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Fr. Michael Seed, The FT Weekend

“I wonder if God really knows what the denominations are anyway. And is he bothered?”

Behind the dusty Byzantine bulwark of the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral is the rambling, red-brick clergy house. A shiny black door leads off the pavement. “Fr Michael Seed?” says the small, white-haired Irish nun on reception. She leads me to wait in his office, down low corridors at odds with the Cathedral’s chasms.

In a cramped room of mustard walls and grey tile carpet, pipes cut through at ceiling height. Cowls hang from the door and clergy group photos hang skew-whiff by Seed’s formica desk. “Father Michael, he doesn’t keep things in a symmetrical order,” says the sister with a chuckle, then leaves.

Seed, 50, is a Franciscan Friar of Atonement, a US-founded order which emphasises work with the neediest and poorest, and the unity of people, whatever their religion, before God. Attached to the Cathedral since 1985, he has been secretary of the archdiocese’s Ecumenical Commission (which builds relations between Christian denominations) since 1988. He was Chaplain to Westminster Hospital (1986-90) and to Wellington Barracks (1990-2000) and, despite severe dyslexia, gained an M.Div. from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1984, and a PhD from the London faculty of the Polish University Abroad in 1991. In 2004 John Paul II awarded him the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for ecumenical work.

Yet to newspaper diarists he is “the priest to the stars”. In the early 1990s he gave religious instruction to one Catholic convert MP, Ann Widdecombe, and befriended another, John Gummer. He instructed Alan Clark before the MP’s death in 1999, regularly gave the Blair family masses at Downing Street and gained a reputation as a fine fund-raiser, networker and, when fitting, bon vivant.

Now there is his book, which casts Seed in a very different light. Nobody’s Child is about his brutalised childhood. His first years were spent in the Manchester slum of Openshaw with his adoptive parents: a father who subjected him to terrifying sexual and physical assaults and a battered, depressive mother. When Seed was seven, the father lost his job and the family moved in with the mother’s parents in Bolton. The beatings continued, now from his grandfather as well. His adoptive mother committed suicide. To his father’s vicious mother he was “that revolting piece of filth”. The target of tireless bullying at school, he was almost driven to ending his life. At 12, chronically withdrawn, he was put into Knowl View children’s home in Rochdale, and stayed until he was 17.

But there were also what he calls “the little angels”: his adoptive grandmother, Granny Ramsden; the boys in Bolton who tried to protect him from bullies; and, at Knowl View, Stanley Thomas, a Gitanes-smoking, wine-quaffing teacher and vicar, who introduced him to philosophy and politics.

A quarter of an hour passes before Seed hurries in with an urgent apology and crushing handshake. We leave the office and walk through mazy corridors (“If you want the lavatory it’s just there”) and swipecard doors (“We were having one burglary a week”) to make coffee in the kitchen. Tallish, sturdy and ruddy-cheeked, Seed bustles along, slightly stooped. His five o’clock shadow and tufted hair are grey and he has the jowly look of the institutionally fed. He wears clerical black shirt and trousers and when people see him in the corridors or kitchen, they beam.

Back in his office, the rush stops. His mildly Lancastrian voice is unhurried. He insists I take the nicest armchair and swaps the overhead light for a table lamp. When Seed concentrates, a hand goes to his temple, so his eyes are almost completely shadowed. Once, he tops up our coffees from the jug. That aside, he barely moves.

There have been many accounts of terrible childhoods in recent years. Why did he add to them? “Twelve months ago I was invited to speak at a gathering of Catholic headteachers in Essex. My talk was about children who didn’t fit: autistic children, special needs. And what came out was a little bit more than I expected. I didn’t mention the word abuse but I did start to open up.”

John Blake, his publisher friend, had been encouraging him to write a personal book for more than ten years. (Blake had published Seed’s compilations of thoughts on heaven, Will I See You In Heaven? and Letters From the Heart.) Seed agreed and Nobody’s Child was ghost-written by another friend, Noel Botham (a former editor of The National Enquirer: Seed has strikingly wide-ranging friends). Ann Widdecombe was the restraining editor: “She’d say ‘Oh, do you have to?’” Now, having seen his story in cold print, Seed regrets how graphic Nobody’s Child is.

He regrets, too, the re-emergence in the press of “bonkers stories of raising £8m for the Prime Minister’s city academies”. Seed says all he did was put one friend searching for funds for a London school in touch with another friend, Anthony Bailey, the millionaire Catholic PR “guru”. Seed dislikes “the razzmatazz”: the book jacket’s gushing potted biography; the book’s launch, with newspaper diarists attendant, at the House of Commons rather than the NSPCC (which, like the Cardinal Hume Centre for Young People and the homeless centre The Passage, will receive money from the book).

“Razzmatazz” aside, how would he explain the cruelty inflicted on him as a child?

“That is in all of us. It is just that in some it is controlled and for others it isn’t. But bad does not always beget bad: one can decide at 10 or 13, ‘People have been bad to me, I’ll be bad to them.’ But it doesn’t have to be.”

Has he forgiven his persecutors? With disconcerting breeziness Seed says, “Oh yes. I mean, not easily but of course.”

Why “of course”?

“Because there is always . . . when I did my heaven book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘I wonder what we’d do if we found a Hitler or Amin in heaven – their having found God’s love quite irresistible’. And I like that, because it annoys and confounds me. How on earth can that happen? Which it can. I’m not God, but I believe in God, and I think we have to let God be God.”

Why did God let the cruelty happen to him? Seed laughs. “We’ll be here all day if we went into that question. God doesn’t [let it happen]. It’s nothing to do with him. It’s to do with freedom: you can move in that direction or in that direction. We’re not robots.”

Surely Christians believe God can step in, through miracles.

“You’re right. In my case, I didn’t get any.” He laughs again. “No, I take that back. I did in the sense of choosing life. Miracles are to choose life, not death.”

No close Seed and Ramsden relatives remain alive but his natural mother, an Irish girl, Mary Godwin, might. What if she got in touch?

“It would be very nice but in a funny sense, well, I had enough trouble with the last one. I’m happy to let sleeping dogs lie. You don’t know what you are opening.”

Nobody’s Child’s last chapters cover 1974 to 1985 and sketch his sometimes comic wandering towards religion: his first proper job in a nursing home, where he discovered he actually enjoyed helping others; leaving Granny Ramsden’s Baptist church for the Anglicans and then the Roman Catholics; his bewildered search for the right order, with boozy novice nights and stolen kisses from an Irish sweetheart; his life-changing meeting with a little old lady in a Hove church who told him about the Franciscans; his work with them among US down and outs; his final vows.

He didn’t want the solitary life of a parish priest but a communal “family” one, hence, in 1979, his joining the Franciscans. He says he gets the love he wanted as a child “from people, families. You strike a friendship with all sorts of people. My novice master said to me, ‘Michael, you will never die alone.’ I’ve never forgotten those words. What it means is you will always have a family or a community, friends.”

The question of which religious vow is hardest to keep gets a brusque reply. “All three. We take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience. Do we covet? Do we covet people? Do we covet money? Are we obedient? One has to question all of those every single day.”

Of his role as secretary to the Ecumenical Commission, he says “Committees and commissions, they’re a necessary evil but they are not life-giving. I love the Orthodox [church] because they emphasise the mystery of God and, in all our wondering about the Catholics or the Methodists and the Anglicans, I wonder if God really knows what they [the denominations] are anyway. And is he bothered? So I take a slightly eccentric view of ecumenicism. Cardinal Hume in ’87 said, ‘You should never be full time in ecumenicism because you become an ecumaniac’. He was absolutely right.”

From his earliest wanderings towards God, Seed has worked with the homeless and troubled. “With vulnerable people the most important thing is esteem, affirmation of their potentials. To move from the street to having their own flat. Then to get a job and deal with people. A lot of people are like hedgehogs, very frightened. And they’ll go back to alcohol, they’ll go back to drugs. They don’t trust people.”

Has it been difficult spanning such different worlds, from helping the homeless to, for example, saying mass in Downing Street?

“I was going to say you are dealing with vulnerable people.” We both laugh at that one. “But we’re all vulnerable, whether you are the Queen or whoever. We are all vulnerable people. He [Blair] is equal. I don’t behave in any different way. I’m as late for him as I am for anyone.”

Is his mission putting Christ before influential people?

“I don’t think necessarily putting Christ before them. I would hope they see me as Michael, as a human, just pure humanity, which in a sense is deeper than Christianity. A lot of the friendships I have are not with Christians. They [politicians] might come to me with their personal problems, not necessarily their spiritual. I’m not a counsellor but I can be a confidante, someone they could say anything to, that it wouldn’t be shocking.”

Well, he did instruct Alan Clark. How far Clark went down the road to Rome is secret, at his widow Jane’s request. Seed enjoyed sharing the journey, though. “I’d go to see him for instructions in the Pugin Room in the House of Commons. Coffee for him but [a Tory bark] ‘a very large whisky for the priest’ at 11 in the morning. I was meant to have two large whiskies because [GK Chesterton’s character] Father Brown did. He was amazing, greatly child-like. That’s how we got on.”

Why does he attract politicians? It can’t just be because the Cathedral is handy for Parliament. I ask Jeffrey Archer, a friend of 23 years: “Everything he does is for other people and that’s rare in politics. And it’s his disinterestedness. Most people who give you advice, you sit there and wonder why they are giving it. Not with Michael. He’s easy to underestimate because he is so gentle, and appears to be listening the whole time. He’s a very, very wise man.”

Certainly wise enough to realise how some view him. “Since the early 1990s, I have become ‘a character’,” Seed says, resignedly.

In today’s secular Britain, priests are often seen as boring, inexperienced in ‘real life’ or (after recent sex scandals) suspect. Are people puzzled by a clever, sociable priest who is none of these?

Again, Seed laughs. “Probably. Most clergy, thank God, keep a low profile. I don’t know of any who go around not wanting that.” Including him? “Yes. It’s how you begin. The problem is I’ve been here 23 years.”

Does his profile annoys his fellow Cathedral clergy? “No, they have been kind, mega-kind for putting up with all of this. They have big hearts. I think it causes them more amusement than concern.”

And his idea of heaven? “A place of contentment. You might interpret contentment to be fair to middling. Whereas I think it is the greatest good we can have. Contentment has everything.”

29 June 2007

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