal Cormac was retiring as Archbishop of Westminster, there was the usual speculation about his successor. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds was widely seen as the frontrunner; in the end, of course, Vin Nichols got the job. In the midst of this, it was reported that Paddy Power had turned down a £40,000 bet on – you guessed it – Jim Curry. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Jim had anything to do with this, but it certainly raised his profile, in a way that cynics might even see as vulgar ostentation.

There was also a case over a decade ago of a controversial school closure in east London. At the time, parents who’d been trying to lobby the diocese reported the Cardinal’s private secretary replying to letters with mafia-style warnings not to bother him with this nonsense again. Hmm, sounds familiar.

And now, Jim finds himself a diocesan appointee to the Vaughan’s governing body in the midst of a bitter dispute between school and diocese, a dispute he seems to be doing his level best to escalate to nuclear level. Presumably Archbishop Nichols couldn’t find someone more emollient and diplomatic, like Colonel Gaddafi or Charlie Sheen. And this maniac is being tipped for a mitre? Sheesh, is all I can say. Sheesh.

27 Comments

  1. Richard said,

    April 14, 2011 at 8:37 am

    ‘Schmoozing Bishops’ – that’s a very low pastime!

  2. Vaughan parent said,

    April 14, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Absolutely brilliant. Very funny ( but also very sad)
    (BTW I have witnessed Mgr Curry’s anger. He just can’t bear it if he doesn’t have total obedience and when he is angry he looks a lot scarier than your picture above)

  3. Tiggy said,

    April 14, 2011 at 10:49 am

    “Sheesh” indded Splinty. But on past form in our Church, its a safe bet he will be a Bishop. God help that Diocese.

  4. Joe said,

    April 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Great picture – I never knew George Clinton joined the klf

  5. Mark P said,

    April 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I’m always entertained by lay Catholic ultras attitudes towards proper obedience towards the Catholic hierarchy.

    As for the “sexual reproductive rights” comments, has our host backslid so far that he’s now of the view that brown people shouldn’t have access to contraception?

    • neilcaff said,

      April 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm

      I had a look at the DfID website for some of these “population control” pamphlets. I wonder could our host be referring to tracts similar to this: http://www.dfid.gov.uk/Documents/publications1/strategic-vision-girls-women.pdf

      OK, most of it is the usual NGO babble that makes you want to pull your hair out but the key points in the document are interesting:

      Delay first pregnancy and support safe childbirth;
      Get economic assets directly to girls and women;
      Get girls through secondary school;
      Prevent violence against girls and women.

      I presume the first point will cause howls of derision from the more ultra wing of the Church.

      Here’s what the DfID has to say about “population control”

      “Action that directly helps girls and women delay their first pregnancy and support safe childbirth includes:
      increasing access to better quality family planning, safe abortion and maternal health
      services, making sure that girls and women who need services most are not excluded (due to cost or discrimination). More than 17 DFID country offices are scaling up programming in this area, with a growing number focusing on girls, and on early marriage and pregnancy. For example, in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where nearly 50% of girls are married by the time they are 15, we will take to scale a successful approach that empowers girls, and supports communities and families to eliminate child marriage. As a result of these measures, we will help to save the lives of at least 50,000 women during pregnancy and childbirth, enable 10 million more women to access family planning (of which 1 million will be girls aged (15-19) and support 2 million births with skilled attendants.”

      Clearly we can’t have sinful ideas like giving 15 girls the ability to control their fertility upsetting the good burghers of Chiswick. Down with that sort of thing!

    • Vaughan parent said,

      April 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm

      Mark P is “proper obedience ” towards the Catholic hierachy the same as “total obedience”? Because Mgr Curry appears to allow NO DISSENT . ( and I , like many others, have experienced his anger)
      Maybe you think uncontrollable anger is an admirable characteristic in a bishop ?

    • Giles H said,

      April 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      So the properly obedient thing to do would be just to roll over and die? The diocese wants to ruin this school and drain it of it’s authentic Catholic ethos on utterly spurious grounds. There’s nothing ‘ultra’ about resistence, but then the use of the term ‘ultra’ implies a preference for a triangulated modernised religion as opposed to simple orthodoxy.

  6. neilcaff said,

    April 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    “Together meeting with then international development secretary Hilary Benn. Well, these are the sort of worthy events that take place under the Churches Together banner, and getting an actual government minister to speak might even be considered a feather in Jim’s cap. Were it not for the table just inside the entrance of the church before you got to the pews, groaning with DfID pamphlets and CD-ROMs, of which the large majority were on the topic of “sexual reproductive rights” or, in other words, population control.”

    Minister appearing in a professional capacity brings with him literature stating department policy, who could have seen that one coming? Sounds like you pays your money you take your chances.

    Funnily enough it does kinda remind me of the recent Unison Health conference. The bureaucrats decided to invite the Shadow Health Secretary, an ultra Blairite to address a fringe meeting on privatisation in the NHS. Imagine everyone’s chagrin when said ultra Blarite professed what a great idea PFI hospitals and agency staff were for the NHS! The bureaucrats were shocked, shocked I tell you, that a Labour front bencher would say such a thing!

  7. berenike said,

    April 15, 2011 at 11:34 am

    How does abortion make pregnancy and childbirth safer? How much emphasis in the literature placed on abortion and contraception, and how much on training midwives? On treating obstetric fistula?

  8. CharlieMcMenamin said,

    April 15, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    It would be a brave person who decided to take on Splinty on the question of the internal politics of the Catholic Church. For an atheist like me it would be close to suicidal.( & I wouldn’t want to go committing what this blog might consider mortal sins willy nilly …)

    But it is also a brave person who comments on the politics of school admissions at any English school without knowing the full terrain – politically, sociologically and geographically. The school is in quite a leafy part of Holland Park – but isn’t that far from Shepherds Bush, and even the White City Estate isn’t that far away. On its own this proves nothing of course. Lots of schools in London are surrounded by a mixture of well to do and less well to do areas. But the number of ‘educational’ discussions in England where the old bugbear of class isn’t hiding somewhere in the undergrowth is infinitesimally small.

    The key here seems to be the bit of their admissions code which specifies priority for ‘fully practising’ Catholics, defined as:
    “Boys who have attended a Catholic primary school for the whole of
    statutory education (or participated in a programme run by a local parish or
    equivalent at any stage when not at a Catholic school) and who have attended Sunday Mass/Saturday Vigil Mass weekly for the last five years or more and who have at least one Catholic parent who has attended Sunday Mass/Saturday Vigil Mass weekly for the last five years or more.
    (My bolding – CMcM)

    I don’t live in the area and I’m not a Catholic. But this does seem to me to be a set of conditions it might be easier to fulfil for those who:
    (i) can afford to buy a house near a Catholic Primary (even if Catholic Primaries don’t admit by distance, almost no one wants to take 5-6 yr olds on long journeys to school);
    (ii) don’t work hours which prevent them going to Mass every week;

    I can’t help thinking that the old Splinty, he of the encyclopaedic knowledge of the Far Left on both sides of the Irish Sea, might have asked a few questions about this definition of a ‘fully practising’ Catholic, and had some pause at the Telegraph’s enthusiastic support of the parents.

    I feely concede that none of the above makes me any better informed a commentator on this pickle than anyone else. I could be wildly, embarrassingly wrong. But I am surprised Splinty didn’t even raise this sort of question.

    • berenike said,

      April 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      A friend of mine teaches at the Vaughan. The diocese’s plans would in fact mean that people living in the leafy area around the school would have first dibs – as it is, the school’s intake is hugely socially diverse.

      I am sure the school is not stricter than the Church on the matter of Sunday Mass attendance – if you cannot go to Mass, then you are not obliged to. :) UK parishes are small, and priests are rarely completely stupid – if someone is practising but circumstances force him (or her) to work hours that preclude Sunday Mass attendance, a PP knows it’s not the same as someone who spends two Sundays a month playing golf (or, as in my tiny, very workng class parish’s guitar group, going out on the boat).

  9. Darius Jedburgh said,

    April 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Charlie: You may have a point with (i) but (ii) is rubbish. Going to mass every Sunday (or Saturday night) is a religious duty for all Catholics as such; given the number of churches and the number of masses it’s hard to believe there are many in these islands who literally can’t spend the hour a week; if there are such people they would surely have a legal case against their employers. If they are self-employed and are imposing conditions on themselves that prevent them from going to mass, they aren’t Catholics.

  10. CharlieMcMenamin said,

    April 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    JD, it would be foolish of me to argue with a Catholic about what constituted membership of that person’s Church. And I assume you are a Catholic. However, the Catholic Community Net tells me missing Mass is a serious sin, but “forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation”. Furthermore, it seems,“The obligation to be present at the whole of Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation ceases where there is personal illness, when one has to care for a sick or frail person, and when one is impeded, e.g., by travelling.”

    I dunno. I’m inclined to take your word for it as I know nothing of Catholic theology. But a heathen like me might be forgiven for thinking it sounds as if Catholic Community Net thinks missing Mass – though a Bad Thing to do – doesn’t, in itself, constitute stopping being a Catholic. & all Catholics, the same source tells me, are under an obligation to ensure a Catholic education for their children.( I’ll be guided by you on this point, but I assume that includes those who miss Mass now and again.)

    Anyway, my point is that if we are to have Church schools funded by public money – I’m not a fan of the idea myself – then surely we might at least require them to offer places in a equitable manner to the whole of their particular faith community, not just the inner circle.

  11. Vaughan parent said,

    April 16, 2011 at 12:22 am

    Charlie might be interested to know that each time the Diocese have forced changes to the Admissions Criteria the number of free school meals has gone down not up. In other words there were more disadvantaged children in the “Bad old days ” when the school was allowed to select on the basis of interviews. Free school meals numbers dropped further when the school was no longer allowed to use “participation in Church life” as an Admissions criterion. The school still has twice as many free school meals as London Oratory or Sacred Heart however,( both are schools in West London with similar results.)

  12. Darius Jedburgh said,

    April 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Charlie: Your “(ii) don’t work hours which prevent them going to Mass every week” was ambiguous. It might mean “prevent them from ever going to mass,” or it might mean “prevent them from being able to say truthfully that they go every week” ie prevent them now and again from going. It was the former I was saying couldn’t happen consistently with serious Catholicism; of course the latter might happen, but as your quotes show, the Church understands that, and presumably the Vaughan does too. If “attending weekly mass for the last five years’ were given so rigorous an interpretation that a single absence could not be mitigated (eg through travel, illness etc) the Vaughan would be being literally more Catholic than the Pope.

  13. CharlieMcMenamin said,

    April 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    “…the Vaughan would be being literally more Catholic than the Pope”

    Yes, Darius, that potential impression is at the root of my question about all this really. It is really strange for an atheist to watch a group of Catholic laity get into such an argument with a Catholic hierarchy. There will be things going on here I can’t hope to fully understand and I freely acknowledge that.

    But there are probably also things I can hope understand, if only I could get a full handle on them, not least how belief and regularity of practice might be intersecting with ‘normal’(sic) English micro politics around school admissions.

  14. Robert said,

    April 16, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I prefer the French system in which all state schools are secular. If you want religious education for little Johnny you can pay for it yourself. However that’s not going to happen here because Britain isn’t France. Any attempt to phase out faith schools would trigger such an outcry from religious/upwardly mobile middle class parents that no politician would risk it.

  15. berenike said,

    April 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    But Catholic parents *are* paying for their kiddies’ education at Catholic state schools. Unless there’s some special tax code for Catholics that my parents will be very cross no-one told them about …

  16. shane said,

    April 17, 2011 at 3:48 am

    Robert, the salaries of teachers in French Catholic schools are paid for by the state.

    The Swedish voucher system is much better:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/3717744.stm

  17. Darius Jedburgh said,

    April 17, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Charlie: Fair enough. I’m certainly not denying that some religious requirements may function as proxies for class membership. But the mass attendance requirement ain’t it. There’s a lot I don’t understand about this particular case too, but it’s definitely not just a matter of using religion as a cover for retaining class prerogatives. Splinty is definitely right that a lot of what the centralised England / Wales Catholic establishment instinctively tries to stigmatise and marginalise as extreme conservatism is what Benedict XVI (for example) would call “Catholicism.”

  18. April 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    nothing on the Irish elections from Splinty?!

  19. Robert said,

    April 19, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Yes I was looking forward to a Splinty analysis of the Irish elections. I fear it’s going to be nothing but Catholic posts from now on.

  20. mundabor said,

    April 20, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Curry is clearly making Vin “Quisling” Nichols’ dirty work in Holland Park. For this he is certain to receive his wage in form of a mitre in this life, as Nichols is young and will not forget him. About the wage in the next life I’d be more worried if I were him.
    Already abolishing the latin mass for the filipino one makes him deserving of (fioguratively speaking, I think it’s nice to add in such circumstances) tar and feather at the very least.

    Mundabor

  21. Dewi said,

    April 21, 2011 at 6:00 am

    Why not just cut out the religious stuff? It’s tedious beyond…

  22. neprimerimye said,

    April 27, 2011 at 4:02 am

    It’s a shame that Splinty blind to the question of class these days. The fact of the matter is that the Vaughan school is based on the majority of the parents in its catchment area being able to afford to buy houses in that not inexpensive part of London.

    The only way we shall ever have an education system that is fair to all is to ban all forms of discrimination whether they be based on sectarian beliefs or the ability to pay. or in the case of the Vaughan school the ability of the parents concerned to force the majority of tax payers, by which I mean workers, to subsidise their elitist school.

    No Gods, No Masters!


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