My Campaign Against the Bishop of Bristol

Background: Bristol is the refuge city of choice for quite a few refugees and immigrants from Africa because the city has a policy of welcoming the world to Bristol.

Our parish is about 65% black and  10% Indian (the music is outrageous!), many of them illegal or refugees pending resolution, during which time they are prevented from working or receiving welfare. Literally made destitute by decree. Our priest, the remarkable Fr Richard Mackay, has run up a thumping overdraft paying for lawyers, investigators and travel costs to tribunals, on which trips he usually accompanies them. He rescues people from vile detention centres. The diocese has hung a sword of Damocles over his head: stop it, or else.

14thJune 2013
The Annexe
Hobwell Lane
Long Ashton
Dear Bishop Declan, Your Grace,
I am a parishioner at St Nicholas Tolentino. When I first came to Bristol 15 months ago from New Zealand, my first priority was to find a parish where I felt at home, which would mean with the same priorities and spirituality as my beloved and dearly missed St Patrick’s Cathedral at home.
One of the elements important to me can be referenced by this line from St Pat’s published priorities:
  • supporting  inner city out-reach to those in need or who are marginalised. We support and encourage Catholic social service agencies as well as the initiatives provided by other Churches in the downtown area.

They mean it, and they do it. Street people recognise the Cathedral as a home, and often wander in during Mass and at other times for a snooze on one of the back pews (they’re usually remarkably polite and considerate, even the mentally unwell). They are known by name and welcomed, grieved and prayed for when lost to death or institutionalisation.
Often at night Hindus can be found praying on the church steps. They say they recognise St Pats as a holy place, a shrine. It’s so lovely to come to Mass and see marigolds and daubs of colour on the steps.
It’s a hard act to follow. St Nick’s is alone in Bristol, at least that I could find, in practising that standard of Christ’s teaching. I don’t condemn – it is a high standard, difficult and, for the devoted clergy, demanding at all hours of the day and night. The St Pat’s presbytery is across the square, twenty yards away. People know they can knock on that door at any hour and it will open. It’s not a life for everyone.
What I do find hard to understand is that St Nick’s, far from being held up as a shining example by the diocese, is being brought to heel like a disobedient dog. The diocese’s website appears to show no wish to own and praise the enormous amount of time and money invested by Fr Richard and his team in helping the poor and marginalised, finding and sometimes funding lawyers, personally going to detention centres, police stations and courts to be a champion for the friendless.
I searched the site for anything that looked like a concern for the struggling and sometimes oppressed migrant communities of the city. The Justice and Peace Committee? Sorry. Advocating for justice in Brazil? ‘Investigating the possibility’ of working on human trafficking. ‘Re-examining racial justice issues.’ It hardly paints a picture of a church championing the kind of people Our Lord spent most of his time with.
The Annual Report, what does that say? Unsurprisingly, the first half of the narrative is about buildings. I have a fair idea what our magnificent new Holy Father, God protect his shadow, would have to say. A poor church for the poor? Clifton Diocese?
My point is: what a waste of riches. How about turning all this around in one simple stroke? Recognise that Fr Richard and St Nick’s are actually carrying Christ’s cross on behalf of the Diocese.Honour them as heroes, which they are. Feature their work in Diocesan reports. Appoint St Nick’s as the Diocesan Migrant Outreach Centre. It already is, de facto. Fund the Borderland Trust. So many of the stories are heartbreaking, but thanks to Fr Richard and his team, many fewer than might be. (I love this country and adore this wonderful city, but have been deeply shocked by some of the actions of the Home Office. But nowhere is perfect.)
What I suggest is the simple recognition of fact after all – the oppressed of this fair city already know where they can go and be sure to receive time and help. The buzz is on the street. To the Catholic Church. But not the Cathedral. The one at Lawford’s Gate.
I am sure you find some of Fr Richard’s viewpoints unacceptable, even unruly. But with good management, supporting his work need not necessarily provide him with a platform for all his views. He is a clever man, and not one to bite the hand that feeds his flock.
The Holy Father is looking for a new face for the Church. Clifton Diocese has one, ready-made. All you have to do is be proud of it. And fund it. You can certainly afford to.
Indeed, the question in these new times is – can you afford not to? I don’t imagine for a second that the Holy Father will be content to exhort and encourage. He knows what he’s up against, and is an untiring activist. Sooner or later there will be reviews. People may even ask for them – there’s a great deal of discontent out here among the laity. We have been scandalised for decades. We’re not happy. You have been doing good work with your review of Vatican II, but they are just words and words are never enough.
Remember what St Francis said. “Preach the Gospel by every means possible. Even use words, if you have to.”
This is exactly what Fr Richard and St Nick’s are doing, and we have an apparently endless stream of catechumens to show for it.
Enough. You get the point.
Respectfully, may God bless and forgive us all,
Christopher Hegan
cc: Fr Richard McKay
His reply:
Dear Christopher
Thank you for your letter in support of Father Mackay at St Nicholas of Tolentino. I will certainly take note of your comments.
With my best wishes
Yours sincerely

Rt Rev Declan Lang
Bishop of Clifton

My Campaign Against the Bishop of Bristol (continued)

26 July 2013
The Annexe
Hobwell Lane
Long Ashton

Dear Bishop Declan, Your Grace,
Thank you for your reply of the 5th inst.
I must confess I had hoped for a substantive, if not necessarily lengthy, response. Although I am but one parishioner of many, I hoped that the subject matter might elevate our exchange to a level of intercourse, albeit brief.
I refer you to the homily delivered by Pope Francis at Lampedusa, on a matter of such importance that it prompted his first visit outside Rome. He coins the memorable phrase “the globalisation of indifference” in a homily he specifies as intended “to challenge people’s consciences and lead them to reflection and a concrete change of heart.”
As we are all seeing, the Holy Father is a powerful and thoughtful user of language. His homilies and statements are entirely devoid of platitude and formula. He could have declared to some effect that he wanted a “new church for the poor.” He didn’t. He quite specifically said he wanted “a poor church for the poor.” (My emphasis.)
How can we square this with a diocese which has funds to invest with JP Morgan yet has not the money to pay for a lawyer when one of its own is threatened with being sliced away from home and parish in a grossly unequal battle? Such was the fate of John Patrick, a member of our choir, last Friday.
Let me answer: we simply cannot. It remains a broken circle.
Why is the diocese investing so much money? Against the future? What future? A future when we have too few parishioners to support our institutions? To plan for such a future seems to me verging on sinful. Did Jesus not say, “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof”? Or was He a bit off the mark with that one?
I am, from where you stand, a lone, insignificant and probably presumptuous voice. But I have had a lifetime as a communications professional and know very well how to create a ‘story’ when I need one. I know how to reach people. This is my committed campaign: to see Clifton Diocese become an active, visible champion of the poor and the discarded, using both its voice and its assets to help them.
Remember, Jesus did not say in Matthew 25-36 “I was in innocent in prison and you came to me”. You and many of your congregation may be concerned, as many are, about the problem of illegal immigration. If it is a problem – I’m not so sure. Even if those arriving become a burden on us, history tends to support the proposition that their more numerous young will be working to support us in our old age, when our too few children cannot. But it is beside the point. No position on this issue can provide an excuse for a wealthy church not to succour the penniless and over-whelmed in our midst.
So I say this: if you continue to rein in St Nicholas’ spending on helping the poor, I will do my best to out you. It may not concern you. I will probably fail. But not certainly. I have pulled offer tougher assignments in my time.
Respectfully, God bless and forgive us all,

Christopher Hegan