Birmingham Three: the plot continues to thicken

I must apologise for the lack of service here the past while. Evidently, your host is somewhat lacking in the old Protestant work ethic. Moreover, I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that, if you’re feeling out of sorts, the blogosphere is not going to make you feel better. There are certain things that might make you feel better, like a Wodehouse novel, a box set of The Prisoner or a glass of dark liquid, but the blogosphere is not one of them. It tends to have a bad effect on the blood pressure.

Anyway, the Birmingham Three saga is more uncontainable than ever. I gotta give mad props to my main man Will Crawley, who was covering it on this morning’s Sunday Sequence, and big up also to Martin Beckford on the Telegraph. It’s certainly one in the eye for those ecclesiastical bullies who would rather have the whole affair silenced.

James reminds us that the Three have now passed more than a hundred days in exile, and that you have to commit a pretty serious crime for the secular courts to send you down for a hundred days. The draconian punishments meted out to three men who, it is admitted, have not committed any offence, seems more than a bit off. It’s all a bit strange, so let’s do a recap. I should say in advance that, while there are all sorts of interesting sidelines to the affair, not much is known for certain. However, even sticking to what’s known and making a bare minimum of deduction, the timeline prompts a number of questions.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In the autumn of 2007, a 20-year-old man approaches Birmingham Oratory seeking to become a priest. He isn’t accepted, but he does strike up this intense relationship with the Provost of the Oratory, Fr Paul Chavasse. The word is that there was no nookie involved – a “close but chaste” relationship is how it’s being put – and we must take that as read, but it was sufficiently visible a relationship to excite comment, especially as Fr Chavasse is as camp as a row of tents. (And yes, I know that camp and gay aren’t the same thing. But we’re talking here about impressions given.)

At this point we have to do a little deduction, so a health warning applies to this paragraph. We may reasonably assume that words were spoken amongst the Oratorians. One important thing to bear in mind is that even assuming there was no nookie involved – which would be difficult to prove either way – allowing the impression to be given that there might be would fall under the category of giving scandal. It’s also important to remember that the gay aspect, while it may add a bit of piquancy, is not necessary for giving scandal. For what it’s worth, those who know Fr Dermot Fenlon swear he isn’t homophobic and the authorities (in the person of Jack Valero) explicitly say he isn’t being accused of such. The fact is that if a middle-aged priest had formed a visibly intense (if chaste) relationship with a 20-year-old woman, it would still be inappropriate behaviour, or at the very least imprudent.

Now then. We are told there was disharmony in the community resulting from this affair. Not surprising, since it’s a tiny community – there are only ten or twelve priests at the best of times, and currently there are only five – and these small religious communities, very much like families, can harbour seething dissensions for a long time. It is further alleged that reports were made to Rome, which is how Fr Felix Selden came to be at the Oratory as Apostolic Visitor.

Fast forward to last December. Abruptly, Fr Chavasse resigns as both Provost of the Oratory and Actor of the Newman Cause. He vanishes from the Oratory, either having been sent away on a long-term retreat or being sent to a parish in America, depending on who you’re talking to. At any rate, he’s gone, and without explanation. Why so abruptly? Perhaps it had something to do with the upcoming papal visit and Newman beatification, with the prospect of B16 dropping into the Oratory for a meeting with the community. Perhaps it had something to do with that TV documentary crew that was hanging around the Oratory. Not being able to read the minds of Felix Selden and Ignatius Harrison, we don’t know.

This may have been the end of things, with the source of the dissension out of the picture. But no, around April rumours of the Chavasse affair begin leaking out into the press. This seems to have spooked the authorities, because it’s shortly afterwards, in May, that Fr Dermot Fenlon, Fr Philip Cleevely and Br Lewis Berry are sent to the Catholic equivalent of Guantánamo Bay – which is to say, ordered to monasteries some hundreds of miles apart to spend an indefinite period in quiet contemplation. With the stress very much on quiet. As with Fr Chavasse, there was no reason given, and the few statements coming from the Oratory served only to confuse things more.

Ten years ago, this might have just been a passing storm, but as we keep saying here, the blogosphere has changed Catholic affairs and meant that the old Tammany Hall methods – well, maybe they aren’t quite untenable, but they’re less tenable than they used to be. From a few disgruntled parishioners at the Oratory, who had seen four members of the community abruptly removed in a short space of time without explanation, this has gradually snowballed. Not least because the papal visit runs a distinct risk of turning into a fiasco even without trouble at Brum Oratory.

The whys and wherefores are obscure, except that the Chavasse affair was the proximate cause. Were the Three, as speculated, the ones who confronted Fr Chavasse? Did they, alternatively, protest the rather brutal removal and humiliation of the much-loved Chavasse? (The two are of course not contradictory.) Were there, given that all those concerned were heavily involved in the Newman Cause, ideological factors to do with the legacy of Newman? Was it just a matter of Church authorities’ well-established dislike for troublemakers? These are some of the questions that people are asking.

And so we are where we are. Fathers Fenlon and Cleevely are said to be in North America, and we do know that Brother Lewis has been sent off to South Africa for at least a year. Apropos of Brother Lewis, since he’s the youngest of the Three and still on the ordination track (actually, his ordination is taking an extraordinarily long time), away from home and cut off from his friends, he has been in a vulnerable enough position that you couldn’t blame him for taking whatever deal he’s been offered. Not least because these orders can be very persuasive when they put their minds to it. If I were a cynic with some knowledge of how Church affairs work, I would speculate that the next step would be to strong-arm Fr Philip into a deal, so then the blame could be placed on Fr Dermot as the ringleader who led the two young men astray. But we aren’t cynics here, are we?

Adding to the murkiness is the prospect of Fr Chavasse returning home for the papal visit, which does make it look rather as if he was in protective custody while the other three have been in extraordinary rendition. Cue some more scratching of heads.

Finally, although we give Uncle Jack Valero a bit of stick around here, I actually feel a little sorry for him. This sort of crisis management would tax the best of spin doctors. At this point, some transparency is the only rational way forward, but I sense that Selden and Harrison don’t have transparency in their vocabulary. It’s something that, these days, all clerics should know about; a good Latin word and everything.


  1. marcpuck said,

    August 22, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    I opened up your post thinking, ‘hmm, honestly, I don’t actually know if there is any there there, although all this time I’ve been disposed to think there must be’.

    Wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover, eventually, that the sent away aspirant friend of the much loved camp Fr Chavasse spoke the wrong words to the wrong people, or, depending on his perspective, the right words to the right people.

  2. Tiggy said,

    August 23, 2010 at 6:54 am

    Not being a huge expert. I wonder does the AB of Birmingham have any say in the affairs of these type of orders?

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    August 23, 2010 at 10:02 am

    I realise the above is earth-quaking importance to all who take a deep intrest to those whom god has blessed with faith but the real news in the Bogosphere of ol’ purple-socks dept is this:

  4. Petrus said,

    August 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Here’s a very insightful comment from James Preece’s blog…

    Ned says….
    According to Valero on BBC Radio Ulster Sunday 22 August there are all sorts of reasons why a religious community might suggest persons have a time away from that community for things less serious than any canonical offence – such as arrogance, pride, nastiness.

    The very fact that he used those words in describing the type of punishment meted out to the Three [or as a possible cause for the way the Three are being treated] means that in speaking on behalf of the Beatification [the Bishops Conference] and as spokesman (however unofficial] for Ignatius Harrison/Felix Selden, he has in fact impugned very publicly the good names of the Three and as a result those responsible for the Visitation [by allowing Valero to do this and NOT redressing its injustice] have singularly failed to uphold the good names of the Three. The fact that all this is happening [by virtue of it being invested with ‘Apostolic’ authority] in the name of the Holy Father means that it is impossible for the papal visit [in particular to Birmingham and especially the Beatification Mass] NOT to be overshadowed and indeed for it not to risk being a complete travesty of something intended to have an authentic pastoral/evangelical outcome but which will in the end [UNLESS THE THREE ATTEND THE BEATIFICATION] be totally marred! Shame!

  5. Policraticus said,

    August 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    “If I were a cynic with some knowledge of how Church affairs work, I would speculate that the next step would be to strong-arm Fr Philip into a deal, so then the blame could be placed on Fr Dermot as the ringleader who led the two young men astray. But we aren’t cynics here, are we?”

    Splinter – you are either gifted with incredible foresight or have had access to the ‘press statement’ about Phillip Cleevley to which Valero made reference to yesterday when he wasn’t doing a very good job at answering Ruth Dudley-Edward’s questions on BBC Radio Ulster??? Apparently Cleeveley will set off on PhD research [wonder what topic?] remain an Oratorian but be no longer one of the ‘Birmingham Three’

    if this is a ‘deal’ – it’s certainly been ‘cut’

  6. From "One who Knows" said,

    August 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    An exercise in spinning a great story almost out of thin air. Impressions are so subjective. Those who know Father Chavasse well would hardly recognize him in the caricature that you paint. The young man in the case did not approach the Birmingham Oratory with a view to priesthood.
    The “friendship” comprised a few meals out, a couple of visits to the cinema, and one or two pilgrimages.
    No-one who knows Father Chavasse ever believed the rumours spread about him, and would not even say an “impression” of an imprudent friendship had been given. No, the friendship formed the basis of a smear campaign against Father Chavasse which was taken up and used by others to further their own agenda.
    As for Father Fenlon not being homophobic-there are many others who would tell a different tale.There is much more that could be said.
    The real cause for dissension in the Birmingham Oratory is not to do with the friendship, not to do with the interpretation of Cardinal Newman, but with internal politics. And that’s the real story.
    Oh and by the way, Father Chavasse finished his term of office in February 2010, having already decided some months earlier that he did not wish to
    seek re-election.

  7. shane said,

    August 23, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    in case anyone hasn’t seen this development:

    • August 23, 2010 at 10:41 pm

      Wow, if the SSPX were to rejoin the bosom of Mother Rome at the cost of the frankly embarrassing +Richard, many would count that as acceptable collateral damage.

      • shane said,

        August 24, 2010 at 8:48 pm

        I think Williamson has a point here though. It’s best not to rush into any deal, but they’ll have to reconcile sooner or later, and it may as well be under the current pontiff. When they do, the crypto-sede wing will inevitably reject it and form a new society.

        I do hope the SSPX squeeze as much out of Rome as they possibly can. It’s interesting, if this rumour is correct, that they’re not being required to give assent to the Second Vatican Council. The IBP were required to accept the Council “in light of tradition” but were allowed to give ‘constructive criticism’ of its texts.

        Cardinal Ratzinger was very involved in the Protocol of 1988 – which he signed with Archbishop Lefebvre. The Protocol was accepted by the FSSP when they were established and we’ve seen how they’ve been treated (they still haven’t been allowed a bishop and have to rely on their local Novus Ordo ones). Rorate above that post also informs us about the ICRSP being forbidden from teaching traditional catechism in the Diocese of Agen.

        95%+ of bishops still hate Traditionalists and Williamson has every reason to be skeptical. The SSPX must demand nothing less than a personal prelature, which would give them independence from the meddling of hostile bishops. Hopefully they could also incardinate traditionalist priests from other societies and dioceses who were being obstructed by their bishop.

      • August 24, 2010 at 10:48 pm

        “When they do, the crypto-sede wing will inevitably reject it and form a new society.”

        I’m sure the SSPV are rubbing their hands with glee at the process. (For the benefit of Phil and neilcaff: imagine that the Catholic Church are the Labour Party, the SSPX are the Socialist Party of England and Wales, and the SSPV are the Sparts.)

  8. jon said,

    August 23, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    How much did the oratory have to pay to silence the TV company and obtain all of their footage?Ask that question and you will find the answer to all of this.

  9. Clara said,

    August 23, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Suggest you read

  10. Roland's Horn said,

    August 23, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    But in fact the three have in fact been guilty of nastiness/pride/arrogance. And more.Valero has not maligned them. He has understated the case, as he was bound to do.
    You are reduced to picking up speculation from James Preece’s blog and repeating it as if it were fact. I had expected better of you.

    • Clara said,

      August 25, 2010 at 10:23 am

      Well said Roland’s Horn.

  11. servingblogger said,

    August 24, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Anybody any idea what part Father Guy Nichol (sorry, maybe it’s Nicols, or Nicholl, whatever….) has had to play in all this.

    Always strikes me as a nasty piece of work, no doubt working away behind the scenes spreading dissension and conflict.

    I bet if you dig a bit you will find his hand hard at work in this sorry business.

    I say send him to the Falkland Islands to found a one man Oratory !

    • Mirabel Dictu said,

      August 31, 2010 at 10:58 pm

      Blimey, Serving Blogger, I thought no-one would ever ask this question. You seem to be a person of great insight and perspicacity.

  12. Victory of Faith said,

    August 24, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Not quite! Although the Visitor is referred to as “the Apostolic Visitor”, and he has Benedetto’s authority, he’s not appointed by “the Vatican” but by the Oratorian Confederation. More to the point, he goes where he’s called when a Provost of a particular Oratory has run into problems with his community. It certainly wouldn’t have been “the Three” who called Fr. Selden to Birmingham.

  13. Policraticus said,

    August 25, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    according to ITN news Central yesterday….

    Papal Controversy
    2.20PM Mon Aug 23 2010
    Pope Benedict’s visit to Birmingham is at the centre of a controversy. Two priests and a trainee priest at a church the Pope is due to visit have been sent away – one of them abroad – amid allegations of rows and personality clashes. The church says the three men have done nothing wrong but they’ve been removed just weeks before the Pope’s visit. Parishioners have started a campaign to get the clergymen reinstated.

    get the full TV coverage here….

  14. Mordaunt said,

    August 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    It’s interesting, if this rumour is correct, that they’re not being required to give assent to the Second Vatican Council.

    Ah. Cafeteria Catholics, then.

    It’s this sort of thing, IMO, that makes traditionalist Catholics a bit of a joke. Whinging about authoritarian hierarchs, if one is a Catholic, is missing the point. Hierarchs are supposed to be authoritarian. That is rather the point. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. When the likes of Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac got into trouble with the hierarchy, in what people round here doubtless regard as the good old days, you didn’t have people agitating for their reinstatement. They shut up and suffered in silence. De Lubac, in The Splendour of The Church,/i> remarks that a Catholic who is unjustly disciplined by the hierearchy ought to regard this as an opportunity for spiritual growth. A good Catholic is obedient to the Actually Existing Church, not to the ideal Church in their heads. This approach has a number of defects (which is why I’m not a Catholic) but it preserves one pretty effectively from conflating the Kingdom of God with a bunch of wacky Petainists.

    You might as well claim that the suppression of the Latin Mass is an act of tyranny not to be suffered by free born protestant Englishmen. Because that is where you are all going with this. If you want to decide for yourself which bits of Catholic doctrine to follow you might as well go the whole hog and embrace the Book of Common Prayer, HM the Queen and the music of G. F. Handel.

    • shane said,

      August 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm

      I think you would do best not to jump to conclusions. I do not at all dissent from the Second Vatican Council; but if Rome allows the SSPX to regularize without accepting its texts, and declares that’s fine, then that’s good enough for me.

      There is nothing disloyal about a personal prelature, which would allow them to operate over the heads of local bishops (Opus Dei -hardly disloyal- are allowed do so). The Vatican has already offered them one in the past, and sees that as the desirable canonical solution. Rome possesses “full and supreme power of jurisdiction, not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and governance of the Church dispersed throughout the world”. It’s perfectly entitled to institute these things for the good of souls.

    • Petrus said,

      August 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

      May I suggest that….

      “De Lubac, in The Splendour of The Church,/i> remarks that a Catholic who is unjustly disciplined by the hierearchy ought to regard this as an opportunity for spiritual growth. ”

      is totally out of context in this case because De Lubac was referring to an age where there was still some [at least canonicaly-speaking] vesitge of an understanding between preserving the Good of the Church [the Vatican realpolitik instigated by Pope St Pius X] rather than the goods [material wealth] of the Church [the contemporary Vatican realpolitk]

      The point being that one can hardly speak of canonical measures disproportionate to the ‘sin’ committed as being ‘good’ for the soul when there is clearly an abuse of the 1983 code of canon law as a weapon of implmenting Vatican policy as opposed to Magisterial teaching.
      Professor Pietro Di Marco of the University of Florence states:

      “It is important to remember that the original notion of “hierarchy,” which lasted until the nineteenth century in some languages like German, designates a sacred order or a religious body; while “hierarchy” as the command structure of any sort of apparatus is a linguistic innovation of the late eighteenth century. The Catholic hierarchy remains a body and a sacrament, not a corporate organizational chart; the position of every member of the Church is consistent with this order of sacred law.”

      This therefore begs the question; why is the draconian treatment of the Oratory Three look more like the manner in which a corporation metes out correction and less like something that is sacred, orderly and indicative of the entire code of canon law which is the salvation of souls.

      Di Marco goes on to say…

      “Nor is the Church a “corporation,” or an international organization. Commentators and jurists would do well to review the classical distinction between institution and organization. There are organizations in the Church, just as there are in the state. But it is not an organization, just as the state is not. Just as the family is an institution, and not an organization….
      One almost wants to exclaim: “iudices ne ultra crepidam,” do not go beyond what you know how to do!””

  15. shane said,

    August 26, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Here’s an extract from a speech given by Archbishop Ranjith, then Secretary for the Congregation of Divine Worship (and who will probably replace Canizares at that dicastery) to the Dutch Latin Liturgy Association:

    “The motu proprio Summorum Pontificum on the Latin Liturgy of July 7th 2007 is the fruit of a deep reflection by our Pope on the mission of the Church. It is not up to us, who wear ecclesiastical purple and red, to draw this into question, to be disobedient and make the motu proprio void by our own little, tittle rules. Even not if they were made by a bishops conference. Even bishops do not have this right. What the Holy Fathers says, has to be obeyed in the Church. If we do not follow this principle, we will allow ourselves to be used as instruments of the devil, and nobody else. This will lead to discord in the Church, and slows down her mission. We do not have the time to waste on this. Else we behave like emperor Nero, fiddling on his violin while Rome was burning. The churches are emptying, there are no vocations, the seminaries are empty. Priests become older and older, and young priests are scarce.”

    Also an interview given to Bruno Volpe back in 2007:

    Your Excellency, how has Benedict XVI´s motu proprio which liberalized the Holy Mass according to the Tridentine Rite been received? Some, in the bosom of the Church itself, have turned their noses…

    “There have been positive reactions and, it is useless to deny it, criticisms and opposition , even from theologians, liturgists, priests, Bishops, and even Cardinals. I frankly do not understand these rifts, and, why not [say it], rebellion towards the Pope. I invite all, particularly the Shepherds, to obey the Pope, who is the Successor of Peter. The Bishops, in particular, have sworn fidelity to the Pontiff: may they be coherent and faithful to their commitment.”

    In your opinion, what causes these displays against the Motu Proprio?

    “You know that there have been, by some dioceses, even interpretative documents which inexplainably intend to limit the Pope’s Motu Proprio. These actions mask behind them, on one hand, prejudices of an ideological kind and, on the other, pride, one of the gravest sins. I repeat: I invite all to obey the Pope. If the Holy father decided to promulgate the Motu Proprio, he had his reasons, which I fully share.”

    Benedict XVI´s decision to liberalize the Tridentine Rite seems as a just remedy to the so many liturgical abuses sadly registered after the Second Vatican Council with the ‘Novus Ordo’…

    “See, I do not wish to criticize the ‘Novus Ordo’. But I laugh when I hear it said, even by friends, that in a [certain] parish, a priest is ‘a Saint’ due to his homily or to how he speaks. The Holy Mass is sacrifice, gift, mystery, independently of the celebrating priest. It is important, fundamental even, that the priest be put aside: the protagonist of the Mass is Christ. I do not understand, thus, the Eucharistic celebrations transformed in shows with dances, songs, and applause, as it frequently happens with the Novus Ordo.”

    Monsignor Patabendige, your Congregation has repeatedly denounced these liturgical abuses…

    “True. There are so many documents, which have nonetheless painfully remained dead letter, [which] have ended up on dusty shelves or, even worse, in wastebaskets.”

    Another point: one often hears very long homilies…

    “This also is an abuse. I am opposed to dances and applause in the middle of the Masses, which are not a circus or a stadium. As for the homilies, they must relate, as the Pope has underlined, exclusively to the catechetical aspect, avoiding sociologisms and useless chatter. For example, priests often veer towards politics because they have not prepared well the homily, which must, instead, be scrupulously studied. An excessively long homily is synonymous with a scarce preparation: the correct time for a sermon must be of 10 minutes, 15 at most. It must be acknowledged that the culminating moment of the celebration is the Eucharistic mystery, which does not mean downplaying the Liturgy of the Word, but clarifying how a correct liturgy must be applied.”

    Returning to the Motu Proprio: some criticize the use of Latin during Mass…

    “The Tridentine Rite is part of the tradition of the Church. The Pope has dutifully explained the motives for his measure, an act of liberty and justice towards Traditionalists. As for Latin, I wish to underline that it has never been abolished and, what is more, it guarantees the universality of the Church. But I repeat: I invite priests, Bishops, and Cardinals to obedience, setting aside every kind of pride and prejudice.”

  16. Ned said,

    August 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    this has got absoltely nothing to do with the Birmingahm 3! go to another blog that cares about minutiae of liturgy or else get a life.

    “Those who really believe do not attribute too much importance to the struggle for the reform of ecclesiastical ritual”
    Ratzinger, in his 1968 “Introduction to Christianity,”

    • shane said,

      August 27, 2010 at 12:20 am

      No, but it does have something to do with a comment above, which is what I was responding to.

      It’s fairly common on this blog for comments to go completely off-topic. There is no rule against it.

      You’re taking Ratzinger out of context. You’ll find that he cared an awful lot about liturgical praxis.

  17. johng said,

    August 27, 2010 at 3:19 am

    It is disgraceful the way much of the left has dropped off this site simply because discussions have taken what is to them a rather obscure turn. Anyone would think they prefer left gossip. on the other hand there is always this:

    Just in case you wanted a momentary spike.

  18. August 29, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    […] Splintered Sunrise; The Birmingham Three, the plot continues to thicken. […]

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