Graham Leonard

Graham Leonard was born in London in 1921 and educated at Balliol College, Oxford of which he became an honorary fellow in 1986.

He was appointed bishop of Willesden in 1964 and bishop of Truro in 1973.

He opposed the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme in the 1970s, and as bishop of London (1981-91) he became the focus of theological opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

In 1994 Dr Leonard was received into the Roman Catholic Church and conditionally ordained as a priest by Cardinal Hume and was later appointed a monsignor by Pope John Paul II.

He died on 6th January 2010.

I interviewed him in early 1994.

This may seem a rather blunt opening question but can you distinguish for me between religion and superstition? I mean, what counts as one rather than the other? 

Religion must be based on how things are, on what the world is, on what Charles Williams would have called ‘the is-ness of things’. Religion must be based on reality, and supremely on God Himself from whom all that’s real has its origin. Superstition is based on what we would like things to be, even if they are not; in other words it is based on unreality.

But reality is something you normally feel and experience, and there are certain aspects of religion which don’t fall into this realm… 

I think I’d question that. It may be a reality we do not totally comprehend, but I would certainly not want to reduce religion to being concerned simply with how things actually are. The reality which we experience in religion is greater than our limited minds can comprehend, and this is the distinction I’m trying to make. There is a fundamental difference between our inability to comprehend God and aspects of our universe which transcended understanding, and our desire to base our life, our attitudes, on that which has no basis in reality.

When a private person leaves the Anglican Church and moves to Rome, that is a matter simply for the person himself…but you were a bishop and had the fullness of the priesthood. Did you not feel a fundamental obligation to those you had led for all those years? 

Yes, I did, but if it proves impossible to continue to exercise that fullness of the priesthood, you have an obligation to ask where you can do so. God was not withdrawing my vocation, but He was saying to me, you must exercise it somewhere else. I said that I would come to Rome ‘as a supplicant without presumption’ – that was my phrase – but I did lay down one condition, and that was that I could not be asked to deny my former ministry, however regarded. And that was made very clear, not only by the fact that I was ordained conditionally, but also because in the course of the service it was recognized that ministries outside the Catholic Church could be vehicles of grace. Obviously I gave a lot of thought to those whom I was, as it were, leaving behind, but given the situation in the Church of England, it seemed to me that one way forward was to accept the Roman claims and to seek to be received into the Roman Church; and it has been understood in this way by a number of people.

It must have been very distressing for many of your parishioners, however. Were you conscious of that, did you take full account of that in your decision to leave the Anglican Church? 

I’ve had a good deal of criticism from those who don’t agree with me, but I’ve also heard from many Anglicans who have told me they are now considering the possibility of doing what I have done. I really can’t think of more than perhaps one or two letters which have taken the line that I have abandoned my parishioners or let them down.

I suppose it must irritate you that so many people concentrate on your objection to women being ordained when there are other reasons for your decision to move to Rome. Before we get on to women priests, can you tell me something of those other reasons? 

They were set out very clearly, surprisingly enough, by the Church of England House of Bishops, who then didn’t attempt to deal with them, mainly because of the pressures of secular thought. But at the time they said that the issue affected our understanding of the nature of God, of the way He created the world, and it raised the whole question of the authority of the Church. Having set these issues out, they then didn’t take any notice of them. And so one of my great sadnesses was what I would call the theological levity of the Church of England in not being prepared to face these fundamental issues.

There are two popular views about the Anglican Church: one which sees its doctrines being modified to accommodate changed cultural circumstances; the other which thinks of it as being determined to be all things to all men (and now to all women as well), and that it really has no firm principles at all. Do you incline to either view? 

Not exactly. If you look at what happened in the Reformation in this country, it was above all an act of state. Henry VIII proclaimed himself Head of the Church and broke with Rome. The position of the Church of England emerged as a kind of response to what had been forced upon it by the state. It was never based upon a coherent theology of its own; it was rather an accumulation of responses which took three forms. First there were those who maintained that the Church of England was still Catholic, and that in spite of not being under Rome, it could still claim to be Catholic since some formulae of the Church of England were in fact designed to preserve certain Catholic elements. At the same time there was the Protestant element which came from the Continent and found a footing here, and the Protestants played a great part in modifying the various liturgies and service books produced at the time. And thirdly there were those whose commitment one might say was predominantly rationalist, though they didn’t really come to have such a profound effect until the 18th century. So there were these three streams coming through in the Church of England, and they were never really related. One hears a lot about comprehensiveness of the Church of England but it’s been a comprehensiveness of plurality, not of understanding. Way back in the late 60s and early 70s when the Anglican Methodists’ scheme for union was in debate, I pleaded for those in each strain to admit what was wrong and to take what was good in their understanding into a more cohesive whole. That’s never happened, and what is now clear to me is that the secular pressures are so great that this kind of approach just won’t stand the strain.

You have said that the Church of England cannot now claim to be anything other than a sect. Are you conscious of the fact that the view will be regarded as offensive to a great many people? 

With all due respect, I don’t think that was my quote, but John Gummer’s. I have fallen over backwards to try not to be offensive to the Church of England.

But is it a view you share…? 

Whether I would use the word sect is another matter, but I would say this: the Church of England in the past has claimed, in the words of Archbishop Fisher, to have no faith of its own; it has only the Catholic faith enshrined in the Catholic creed which is held without addition or diminution. It can’t say that any more. What has happened is that the Church of England to a large extent has become a communion in which it is required that you accept something which is quite explicitly rejected by the vast majority of Christendom. Before the vote was taken, both the Pope and the ecumenical patriarch for the Orthodox Church made it clear that this was not acceptable to them, they did not believe it to be part of the Catholic faith, and that if we pursued it and it went forward in this way it would cause great difficulties; but it still went ahead on its own and decided that in a matter of this gravity it could make its own decision. Now, whether you call it secret or not, the Church of England has now claimed in a sense to be autonomous. It has claimed that it can define by itself what is integral to the Catholic faith, and in that sense I believe it has isolated itself.

Many people will understand the arguments from tradition about the ordination of women, but is there a theological argument separable from the argument from tradition? 

I believe there is, and it’s very profound. In the first place Our Lord actually allowed women to be witnesses of the Resurrection at a time when the witness of a woman was not accepted by the Jewish people at the time. He talked to a woman at the well alone, and in many ways overturned the common practice of the time, but when it came to choosing his disciples and then apostles he chose only men. Of course it is commonly said that if Our Lord were alive today He would, because of our culture, do things differently. First of all, I don’t accept He isn’t alive today, but the fact remains that the culture in which God chose to become man was the culture He chose; it wasn’t an accident. And I believe that the whole of Scripture compels us to say that that particular culture, being the deliberate and free choice of God, has a significance for us which we cannot ignore. We can’t amend, we can’t alter the Christian gospel to suit each successive culture; that would be building on sand. Certainly the culture in which God became man was patriarchal, but I believe that was a fact of God’s choice…Our Lord came, as Scripture says, in the fullness of time, after a time of preparation. This for me is a very profoundly theological reason. There is also the question of representation. It is sometimes argued that in order for humanity to be truly represented in the priesthood, you need men and women, and you can’t have a true representation without both. But one thing that cannot be denied is that God was incarnate as a male person only. But if you say that you need both men and women to represent humanity, you are in fact saying that the representation of humanity in Our Lord is inadequate. To my thinking humanity is represented in both men and women who live in a relationship of complementarity, each bringing his or her own particular qualifications and characteristics and contributions in order that the whole of humanity shall operate in a healthy and proper way. To say that man alone cannot represent humanity is to raise some very fundamental questions about the very basic fact of the Christian gospel.

Is God male? 

To me God has no gender but He is the source of gender which He gave to His creation; in all His dealings with us He takes account of the fact that we are men and women. In so doing He tells us, for example, to address His as Our Father, and in Scripture we are taught to think of the Church as the Bride of Christ. There is the complementarity, and I cannot as a Christian think it is wrong to address God as Father because that is the way God has revealed Himself. This may sound very impertinent of me, but God doesn’t do things without reason, and yet this is always difficult for people to grasp. It is no surprise to me that when God became incarnate He was incarnate as a male person, and it is perfectly proper to say that although God is without gender in His Own Being, nevertheless, in the way He tells us to talk about Him, to think about Him, He tells us to use gender, because it’s part of the way He made us.

Does dogma or conscience have priority in church? Would you regard it as a Christian duty to believe what has been revealed by Scripture? 

Well, I promised to do that when I was received as a Catholic, but I have always attributed immense importance to the matter of conscience. I do not believe you can ask somebody to act against his own conscience; you must respect it. At the same time, and this is largely forgotten, it is a fundamental maxim of moral theology that our conscience is always in need of correction, it never points absolutely true to the north, it has to be corrected, and that happens when we live, as it were, under the judgement of dogma. When I look at the New Catechism, it is far greater than I can wholly encompass in my own limited mind, but I happen to live under its judgement. Dogma is given to us in order that our consciences may be cleansed, may be corrected, but meanwhile we have to act according to what our consciences are, and I don’t believe that it is incompatible to live in this way while accepting the truths of revolution.

But which has precedence – dogma or conscience? 

In the last resort, as Newman would say, it must be conscience, but you may have to accept the consequences of that. What I find so difficult is the people who say that their conscience tells them to take a line which is in fact quite contrary to the teaching of the Church but I think that they can still go on as faithful members of the Church. In my view, if your conscience actually tells you that you believe something which is quite contrary to what the clear teaching of the Church is, then it seems to me you have a proper course of action, which is to leave. What you can’t do is to tell the Church it’s got to alter its beliefs to suit your particular conscience at a given time.

How powerful in your mind is the thought that the ordination of woman to the priesthood in the Anglican Church will separate it from the universal Church as presented by Rome and the Orthodox? 

I think it has separated us in a very sad way in the attempt to be autonomous and the extent to which what I would call secular thought has been allowed to dominate what should be theological decisions. A lot of feminists, for example, not only advocate a liberal view within the Christian Church, but claim that the Gospel as traditionally presented is not compatible with feminism.

In the early Church, however, women are recorded as teaching the faith and it seems to have been perfectly accepted. Was the early Church wrong to allow this to happen? 

No. Women were given a proper part to play in the early Church, no doubt about that, and in fact I have pressed at times very strongly for women, who have particular gifts, to be allowed to develop in spiritual directions. But as far as exercising the sacramental role of the priesthood, the Church has been quite consistent in this from the earliest times; and where that has happened it has been condemned.

You have argued that if God had wanted women to be priests He would have made at least one apostle a woman, but isn’t it presumptuous to say what God would or would not have done? And isn’t it anyway a rather crude version of the argument, ‘if God had wanted us to fly He would have given us wings’…? 

I see what you mean. Well, it may be presumptuous to say what God would or would not have done, but what is important is to say what God did, and I can’t get away from that.

Yes, but if we accept your argument, then shouldn’t we perhaps take account of the Jewishness of the apostles? The Church ordains males who are not Jews, but Jesus didn’t…why concentrate on one aspect and not the other? 

Because for me the distinction between male and female is fundamental to all humanity; it is not simply a characteristic like Jewishness. I wouldn’t want to say that nationality is a second order issue, but I don’t put it on the same level as gender.

You said that women are not able to represent the maleness of Jesus in the celebration of mass. But isn’t there a case for saying that what matters is not Christ’s maleness but His humanity? 

I know that argument has been put, but if you say that humanity can be represented only by both sexes, you are saying something fundamentally destructive of the incarnation, because God was incarnate only as a male person. The Church is sometimes accused of denigrating women, and while that may at certain times in the past have been true, you only have to think of the position which has always been given in the Catholic Church to Our Lady to see that a woman has been extolled beyond measure.

But do you think feminism unduly influenced the decision on the ordination of women priests? 

Oh, it certainly did in some places, particularly in America, but also to a considerable extent in this country. A good deal of feminist literature which I’ve read sees the ordination of women as one of their aims in securing the acceptance of what I would call extreme feminist views.

You have sometimes said that women would take things too personally, would be too emotional to be effective, and so on. But would you not allow that this might also apply to some male priests, their maleness notwithstanding? 

I don’t remember saying that, though I wouldn’t deny it. I think there is a fundamental difference between men and women in the way they deal with problems. That isn’t to say that some women don’t have a more masculine approach, and some men may well have a more feminine approach, but it is vital that the basic distinction is recognized and not blurred.

It’s only comparatively recently that women have been allowed to vote, or indeed go to university, do you think you might also have opposed these changes at the time? 

I don’t think I would. Looking back over my life, I have consistently tried to distinguish between what I would call fundamentals, basic truths, whether a revelation or something else, the other things which might be subject to change. The idea, for example, that my highly intelligent wife couldn’t vote would be most offensive to me.

Even though you don’t see them as being analogous issues, don’t you think that in the fullness of time – as is happening now in the Anglican Church – they will be seen as comparable, and women will come to be accepted in the priesthood, even in the Roman Catholic Church? 

I don’t think so. The last apostolic letter of the Pope makes it quite clear that it is not on the agenda in the Catholic Church. Until recent years the Church of England said it maintained the Catholic faith, not by exercising an authority of magisterium but by the contributions of worship and teaching, from which the truth would emerge. Well, it may be possible for scholars and holy men to do that, but that won’t happen with the ordinary person in the street who does not have the facility for doing that kind of assessment of the truth. I mean, I use my word processor but I don’t pretend to understand it for a moment how it works, but it doesn’t prevent me from using it, and to some extent that applies to theological thought. What is very worrying in the Church of England is the fact that when synodical government was introduced, nobody realized what was actually happening. There is a most extraordinary provision which gives the General Synod power to make doctrinal changes. The clause says something like this: that the General Synod shall not pass anything which is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England or indicative of a departure therefrom. That sounds all right, but the next sentence goes on to say, but if the Synod shall pass anything that shall conclusively determine that it has not done anything which is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England or indicative of a departure therefrom…in other words the Synod can do exactly what it likes, and the formularies of the Church of England no longer have any authority. This confirmed what I had always feared, that the General Synod could change the formularies, it could change the creed if it wanted to, it can do anything.

Since the Roman Catholic Church has held out against married priests, and you yourself are married, does this not mean that in effect you are undermining the authority of the Roman Church on this question? 

That is a very fair question, but I would say first of all that the celibacy of the clergy is of course a matter of discipline, not doctrine. After all St Peter was married, and in the Orthodox Church you either have to be married before ordination or be a monk. I did of course discuss this issue with Cardinal Hume, and there has never been any suggestion that because some of us have now been accepted as married priests, that this is altering the discipline. Any ex-Anglican, for example, who seeks to be ordained de novo will have to accept the celibacy role. What applied to me was an ad hoc decision for a particular group of people at a particular time, and it has been made very clear by both the Cardinal and by Rome that it doesn’t alter the overall position of the Church.

Do you think the Roman Catholic Church has gone far enough to accommodate Anglicans like yourself? 

All I can say is that the welcome I received has been overwhelming. I thought that I would be given a period of what I would call decent reticence, but it hasn’t worked like that, and I’m being asked to go round and talk everywhere.

Do you think that the Roman Catholic Church is right in not allowing priests to marry? 

I think there is a great deal to be said for it. I don’t yet feel that I know enough about the internal life of the Roman Church to be able to make a judgement, but we are living in an increasingly secular society, and the pressures of that society are becoming greater upon us. It is very hard to think that it’s right to bring a wife into the kind of pressures under which a priest now has to live. I would think it is probably wiser in the present situation as it looks like being for some time ahead for priests not to be married. Also when I was in the Church of England and dealing with married candidates for ordination, it was very difficult to discern whether the wives or fiancées were really going to be able to live in that public relationship to an ordained man in the future, especially if they were relatively young. How are they going to respond when their husband is having to stand out for things which they personally find difficult to accept? This puts an enormous strain on the marriage, and this makes me feel the present discipline of celibacy is the wisest thing.

You have strong views on the indissolubility of marriage. No one would underestimate the problems arising from broken marriages, but given that they are a fact of modern life, which not even the royal family is exempt from, how best can the Church respond? 

In this matter I believe the Catholic Church actually behaves very wisely. On the one hand, it stands foursquare for the indissolubility of marriage, and on the other it is as understanding and flexible as possible in concrete incidences.

But a lot of people accuse the Catholic Church of being flexible only when it comes to the rich and famous… 

Well, I wonder if this is true. I have heard that said but my experience, limited as it is now, is that if the rich and famous get some nullity or invalidation, it does of course hit the headlines. A lot of simple good pastoral care is given to individuals who wouldn’t come into this category, but their cases do not attract publicity.

You yourself have been marries for 50 years, and your wife is known to share your views. But your wife was content to give up her career to look after you and the children, to take a role secondary to yours. Would you have been happy if the positions had been reversed? 

I’m not sure that I would agree with your description of it as a secondary role. What I constantly realize, looking back, is the extent to which she supplemented my role. That sounds a rather condescending way of putting it, but I’m very conscious of how many people speak of what they owe to her for the friendship she gave, for the fact that the house was always open for people. What she has been able to do, particularly as a hostess, has been very significant and it certainly has satisfied her.

You are quoted as saying that sexual experience is not essential for a full life. How did you arrive at that view? Isn’t sex at the very basis of humanity, an experience of great beauty and joy, and indeed a gift from God? 

I would agree with all that. My remark was made in the context of those who were saying that it was wrong to seek to control sexual experience. Also, if you say that sexual experience is an absolute necessity for a full human life you are in fact saying that Our Lord did not live a full human life. There is no evidence that Our Lord had sexual experience, it has never been assumed that He did, so to me it hits the incarnation fundamentally. Besides, some of the most saintly people I’ve met in my life have not been married and they are such people that it is inconceivable that they would have had any sexual experience, and yet they have been able to direct and canalize their extraordinary gifts in a most remarkable way.

What are your views on homosexual priests? Should the Church show them compassion? 

My line on that has been quite consistent. I make a distinction between being homosexual by disposition and indulging in homosexual genital acts. I cannot accept that the latter are right and good, but at the same time I have always taken the line, particularly when I was Bishop of London, that you cannot assume, just because two men are living in the same house, that they are indulging in homosexual genital acts. People used to write to me and ask, what are you going to do about so and so? And my answer was always, what reason is there for me to do anything, what evidence do you have that they are in fact living in a physical relationship, and of course they could never produce this. On the other hand, if a priest said to me, I am living in a physical homosexual relationship, I would say, that is sinful and you must give it up.

Are there still core doctrines, without adherence to which you cannot legitimately call yourself a Christian? 

That’s not an easy question to answer at the moment. I see the Catholic faith as a whole, but nevertheless if you press me on that point I would say that the cardinal doctrine is that of the incarnation, that Our Lord is truly God and man both. And I would want to go further and put the Resurrection in the same category. But I prefer not to isolate doctrines and give them degrees of importance.

The Church of England seems now to be irrevocably divided. What future do you see for it? 

I don’t know. I try not to speculate about the Church of England or give advice to it. Some indication will be given by the debate which is going to take place soon on lay celebrating of the mass. If that is given a fair wind I think it will be a clear indication that the Church of England is irrevocably committing itself to being at one with the Protestant bodies, because it would be so subversive to the Catholic structure of the Church. In other respects it’s difficult at the moment; I don’t think anybody really appreciates the significance of what the Church of England has done.

To outside observers it can seem a little strange that on the one hand there is a mood to encourage the ecumenical approach, yet on the other hand there are more and more obstacles put in its way. Why has this come about? 

That’s a very interesting question, but it doesn’t have an easy answer. Even in my lifetime I can remember the Anglican Methodist proposals for a union, or the times of the covenanting proposals as they were called a bit later on, and the great cry then was, we must do nothing to prejudice unity. It was also said that we must do nothing apart that we can’t do together. All the emphasis was on unity, but that’s gone now. As one bishop said at the Lambeth Conference in ’88, no price is too high to pay for the ordination of women – it doesn’t matter what divisions it causes. So there’s been an extraordinary sea change here, and the prospects of any kind of organic union between the Church of England and the Church of Rome are just not on the agenda.

Politicians are keen to confine clerics within a moral enclosure where they can do no harm – even the Pope is keen not to have his clergy engaged in political action. How can the Church mediate effectively between God and Mammon? 

Again there’s no easy answer to that. I myself have been fairly intensively involved in political issues of one kind or another, but while the Church must involve itself with politics because it is concerned with human beings, those who hold official positions in the Church of England should make it quite clear that Christian commitment forbids them from giving total allegiance to one particular party interpretation, something which politicians find hard to understand. They must first and foremost be Christians and exercise judgement according to the issue.

Is it possible that in the future Christians may have to be content with a version of ecumenism which is more like a confederation, a group loosely allied by subscription to a central doctrine whose sense is not too closely defined…in other words a bit like the Church of England in fact? 

I think there is a certain amount of truth in that. People forget what an extraordinary change of attitude has taken place, even in my lifetime. When I was first ordained in 1948 churches had very little to do with each other. I can remember how we were told by the Catholic Church that we couldn’t even say the Lord’s Prayer together. Now the relationships have totally changed without any question of visible unity arising, and I think you’re probably right: for Christians divided as they are, for them to live together in harmony, to listen to one another, without compromising what they see as their essential beliefs, that is the future for the foreseeable period.

A very small proportion of the country’s population, something like 6 per cent or 7 per cent, now regularly attend Christian worship. Do you think it will be possible to re-engage the nation spiritually? 

It should be, and I think that is something one simply must work for. The only way it is going to come about is by the recovery of a genuine spirituality among the present worshippers, so that those who do worship draw others to themselves. I certainly can’t see this happening by any dramatic moves or legislation. It may happen of course, such is the way of human history, by the situation within the Church becoming much more difficult. It’s one of these ironies of the history that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Can you explain exactly how you felt when the General Synod voted in favour of the ordination of women priests? What was the predominant emotion…anger, betrayal? 

Neither. It was relief. I just felt, well, thank God the issue is resolved now, because I had already come to see the way things were going in the Church of England. I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to go on with this battle any longer.

Your protest against the move to ordain women priests caused a great deal of embarrassment to the former Archbishop of Canterbury…do you regret this? 

I regret that it was necessary. I did try and make my opposition as far as possible principled rather than personal, but I do regret that I had to stand out in the way I did.

You have also been critical of the present Archbishop, Dr Carey. Do you think he abandoned Anglicans like yourself? 

I don’t really want to comment on the present Archbishop of Canterbury. I would simply say this: I think he seriously misjudged the position of those who share my views, and I do find it quite extraordinary that he should imply that neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church has the mind of Christ.

There are those who claim that you would like to have been Archbishop of Canterbury yourself and that you feel disappointed that you were passed over. Is there any truth in that? 

No, there’s not. I didn’t expect to be, and I was even surprised to become Bishop of London. Looking back, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for me to have done that job, since I would question the theological basis of the Church of England anyway. Let me put it this way – I don’t really see how I could have coped as Archbishop of Canterbury while obeying my conscience.

You have upset quite a lot of people in the Church of England and perhaps because of that you have sometimes been described as a man with delusions of grandeur…how do you react to that? 

I just laugh at it because I honestly don’t think I am. I know that phrase. What people never can understand is that you can be totally devoid of delusions of grandeur but at the same time hold very firm opinions.

You have now retired, but if you had been a younger man, would your position in the Roman Catholic Church not have been very unsatisfactory? It seems unlikely that you would have been recognized as a bishop… 

I don’t know, that’s an open question. Rome made a decision about my priesthood, and I was ordained conditionally, but I made it well known publicly and privately that at the age of 73 I did not want to exercise Episcopal functions. But I am able to exercise all that I wish in terms of my priesthood: I can say mass, I can hear confessions, I can preach, I can minister to the sick, and that is more than enough for any man. And I feel no bitterness towards the church I left; only sorrow.

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