Father Paul Stonham
How would you describe your religious identity and beliefs?
My religious identity? I’m a Roman Catholic, that’s about it.
What made you adopt or retain this position?
My mother is basically a non-practising Catholic, my father had been brought up as a Presbyterian but became Anglican because there was no Presbyterian church where he lived. I think that this is what happens all over the country. Eventually the Anglican church is the only one which is actually there and so it does tend to absorb people, and you can’t blame either it or them for that. But I suppose really I could have been either or neither, but I think it was really doing the Reformation for O level History at school, that convinced me that the Church needs to be reformed and frequently and quite dramatically but I couldn’t see why the church had to be divided, spilt up as it were. So I thought that for better for worse I should be a Catholic rather than anything else. I have been tempted by Orthodoxy because I studied in Greece at the university of Thessaloniki, spent a lot of time on Mount Athos and I was very attracted to Orthodoxy, but I think the ideal of Orthodoxy is more wonderful than the reality. I didn’t find the reality so attractive. How have I remained a Roman Catholic until now? Well God only knows! Because, it’s a struggle.
Is GB an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
Well, it purports to be. I think that society, on the whole, is still quite anti-Catholic, and I think that’s extended to members of other religions. That’s how I experience things, that’s what I feel. On the other hand, we have very good relations with the C of E here in Hereford, a very close friendship with Hereford Cathedral. Lots of Anglican priests and ordinands, men and women, come here for retreats and that sort of thing. So there certainly is a friendship. But I think in the country as a whole, I just get the feeling still that Catholicism is still regarded as a foreign religion. That it is not the old religion of this country, which for all sorts of reasons disappeared and was replaced by something else. So you have the C of E, that presents itself as the continuity of genuine English Catholicism, and the Roman Catholic Church, hence the importance of the word Roman. We tend to say ‘I’m just a Catholic’ but others would say oh no, you’re a Roman Catholic. So yes, this idea perhaps that Roman Catholicism is still something very foreign. So when I was a kid in South Wales, the RC church was referred to as the Paddys’ Church, as though all Catholics had to be Irish, the fact that they weren’t all Irish didn’t matter. And of course the fact that at that time Catholics still lived in ghettos, you could see these all over the country. Those old Catholic ghettos have now been taken over by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. The old Catholic churches are still there and our schools are still there.
How easy is it to be Roman Catholic in this country? Are there challenges, and if so, are they social, legal or political?
Obviously, the Catholic Church has a particular stance on marriage, divorce, remarriage, birth control, abortion, premarital sex and so on. Now there’s an official position and then what Catholics actually do, which is something very different. There is a dichotomy: a friend of mine is a moral theologian, and I remember him once saying that Christ is the ideal, so we set before the people of God the ideal of chastity, but that is Christ, Christ is the ideal and yet we live generally speaking on another level, and so we’re below that level. And it’s important not to lose the identity of the person of Christ whilst we are struggling on another level altogether, but that’s fine, I agree with that. On the other hand, it might be easier as a celibate monk or a clergyman to accept that than it would be if I were a housewife. And I suppose that for ordinary Catholics they have to live their lives and I think that most Catholics have no real knowledge of canon law and wouldn’t even begin to understand the place of canon law within the civil law of a non Catholic country. It’s difficult enough for us, and I think sometimes canon law can go against the law of the State, I’m not quite sure if that’s the case in this country. Not being a parish priest, and not ever having been a parish priest in this country, living in a monastery is a bit like a fantasy island on a contemplative plane but normal parish priests will actually deal with real people, living their lives and have to face real problems. So I’m not sure how a parish priest would answer those questions.
How does Catholicism regard Human Rights?
I hope so, because obviously if you look, the Catholic Church has a long history over 2000 years of all sorts of practises, which are now regarded as wrong, even sinful, yet were the norm. There’s the whole question of slavery for example. I don’t think it’s a good idea to white wash the Scriptures, especially St Paul and mistranslate what he said. I think we have to accept it in its historical context. This is the world he lived in, this is the way he saw it, this is the way he suggested you lived in Roman Society. But really, I’m a Benedictine, you look at the Rule of St Benedict, St Benedict is very hot on the presence of Christ in everyday things. The purpose of life is to come to see Christ in oneself and one’s neighbour, whether that’s one of the brothers in a monastery, guests or poor people coming to the door, dealing with tradesman and so on. It’s the recognition of Christ present in all human beings. As I’m a great animal lover as well, I see that as Christ being present in the whole of Creation and all his creatures. Now, I think that HR lie at the heart of the Gospel and Christian debate, and although it has been interpreted in very different ways over the past 2000 years I think that the Church has contributed.
If you look at the discovery of the New World, the attitude of the Church, of Churchmen, towards indigenous people in Latin America, there was the whole debate as to whether they were even human, whether they had souls. And yes there was a decision of the church that indigenous people, even mestizos could not become priests or members of a religious order, which is why they remained as servants. But while the official position was that, there were many clergy, including famous ones, who took the opposing view that these people were fully human, possessed of an eternal soul and equal to us in all things but their rights.
Are Human Rights applied to everyone and enshrined in the Human Rights Act a good thing?
A very good thing, though I can imagine that there are people who perceive it to be bad in political debates at present and would like to take rights away from particular categories: immigrants, certain types of immigrants. What’s really fascinating is the classification of immigrants, whether they come from the EU, recent countries to have joined the EU, whether they come from Commonwealth countries, whether they have degrees, whether they can contribute, whether they can’t. It’s fascinating on the one hand to read it, but also I find it unbelievably upsetting, because I really do believe that we are all equal not simply in the eyes of God but in other’s eyes and the eyes of the State and society. I suppose it’s sort of an offshoot, of a classist, racist society which unfortunately is being resuscitated in much of the political debate going on today. Whether it’s worthy of the name political debate I wonder.
Are there ways in which the Roman Catholic Church has a practical influence on Human Rights?
For one thing the Catholic Church, as indeed all of the churches, is becoming more multinational and multiethnic. I suppose the Catholic Church, being such an international church, tends to be even more multinational and multiethnic than other churches. The very fact we have so many people from different nations, languages and cultures who are Catholic kneeling side by side in worship together, shows something very practical, at least it shows we get on very well. It might be that outside we don’t get on so well. I’d also highlight other issues, the question of euthanasia, voluntary or involuntary assisted suicide, the rights of people who are not completely healthy, are not able to work. To my mind that comes under human rights, I don’t look at it from the point of view of morals or ethics…to me it just seems to be the right to life, I would include the whole question of abortion in that. I am not so worried about birth control as such, because it seems to me that once the church admits one system, albeit a so called natural one, if the intention is there then it’s there whatever the method. But abortion is just on another plane, and I cannot imagine the killing, the murder of the most vulnerable people. The Catholic Church of course is not the only church, the only religion to do so, but it does stand up for the rights of the unborn, the aged and the sick.
Are Human Rights respected by the government?
I hope so, and I imagine so, I honestly can’t say I know enough about what is going on. My own experiences with for example the police, who get a lot of bad press, have always been very positive, helpful and professional. But I know that perhaps other people would look at that differently.
Does the State get the balance right in terms of intervention in the lives of citizens, especially in relation to religion?
As far as I can see there is freedom of religion and belief in this country. To what extent are some religions really religions and do they have a specific belief system, I’m given to understand that Herefordshire, you’ve seen all the mistletoe growing on our trees, it is one of the great centres of witchcraft and that sort of thing. When you go to hospital now you’re given a form and a vast gambit of religions you can choose from, which leads me to believe that you are free to practice whatever religion you wish within certain constraints of the law.
When should the State intervene to limit religious expression?
If we go back 50 years, perhaps the State could have or did intervene in the case of Catholic churches that might appear to encourage the IRA, participation in it and so on. And I would equate that now with what might be happening in certain mosques, where certain preachers are encouraging really quite idealistic and innocent young men at a loose end as to what to do in their lives and looking for a cause to join with, IS or some other group in the Middle East or some other part of the world. So I do think that when a church or a religious institution or a congregation is involved in anything illegal, then the State really does have to step in. As it has to do in the question of safeguarding and child protection, it just has to.
Is democracy a good thing? Does it make it easier to live in accordance with your faith?
Of course, living in a monastery, we keep the Rule of St Benedict, which is a remarkably democratic document. One man one vote, even the abbot cannot brainwash or enforce his will on others, but rather works with the monks towards a consensus, whereby we can do jointly what we see to be the will of God. Could I imagine in this country another form? Well I think I prefer what we have to going back to the Middle Ages and having a divinely appointed monarch who at whim took all the decisions. I have a great hero, Kim Jong Un, of North Korea, (I’m only joking), I can’t stop looking at pictures of him. In all of the recent pictures he is smoking and there are all of these generals taking notes of whatever he says, but that is the total antithesis of the form of government, which for better for worse is at least a workable form of democracy. I know some countries I’ve lived in, voting is compulsory, in Peru for example you have to vote and if not you pay a fine, now I don’t know if that is right, because I think one ought to have the freedom to vote or not. But on the other hand I wonder what can be done to get more people to participate in what is the lowest common denominator of what democracy can be. It is very sad when you see figures of a 30 or 40 % turn out even at a general election in this country.
Does your faith mean that you have a duty to vote?
I think so. I’ve not always voted, certainly the 20 years I was in Peru it was impossible even to have a postal vote. I think it is a moral obligation as a Catholic, a Christian to participate in elections. I know that sometimes there isn’t a suitable candidate and you would rather not vote at all. I think I would rather turn up at the booth and scribble a line through the voting slip than not turn up at all.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Should the judiciary have power to strike down legislation?
I don’t think so. I would rather maintain a present system, provided that Parliamentarians have all the information to hand and take account not of the party whip but of the needs/desires and hopes of the people.
Is majoritarian democracy problematic for minorities? Are there barriers to participation?
I think it is more difficult for some groups, and it’s always a question of the method of electing MPs, whether first past the post, or whether more democratic representation through percentage system. Problem having seen how some countries do it, Italy for example, I just wonder whether there would ever be stable government again. The smaller political parties, who don’t get enough votes for an MP, need to have some representation. Until recently the Greens….and the Welsh Nationalists.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is unelected?
Yes, I’m rather more worried about them being appointed for political reasons than just being hereditary. It’s a strange thing to say, the hereditary system was more democratic than the present system where people are appointed for political reasons. Should it be elected? I wouldn’t say no, you mean rather like a senate? It’s very good to have two houses, again the problem if the Upper House were entirely elected you might not have the quality and knowledge you have at present. I know for example that a number of Anglican bishops are in the H of L and that’s fine, I’ve no real desire to see Catholic bishops there. But at least perhaps if it could be in a multireligious society, perhaps we should have Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Certainly I think there should be debate about the Upper House.
How do you feel about Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords?
I certainly concur with their presence, no desire to see them go. I think that the Anglican Church is inclusive enough to be able to represent other religious points of view. I did hear discussion this morning with Richard Harris, former bishop of Oxford as to whether Muslim, readings from the Koran should be included in the next coronation. Now there is the question whether other religious bodies and non-religious bodies should be represented. It might need to be adjusted.
What is your view of establishment?
I’m not bothered by it at all. I do wish, as it is the established Church that the State would provide for the maintenance of the important historic buildings that the C of E has to care for. If you think of any European country this happens. But I’m happy with establishment. I’ve no idea if it’s inclusive, but I’m quite comfortable with the established church being the established church. In hospital chaplaincies the official chaplain is always an Anglican, he gets the big salary and the rest o us get nothing or a pittance, and I’m not sure if that is fair, quite frankly.
Do public authorities try to respect the voice of Parliament expressed through legislation? Can you think of examples of them disregarding legislation?
No, I can’t. I think they respect legislation. I’m impressed by the NHS who struggle with restricted funds to provide an excellent service, my personal experience has been very positive.
How do you feel about the EU and devolved government?
I’m quite happy with the EU, tragic for Britain to leave for whatever excuse. Likewise I am very much in favour of devolution or even some federated state, so I’m quite happy.
What does your faith teach about people with power and the ways in which they should be accountable?
There has to be accountability, that is very important, essential. Power without accountability is very dangerous, see that in totalitarian states. Also religious institutions that have no accountability. I wouldn’t want to knock Islam at all because I’m a great lover of Islam, the history of Islam. But I do worry about the lack of accountability in certain sectors.
Are Roman Catholics appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
In order to be elected you have to stand and also you have to win, and people don’t stand as Catholics or Anglicans or anything else. They want to stand to be MPs to serve the local community, they might be proposed by a particular party, but I don’t think they’re ever proposed by a church. I think that it would be very dangerous…it’s rather like this ridiculous business now of having a rule whereby 40% of the cabinet has to be women and that sort of thing. I really do think that you just have to choose the best, whether they’re men or women. And likewise, whether they’re Catholics, Jews, Muslims or Sikhs or whatever, you choose people not on the basis of their religion, that would be very anti-democratic.
I’m aware of Catholics holding public office. MPs, judges and others, the details of which are published in the Catholic directory, so each year it’s published and at the beginning you have all the bishops and archbishops, then Catholic MPs, Catholic members of the H of L, Catholic this and Catholic that. So on the whole all of the information is available, and it’s available on the internet. Now whether there should be a higher or lower percentage….I hope that wherever they are it’s because of their religion not their ability.
Is there enough distance between legislature and judiciary?
I really don’t know. They have to be independent of political parties, not of parliament. On the other hand I do think that people with real expertise have to listened to and their advice has to be followed.
What checks and balances should there be on parliamentary power?
It is unfortunate that we can now see parliament on television I realise that MPs spend time in their constituencies, are on committees and so on, but I’m always shocked that how few, other than for Prime Minister’s question time are actually there. The normal debates are sadly lacking in participation and I say that in both houses.
How does Roman Catholicism seek to challenge decisions which it regards as problematic?
I think that it’s usually left to the Bishops’ conference to make a public statement, and normally Archbishop Peter Smith who is the public face of that when it comes to do with matters of law because he has a very clear mind and knows what he’s talking about. But in the end of course I would wonder whether even the clergy listen to the bishops and whether the people listen either to the clergy or to the bishops. So as I say, normally the Bishops’ conference will issue a statement; it might be reported by the news perhaps at 7pm and dropped by 8pm when something more interesting and exciting comes up, but that’s about it really. Obviously, if something came up which Catholics felt very strongly about then probably they would make their feelings felt more loudly.
Do public bodies have an understanding of practical needs of Roman Catholic citizens?
I would say that perhaps not as much as they used to, as far most people no longer practise the Christian faith, whether Catholic, Anglican or Non-Conformist. Then I think that in general they would have less of an understanding of what a Christian would need, and there is that difficulty now for chaplains in hospitals. You cannot visit someone who hasn’t sent for you; you can’t go to the ward sister or the matron as you did in the old days and ask if there are any Catholics in this ward, you can’t do that now, so there is a barrier to reaching out to people who might be in need in hospital. On the other hand, my experience certainly locally is that if someone does ask for a priest they’re on the ‘phone straight away, so they’re pretty quick. There is a kind of advantage for Catholics, as many nurses are Filippino, Indian from Kerala or East Europeans, who happen to be Catholics and a surprising number of surgeons are also Catholic, like doctors were in the old days when they were mostly Irish.
Is it important to act within secular law?
This is part of our experience as a monastery because obviously we’re a registered charity. The abbot and his council are the trustees of the trust and we’re conscious of the fact that we must act within the law and there is the proviso in our monastic constitutions, there is the proviso that if Chapter, that is all the solemnly professed were to vote on a project that went against the law then the trustees would have to reject the decision of Chapter. It’s the first time in history where I might have to stand up and say that Fathers I’m afraid although that motion had been presented and you voted in favour, in fact the law does not allow us to do that, therefore as chair of trustees I must let you know that we cannot go ahead with this decision. There is that consciousness. I think as far as the monastery, parishes and works which we have are concerned, we would always try to work within the law, and obviously as we don’t work in certain areas which might be a bit dicey for a Catholic, I’ve not met a situation where we’ve had to go against the law. Apart from speeding.
Does the Roman Catholic Church actively campaign for any changes to secular law?
Always campaigning for something, usually to do with abortion, euthanasia and the rights of the chronically ill. I’m not aware of anything else, but I don’t read the Catholic papers, they just upset me so I don’t. I whip through the Tablet just to read the book reviews, but on the whole I tend not to read that stuff, I stick with Jesus and the Gospel, safer things like Patristics.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties?
Do you think that Rule of Law applied equitably? Do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?
As far as I’m aware, because I’m very not aware, this is the problem. One’s awareness comes from newspapers, the internet, what is happening in America…..a black president, yet the situation hasn’t changed for the majority of black people. I certainly know that when I was a young priest the highest percentage group in a local prison I visited was Catholic, and I should imagine now that the highest percentage group would probably be Muslim. On the other hand you had tinkers, drunks, men of the road, petty thieves and that sort of thing, very often they were good Catholics, and now of course it’s something else. So I don’t know, and of course Herefordshire must be the whitest of all of the counties in England. There are only a small number of non-white immigrants, we have lots of Poles and East Europeans, Portuguese, but we have very few other ethnic groups, some Fillipinos but they are all legal in the nursing profession, but all very observant Catholic, some Indians who are Catholics. One family from Zimbabwe and I think the father is a surgeon. So in Herefordshire it’s just so different, we don’t see those sorts of problems. We also have a parish up in Cumbria, and that’s exactly the same. It’s not typical….it is very different. In Herefordshire only 4% of the population is Catholic, which is below the national average. Of the 4 % maybe 25% come to Mass on Sunday, which is above the national average. It’s a peculiar sort of little enclave.
How do you feel about the general trend towards the extension of police powers in recent years?
I honestly don’t know. Apart from maybe having seen on the news, but particularly if they’re dealing with things like terrorism, and I would say enforced prostitution of women coming from abroad, then I think that’s probably necessary. Under normal circumstances, I would say no, not acceptable. But if there is a growing threat from terrorism or people trafficking then I think that something like that has to be done.
Legal rules with a negative impact on your life?
There’s nothing I can’t do without breaking the law. I presume I break the law every time I get into the car. Even then I do think very seriously about the state of the road, the amount of traffic and also the state of my brakes. But normally I do try to keep within the speed-limit.
Do you think that there is still anti-Catholic prejudice?
I think it’s because a lot of us either are foreign, like yourself or have foreign blood in them like me, so a lot of us do have foreign connections. If Br Bernard were here being interviewed, he would give you a full history of the Royal Family and Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that, because it’s very close to his heart. He’s a great royalist, I coming from Wales am not a particularly strong royalist, but I do love the Queen. She is totally irresistible, but the rest of them…well……….I quite like Camilla actually. I’ve got a soft spot for her, I hope she gets to be queen, because she’s fun. And the whole Diana thing was so very tragic, sad, but you know we’ve got Prince William and God brings good out of evil. Not that I’m saying that Diana was evil, she was innocent, not evil. But I do sense a real ignorance of Catholicism rather than prejudice, but I think it’s still there to some extent. I personally have never felt any kind of anti-Catholic feeling or antipathy or whatever.
Abbot Paul Stonham was born at Neath, Wales, in 1947 and was educated at local schools. He took a B.A. in Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham and also studied at the University of Thessaloniki in Greece, spending four months on Mount Athos. He joined the Benedictine community at Belmont Abbey in 1969 and made his Solemn Profession in September 1973. He studied for the priesthood at Belmont and in Rome, receiving a University of London Diploma in Theology and an S.T.B. from Sant’Anselmo. He was ordained in 1975. Fr Paul taught at Belmont Abbey School until 1981, when he was sent to Peru to help found the Monastery of the Incarnation. For the first five years he was Parish Priest of Tambogrande and then for fifteen years Superior of the monastery. He taught at the Archdiocesan Seminary in Piura for twelve years and was also Parish Priest of San Lorenzo. In December 2000, Fr Paul was elected 11th Abbot of Belmont, being re-elected in 2008 and 2016. From 2001 to 2009 he served as Dean of Herefordshire and for the past fourteen years he has been an active member of the International Team of A.I.M. (Alliance for International Monasticism), taking particular interest in the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Abbot Paul has a number of hobbies and, above all, a passionate interest in dogs, medieval churches and cooking, probably in that order.