The Great Converter

 — June 28, 199728 juin 1997

To some, he is the agent of England’s conversion to the True Faith, to others, a danger to the nation’s soul. At first sight Fr Michael Seed seems an unlikely candidate for either role. Sue Gaisford encounters the man behind the reputation.

He is “a treacherous individual to the British, an enemy to the biblical truth and a danger to the souls of men and women.” So thunders an editorial in an ultraProtestant publication, 1521, about as far removed from The Tablet as you could possibly get. The subject of this attack is Fr Michael Seed, ecumenical adviser to Cardinal Basil Hume and one-time member of the Strict and Particular Baptists.

What an extraordinary career this man has had. You could say it was governed by serendipity or you could put it down to divine providence: what you couldn’t call it is predictable. Its trajectory would defy the long-distance vision of an Old Testament prophet.

Here is the story, very briefly. A baby, born 40 years ago to a teenage girl in Manchester, father unknown, grows up so lonely and withdrawn as to be sent to a school for maladjusted children. His first job is in a motorway cafe, but he is sacked for breaking eggs and crockery. The second ends even sooner, when he blows up the kitchen by trying, in all innocence, to boil an electric kettle inside a gas oven. Yet, at 30, he reappears as a Franciscan friar working at Westminster Cathedral and rapidly developing a reputation for shepherding the rich, the famous and the influential into the Catholic Church. So successful is he that in the corridors of power he is known as (cue for a sinister drum roll) the Converter.

Fr Seed is not especially comfortable with this image. He is aware of the hostility his name provokes. “It doesn’t fill me with despair,” he says, “but you can end up being hated for assisting people’s personal pilgrimages.”

Yet the fact remains that Fr Seed has helped to receive a great many people into the Roman Catholic Church. He says he keeps no tally of their number, but, when you consider that they include whole congregations, there must be hundreds. So how did he do that?

It is, apparently, quite easy. He was invited to go to Anglican churches and address the congregations, often in the presence of their vicars. These whole-congregation converts are, invariably, high Anglicans. “These people often go to Mass every day, pray for the Pope, believe in the Blessed Sacrament — they’re more Catholic than the Pope himself. It’s hard to teach them anything — you almost have to bring them down. They’re so high, so ultramontane, that if the Pope said good morning, they’d take it as a weather forecast. I don’t believe they should be instructed in the same groups as the nonbaptised: it’s insulting to them.”

Yet he is eager to praise the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) for the fact that it offers such newcomers a sense of belonging to a community, without which they might feel isolated and bereft. And many of these people, used to involvement, are invaluable around the cathedral, often becoming ushers and eucharistic ministers.

He is deeply committed to ecumenism, which, despite the fulminations of the editor of 1521, makes him very respectful of the other Christian traditions from which people come. “Every time I receive somebody, I make a point of saying that there is absolutely nothing triumphalist about it. The official documents expressly forbid triumphalism, preferring to thank God for whatever tradition they come from.”

What about the other conversions for which he has become famous for aiding: John Gummer, Ann Widdecombe, Sir George Gardiner — the parliamentary Catholics? He suggests (perhaps a little ingenuously) that it has been partly an accident of geography and circumstance. Westminster is, after all, swarming with all kinds of bigwigs, and he finds politics fascinating. When he was new there, his very first baptism was the grandchild of Merlyn Rees, the erstwhile Home Secretary. MPs come to Mass at Westminster Cathedral all the time and, inevitably, Fr Seed makes friends with them.

And you can see what he means when he describes the febrile nature of religious debate in the borough of Westminster. One night, he remembers, a very grand lady had come steaming down the pavement from Westminster Abbey demanding instant reception into the Catholic Church. She had just heard the Bishop of Durham preach and decided she couldn’t stay in the same Communion for another minute. She was — eventually — received.

The morning we met, he had just spent a day in Liverpool where he had baptised the newly ennobled David Alton’s latest child. His chauffeur for the day was Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, the baby’s godmother, and together they had paused for refreshment at Knutsford service station, the very cafe which had sacked him 24 years earlier. Ann is a friend, and he was off the next day to bless her new office in Whitehall and banish all demons from it. But, he says, he had known her for five years before the subject of her move to Rome came up. “That’s what I like to do, ideally,” he explains “to get to know the whole person before we even begin to talk about religion.”

So what’s his secret? Why do they come to him, these grandees? Why should the likes of the Conservative MP Alan Clark — still, apparently, considering the move to Rome — choose to discuss their innermost thoughts with this man? He squirms slightly at the question (which does, after all, ask him to blow his own trumpet) but suggests, a little diffidently, that integrity transcends class.

It may be, too, something to do with the fact that he is extremely likeable. He is tallish, bespectacled and young-looking for 40, with an open, friendly face and unruly dark curls just beginning to go grey. Walking down the street, he is hailed by every other person we meet: he knows all their names and exactly what to talk to them about.

The affection he engenders is just that: it is neither over-familiar nor over-respectful, but affectionate, and it comes from everyone — from the homeless chap selling the Big Issue outside the cathedral, to the mother holding her little boy’s hand, and the accountant-type who falls into step with us for some of the way, talking earnestly of figures. When we reach II Portico, the little Italian restaurant he has chosen for lunch, its owner virtually prostrates himself with rapture at the visitation. You wouldn’t get more attention if you were out with Liz Hurley, the actress and model (who is also, it is rumoured, on the brink of becoming a Roman Catholic).

And besides the charm and integrity, there is another factor. His own life has been so strange and full of sadness that he is on familiar terms with the anguish that drives people to search for a religious haven. Just to learn a few more details of his unconventional upbringing is to glimpse this. His adoptive mother killed herself when he was eight, and within two years her husband and father were also dead. The young Michael was shunted around a bit, before being returned to his grandmother. He eventually found a job in a hostel for the mentally ill, where he was, briefly, happy. The couple who ran the place welcomed him warmly and gave him, for the only time in his life, a real sense of family. But they too were to die young.

It was in this hostel that the most serendipitous accident occurred. An eccentric rag-and-bone man brought in a copy of the 1974 Salford Catholic Directory. So engrossed did young Michael become with this that he forgot to give the man his dinner and the old rogue snatched up a pet goldfish and ate it, on toast. By this time, though only 16, the young Master Seed had already been introduced to many religious denominations, including the Salvation Army, the Church of England and those Strict and Particular Baptists. But he decided then and there to become a Catholic, narrowly escaped going to the Missions and, by another odd accident, joined the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.

There are only five of these friars left in England and they have decided to withdraw from running the Catholic Central Library in London, but Fr Seed is hopeful about their future. In any case, if one order diminishes, another will spring up, he says, philosophically.

Being severely dyslexic, he has difficulty with reading and writing, but a hero of his is Oscar Wilde. He loves him not just for his wit, but for the lack of conformity, the rebelliousness of the man — and for his sense of abandonment and loneliness, with which Fr Seed finds it easy to identify.

By chance, I had come upon a remark of Wilde’s the previous night which I offered him now. “The Catholic Church,” Wilde said, “is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” “Oh yes,” chuckled the Converter, “I’ll certainly remember that one.”

Posted: June 28, 1997 • Permanent link:
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Catégorie : Tablet

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