Some time ago I received a letter postmarked Archbishop’s House, Westminster. It was perhaps a mark of a guilty conscience that my first thought was: “Oh dear, what have we done now?” To my surprise, the letter didn’t contain a telling-off. In fact, it offered thanks for our coverage of that year’s Day for Life. It ended with an elegant signature that read: “Bernard Longley”.
That letter, for me, sums up Bishop Longley, the Westminster auxiliary who oversees six bustling London deaneries, as well as supervising the diocesan pastoral board and running the national Day for Life. He has an uncommon kindness combined with a keen intelligence. You could see both qualities in that letter. It was kind, because journalists don’t expect (or usually deserve) thanks. And it was intelligent, because the media are desperately eager to please those rare souls who appreciate them.
I’ve wanted to do a profile interview with Bishop Longley ever since. But it’s taken a long time to arrange. After he was appointed bishop in 2003 he maintained a low profile. But following a flurry of speculation earlier this year that he might be the next Archbishop of Westminster, he is now one of the most prominent Catholic priests in the country. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to see that this is a position he is not entirely comfortable with.
Bishop Longley only finally agreed to the interview on the condition that it would highlight some of the charitable causes that are dearest to him (about which more later). And he seems rather uncomfortable as we sit in his airy, immaculately ordered office in Archbishop’s House, carefully negotiating the scope of the finished article.
Not surprisingly, it’s pretty hard to get Bishop Longley to speak about himself. But he does offer a window on to his vocation when he describes his youth in east Manchester. At 14, he was a “zealtor” of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith. Every quarter, he would visit a dozen houses in his parish to empty the APF’s little red boxes. Whether a house contained a boisterous family or a lonely old person he loved the experience. And it made him wonder if this was what being a priest was like.
When he went up to Oxford to study English literature he knew he wanted to try his priestly vocation. But that didn’t stop him throwing himself into university life. He became a member of New College choir, a role that benefited him when he later became the national ecumenical officer of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“There were two Catholics in the choir at time,” he recalls. “Paddy Russill, who is now the organist and director of music at the Oratory, and I. We were the two absentees whenever everyone else went up for holy communion. The last time I sang with New College choir was at a festival of early music not far from Bordeaux. The very final service I sang at was Mass. On this one occasion it was just me and Paddy who went up for Communion. We still managed to scandalise somebody who thought that everybody in the choir must be Anglican.” When he wasn’t scandalising French Catholics, he could be found at the Oxford Union, the prestigious debating society that attracts politically ambitious students. But unlike many of his colleagues, who included the future prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, he wasn’t preparing the ground for a political career. In fact, the experience was training him for life as a preacher.
“In hindsight it did contribute to the way that subsequently I would try to preach the word of God,” he says. “I suppose the art of debate is to try to persuade. There is within preaching something of that: to try to enable the Holy Spirit through what you’re saying to influence people for good. But you are conscious that you’re a channel or conduit for these things.” After Oxford he went to seminary and was ordained a priest of Arundel and Brighton diocese in December 1981. His first posting was to a parish in Epsom, Surrey. He then taught dogmatic theology at Wonersh from 1987 to 1996, when he moved to the ecumenical department of the bishops’ conference. In 1999 he was named assistant general secretary of the conference.
When I point out that he has spent much of his priestly life behind a desk, Bishop Longley smiles and raises a finger in mock warning. “Now, Luke, if I read that I’m the remote...” But he admits he sometimes missed having daily contact with parishioners. That is, until he realised that even administrative work has a pastoral element.
“I used to think about that when I was working at the bishops’ conference and, you know, the number of meetings you would have. But they’re always with people. It always involved getting to know people, and discussing issues with them, but always mediated through people, and experiencing their faith. And I found that very valuable.” After his episcopal ordination in January 2003 Bishop Longley was given responsibility for the deaneries of Camden, Hackney, Islington, Marylebone, Tower Hamlets and Westminster. Over the past six years he has had to represent the diocese in some bitter parish disputes.
“I remember dear Bishop Jim [O’Brien], who was the auxiliary bishop in Hertfordshire when I first came to the diocese,” he reflects. “He said: ‘One of the things you will do as a bishop is absorb people’s anger.’ You know it’s not personal to yourself. People realise that as well. But they do need a face and a person to direct their frustrations, annoyances, anger and justified disappointments towards.
“But then it releases some of the healing and more positive energy within the local parish situation. So the parish priest doesn’t have to live with all that pent-up annoyance and anger. It often enables the local parish to move forward once that’s been expressed. Not forgotten – it can’t always be resolved. But nevertheless it is an important service.” Does the hostility ever affect him personally?
“I have to confess it does,” he says. “Once or twice in a difficult situation it’s afterwards that I’ve reacted. I’ve thought about it in a different way and felt the emotion, which communicates itself. That’s something which I think you always have to bring to the Lord in prayer. You can’t absorb that and forget about it. You have to bring it to Our Lord in prayer, because ultimately it’s only his strength that enables you to be of help there. It’s his ministry that you’re trying to make present in those circumstances.” But if the bishop finds these parish disputes draining, he draws energy from seeing the Church serving London’s neediest. He names four causes that are particularly dear to him. The first is the St John Southworth Fund, which offers grants to the poor and disadvantaged in London’s 33 boroughs. The second is Small Encounters, which encourages pupils of different faiths in Tower Hamlets to meet and work together. The third is the St Vincent de Paul Society shop in Hackney, a charity shop that also serves as a drop-in centre. And the fourth is the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster), which has just celebrated 150 years of caring for the capital’s children. The bishop would dearly like readers to support one or more of these causes.
You may be worried by now that, with all his responsibilities, Bishop Longley doesn’t have a moment to relax. Fear not. When I point out that his entry is often among the longest in our weekly bishops’ engagements section, he replies: “I have to try and create the right impression that I’m busy.” He says he relaxes by reading whenever he gets the chance and mentions that he’s looking forward to tackling Rowan Williams’s new book on Dostoyevsky. He admits, somewhat cagily, to a fondness for Russian literature.
“I love Pushkin,” he says. Then, apparently worried that this may sound pretentious, he adds: “In translation!”