Katy Hounsell-Robert meets Bishop Crispian Hollis as he nears retirement following almost 25 years in Portsmouth diocese This coming November Bishop Crispian Hollis is likely to retire after nearly a quarter of a century as Bishop of Portsmouth. His long-term mistrust of the press is well known but he cheerfully put this aside and agreed to answer questions about his life.
In his study cricket bats are propped up in the corner and French windows open out on to a pleasant garden. Here the tall, greyhaired bishop received me looking slightly weary but with a certain elation, like a schoolboy about to break up for the holidays. He was pleased that his leaving present from Portsmouth City Council had been to re-name the stretch of Edinburgh Road in which the cathedral and Bishop’s House stand Bishop Crispian Way.
He admitted that, although he had enjoyed his work in Portsmouth enormously and was not tired, he would be glad when the retirement process was over and he could return to Mells in Somerset where he grew up and where he would be near his sister, Monica.
His childhood had had an unusually strong Catholic presence as well as Anglican ecclesiastical influence. His mother’s father had been an Anglican rector and his father’s father an Anglican bishop. But both his parents had converted to Catholicism and the four children (his brothers, John and Nigel, are now dead) were brought up as Catholics. As well as being an MP and teacher, his father Christopher was also an author of many works on Catholicism. The house was regularly visited by other Catholic writers including Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and there must have been a great deal of stimulating discussion. While he read their books and enjoyed the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, the one book he felt influenced him was Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence.
His much-loved mother, Madeline, was also very influential in his life and he was very close to her, something he describes as “true of most priests, because the other children start their own families and grow away”.
Schooled at Stonyhurst College, followed by two years of seeing the world through National Service in Britain and Malaya, he entered Oxford to read Modern History. There, the vocational urge he had felt for some time became stronger and, supported by the Bishop of Clifton, he applied to train at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “There was no blinding light,” he said. “It was more of a persistent voice – which at least had to be tried.” Did he have any problems accepting the rules of the Church, including celibacy? He shook his head. While he had had perfectly normal relationships with women in his youth, once he prepared to be ordained he accepted unconditionally the rulings of the Church.
“If I didn’t agree I wouldn’t have become a priest,” he observed.
He was ordained in 1965 and then the Bishop of Clifton asked him to return to Oxford as assistant chaplain to the Catholic undergraduates, and then chaplain. He found going where the bishop asked him to go much easier than making his own decisions about work. “It releases you from ambition which is destructive. It takes your eye off the ball and inhibits pastoral life,” he said.
Nevertheless he was very pleased to be appointed Roman Catholic assistant to the head of religious broadcasting at BBC Radio, which included being a producer of Prayer for the Day. This taught him a lot about the power of words and how to use them effectively in a short talk. Then he did voice-over work assisting the main television presenters for Catholic events like the funeral of the popes in 1978, the papal visit to Ireland and election of the popes. He sometimes provided live commentary. “Of course I was nervous. But you don’t do such a good job unless you are nervous,” he said.
He was then appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham with special responsibility for Oxford. But with the untimely death of Bishop Anthony Emery of Portsmouth he was appointed his successor in 1988, becoming the diocese’s seventh bishop.
He is very glad to have been part of two exciting Catholic events during his period as bishop. In September 2009 the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux were brought over from France and St John’s Cathedral was the first to receive them. He found it had a great effect on him and on the 5,000 people who came to sit and pray over the period. There was a feeling – not sentimental or emotional – of peace. He has a great affection for the saint and finds her very accessible and full of common sense about the simple things in life. Her life was not easy; she was constantly ill and her prayers were not always a consolation and she died at 24, but she loved God and found a beauty in life she wanted to share with everyone.
He also felt that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010 was an unexpected triumph inasmuch as the press had made him out to be an ogre and he endeared himself to the British in a way which surprised them. Bishop Crispian had already met Pope Benedict in 2009 in Rome, when along with the other Bishops of England and Wales he was given a personal 20-minute interview. He had found him a gentle, courteous and listening person.
Onthe practical side, he is pleased that the diocese has worked to improve conditions for its retired priests and also in restructuring parishes to deal with the diminishing number of priests. He was gratified that parishioners were incredibly generous in answer to the different appeals and also that his belief in “inclusiveness” and working together with other groups and those of other beliefs resulted in greater understanding and unity.
On the darker side, there has been the widespread problem over paedophile priests and he has not shirked the Church’s responsibility towards this. In an open letter to the diocese he said: “We are at fault for our mistakes, however uncomfortable and unhappy that may make us feel. The Church is not the victim in all of this, the children are.” There have been two instances where priests in his diocese have been convicted and sent to prison and every parish has done what is necessary to safeguard the children.
He has never been afraid to speak his mind, which the press have rarely failed to exploit. In 2008 he made it known that he welcomed the election of Barack Obama as he thought he would be a breath of fresh air. Mr Obama was known to support legal abortion and the emails poured in, mainly from the United States, accusing the bishop of supporting abortion. Of course he did not but “one cannot make a political judgment on one single issue”. He is philosophical about these media assumptions and thinks it’s better to withdraw and apologise than attract more attention to the issue.
One can easily understand why the bishop is so popular in the diocese and has made so many friends because there is no “holier than thou” about him. He is not keen on pomp and ceremony and when the photographer wanted to take a photo of him in his robes he refused. (“I’m just an ordinary person,” he insisted.) While holding his own considered opinions he is very open to others and in the case of Anglican priests converting to Catholicism he admitted he “changed his mind after getting to know them and seeing their commitment”.
Nevertheless, the bishop adheres strictly to the Pope’s teaching. “But it is not blind acceptance from a decree on high,” he said. “That is the caricature of the Catholic Church. There are sharp divisions of opinion within the Church because of the exploration of people’s minds and spirits and hearts. But in the end consensus rules and these decisions form the mind and teaching of the Church which in the end is the teaching of Christ, and which we accept.” About his years as bishop he said: “It has given me a huge sense of fulfilment. I may not have been very good at it but it has been right for me in many ways. Although there were times when I was bored or people irritated me, I have never regretted it. I hope my successor will love it here as much as I do.” In retirement he hopes to be useful in his Somerset parish without any responsibility, but one thing very close to his heart which he has been involved with over the last 40 years and will continue to be, is the