Why is Cardinal Vincent Nichols still Archbishop of Westminster?

He is now approaching his 78th birthday, nearly three years after offering his resignation to Pope Francis in accordance with the Catholic Church’s rules that bishops must do so on their 75th birthday, yet there is no sign of a successor being appointed.

While it is normal for bishops to remain on for some time after their 75th birthday while a successor is being chosen, the apparent lack of urgency in finding a new prelate to head the most senior diocese in England and Wales is hard to understand, along with the lack of much media interest in the issue.

Cardinal Nichols has had a mixed career. To his credit, he has ably represented the Catholic population at many national events, most notably at services following the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year and he was the first Catholic prelate in centuries to take part in a coronation, offering prayers with other church leaders when King Charles was crowned.

He has also had a good record in building ties to the Church of England and other Christian denominations, and with other faiths – in fact, traditional Catholics have been critical of him for, for example, putting flowers in front of the altar in the Hindu temple at Neasden, which they would see as idolatry.

However, his record in dealing with child sexual abuse is another matter. In 2020, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse said of the Crosby native: “There was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility.”

He was described as lacking compassion towards victims and seeing his priority as protecting the Church’s reputation.

He did not help his own case by saying of paedophile priests who admit their crimes that it “takes courage” and emphasising that they had also done good (comments made in May 2009 in response to the publication of the Ryan Report on sexual abuse by clergy in the Dublin archdiocese).

It may be that the delay in finding a replacement may be down to a lack of an obvious successor.

Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark has been tipped by some journalists; at 55, he is young enough to be there for the long haul, in contrast to, for example, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool or Bishop John Arnold of Salford. Himself a convert, his experience of the Church of England should help him in reinforcing ecumenical ties and he does not seem to have any skeletons in his cupboard.

However, Bishop Philip Egan (67) of Portsmouth can’t be ruled out as a caretaker figure. He is a frequent contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4. The Altrincham native is seen as on the more conservative wing of the Church – he has, for example, said that MPs who voted for the introduction of same-sex marriage should not receive Communion.

Moreover, there has been controversy in his diocese about the management of a fund for priests’ retirements, with complaints made to the Charity Commissioners about the extent of the bishop’s direct control over it.

Doubtless there are other bishops who are being sounded out by Rome.

However, it may be that the next Archbishop of Westminster could be someone not among the episcopal ranks – one recalls how the late Cardinal Basil Hume had been a Benedictine monk.

The next archbishop will face many challenges – growing secularisation, with Christians of all kinds now a minority in England and Wales, a shortage of priests and the need to close many parish churches, in addition to the abuse crisis.

In London, however, Catholics make up 35% of the city’s Christians, outnumbering Anglicans, and this reflects the fact that it is very much an immigrant church, whose flock consists of people from all over the world.

This is a factor, but not the only one, in the fact that Catholic numbers seem to be holding their own, in contrast to Anglican decline in the country where it began. Doubtless, there will also be different opinions on why the Church of England is not doing better, but that is for another day.

While Catholicism is stronger in London than in most other parts of England (with the notable exception of Liverpool), it is not inconceivable that, while Britain remains a predominantly secular country, Catholicism may well become the largest Christian denomination.

In that context, having a sound leader in Westminster is something of prime importance for all the country’s Catholics, not just those in that diocese.

However, a key issue which will face the new primate is tackling the issue of child sexual abuse and being seen to listen to victims. In that regard, he could take a leaf out of the book of former Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who was praised for his empathy by many survivors.

He could also learn from the new Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Stephen Wright, who ensured that a female survivor of clerical sexual abuse addressed the congregation at his episcopal ordination. Cardinal Nichols seemed visibly uncomfortable during this address.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.