Ann Widdecombe, the forthright Employment Minister who keeps her male colleagues on their toes, surprised many when she became a Catholic after the Anglican vote to allow women priests in 1992. In the first of a special Lenten series of interviews with converts, Rev Stephen Trott met her.
SHE Is NW the sort everyone expected to become a "convert". Most people think of the High Church, "smellsand-bells" brigade, as the most likely candidates, already accustomed to lavish ritual, clouds of incense, and prayers for the Pope.
But Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP for Maidstone, was brought up and educated in the quite opposite tradition of Low Church Anglicanism of Bath Abbey, where she was confirmed while a schoolgirl at Bath Convent. Her brother is an Anglican clergyman, a Canon with a large parish in Bristol.
She is typical, however, of so many Anglicans for whom the vote to allow women priests of 11 November 1992 was the last straw, the end of a long pilgrimage leading to the decision to seek membership of the Roman Catholic • Church.
The proposal was not expected to succeed on that fateful day, either by its supporters or by its opponents, and therefore the outcome came as a bolt from the blue for many.
While supporters of the proposal were •celebrating .noisily in Dean's Yard, outside Church House, a number of those for whom it came as a severe blow were being interviewed by the media. One of them was Miss Widdecombe and her forthright and courageous response brought her many letters of support and admiration from viewers who shared her reaction.
There had been a considerable amount of lobbying before the vote, from both sides in the debate, but Miss Widdecombe was not known generally to have firm views on the issue. Her remarkable intervention after the vote had many opponents of the proposal wishing that such an able speaker had been able to contribute to the debate itself, either before the vote or in the Synod, where her colleague John Ciununer had been one of the principal speakers.
I met Miss Widdecombe at her office at Caxton House where she is a Minister in the Department of Employment. Her appearance in the media suggests a person of much greater physical stature, but her presence more than compensates for her lack of inches, in a political world still very much dominated by men. As I discovered, she is also a profound and reflective thinker, whose world-view is strongly formed by her Christian convictions.
After leaving school, Ann underwent a period of agnosticism, and emerged still an Anglican, although with broader sympathies than before: firmly "middle of the road" is the term she uses. As an MP, she became involved with the House of Commons' parish church, St Margaret, Westminster, and enjoyed Evensong at St Martin-in-theFields.
In her constituency, the parish churches at Staplehurst or Sutton Valence were the preferred venues for worship as an Anglican. The tradition of these churches is far from the exotic Anglo-Catholicism of many London "shrines" within easy reach of Westminster.
As she became steadily disillusioned by the doctrinal decay she observed in the Church of England, she began to find the Roman Catholic Church more attractive, not for its liturgy, but for its steadfast adherence to a clearly defined Gospel. In partiCular, she was drawn by t.1* work of the Pro-Life Movement, which has Anglican supporters, but is most strongly supported by Catholics.
The decision of many Anglicans to "go over to Rome" following the vote for women priests has been criticised by some observers as lacking in theological integrity: opposition to women priests in the Church of England is not in itself a sufficient reason to become a Roman Catholic. Charges of misogyny have been levelled at some of those who have withdrawn from the Church of England. There were, and still are many in the Church of England, for whom the protracted battles of the last 25 years of synodical government have been a source of deepening disillusionment. By the time this particular vote took place, Miss Widdecombe was virtually committed already to leaving, and the result simply confirmed a decision she had already made.
The interview on television that night, in which she announced that she had already decided to leave the Church of England, stunned many viewers, not least because they were unaware that she had firm views on the subject.
She was never a member of Women Against the Ordination of Women, the large pressure group which had worked hard to prevent the legislation from succeeding, nor was she a member of the General Synod. Her intervention was all the more effective as a result, and gave great encouragement to many who shared her dismay.
It also resulted in the process of the Reception receiving a remarkable amount of publicity, more perhaps • than she had expected or wanted: "The media circus spun right out of control." Photographs of the service itself made the front pages of most national newspapers, and there was a great deal of criticism levelled at her because of this. But the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage are public occasions, extensively photographed. Reception into the Catholic Church is an extension of Baptism, and like Baptism, is an act of witness to the Christian faith, by allowing one's Christian convictions to be seen publicly.
Church authorities decided that it was not necessary for Miss Widdecombe to go through the full RCIA process. This caused a certain amount of misunderstanding in some quarters.
Catholics are naturally "very protective towards it (RCIA)" but, as she points out, "it is designed for people coming in from other faiths or none not for people who are already Christians, seeking to be received into full commu: nion with the Church. She has been made very welcome in her new Church by local people, at Sacred Heart in Westminster and in her Catholic parish church in Maidstone. Indeed she has found no lack of welcome anywhere.
Looking back at the Church of England, she wishes well those trying to survive in it as
members of Forward in Faith, but she sees the Church itself becoming unmanageable, papering over ever-widening cracks.
The advent of women bishops will, she considers, make life impossible. She takes a close interest in development: "205 Anglican clergy'have been received so far, and more than 340 have left the Church of England." She has no respect for the Anglican hierarchy as a group these days.
The position of the former Bishop of Durham was "unacceptable".
She retains tremendous respect for individuals, especially the (Evangelical) Bishop of Maidstone, Gavin Reid, but she can discern no coherent approach in the Church of England. "Many competent clergy are being undermined by their own hierarchy."
Although she has become-a Catholic, Ann Widdecombe still accepts that there needs to
be an Established Church. The example which she gives is the justification it provides for compulsory religious education. But she is divided about the role of Parliament, with its continuing right to vote on matters of Christian doctrine.
She found it offensive that many of those voting in the House of Commons debate on women priests were not themselves Christians, making their decision on the basis of
"women's rights". But on the whole, she is convinced that Establishment is worth retaining, despite such anachronisms.
She feels no resentment, however, towards her former Church. In fact she now feels warmly ecumenical towards it. She misses the 1662 Prayer Book and Cranmer's English, finding the language of the modern liturgy of both Churches to be "banal and awful". The informality of Catholic services came as something of a shock but she finds an occasional visit to Latin Mass "a great restorative". Reception into the Catholic Church came as a great relief, despite her sadness at leaving behind her Anglican heritage.
She has not had a moment's doubt about her decision to go, despite hearing church bells, despite leaving the Prayer Book behind no serious doubts at all.
She would recommend the Roman Catholic Church to anyone considering the same spiritual journey, especially to other members of the laity, for "this is a Church which stands up firmly for the Faith".
She is rather more diffident about the position of Anglican priests considering the same pilgrimage, for their practical difficulties add to the burden of the decision. But she is firmly convinced that the Church to which she now belongs "is the early Church, it is the Christian tradition, it is continuing Christianity."
She is especially aware of the problems faced by married clergy, who wonder whether they will even be welcome in a Church which has long required its clergy to be celibate, but she still points out enthusiastically that Rome has had a handful of married clergy for a long time. And above all, the Catholic Church is very much family-based and at ease with families. Married clergy will surely find a welcome and a valued role for their ministry, as Roman Catholics:
She has lost some friends but gained new ones by going over to Rome. Some of the clergy she knew are no longer in touch, but she is still friends with Bishop Gavin Reid and one or two other prominent Anglicans.
There are no more Christmas cards from Dr Carey to the MP for Maidstone: however, she still sends him one.