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.