Kieran Conry, St Michael and ‘Acceptable Evil’

The resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry and its impact on the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton is being picked over by the media. There are those who delight in the idea of sexual shananigans involving a bishop — a Catholic bishop at that! — and are whooping with glee at the prospect of salacious ‘revelations’ in the press and online. There are others who are taking the opportunity to have a pot-shot at everything they regard as liberal and wrong in the Church, with dark mutterings about who knew what and when. Others again are calling for a change in the Church’s celibacy rules and expressing support for Bishop Kieran as he faces not only private humiliation but public shame over his actions. Some, probably the majority, simply feel sad, sensing both the personal tragedy and the tragedy for the diocese.  Inevitably, there is a feeling of betrayal. When clergy in particular are found to have deceived others, people naturally ask whether anyone actually believes what they profess to believe. Is it all moonshine as far as they are concerned? What few within the Church seem to have grasped, however, is that for many people in Britain today, it is all a typhoon in a teacup. For them, the  Church’s teaching is out of step with modern sexual mores. Kieran Conry did no more and no less than lots of other men in this country. End of story (almost).

I think we need to be clear about three things. First, by his own admission, Bishop Kieran seems to have been guilty of fornication, if not adultery; and this breaking of his promise of celibacy and the Church’s rules about sexual behaviour was something that went on for years. Whatever society thinks about it, the Church’s understanding of such behaviour is that it is wrong, sinful. There is no such thing as ‘acceptable evil’. Second, his actions have hurt others as well as himself — the women involved, their families, the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton and the wider Church. There will be a price to pay, and it will be far from painless. Third, and just as important, God’s grace is open to us all. We are not called to judge the state of Bishop Keieran’s soul and certainly ought not to revile him. Who among us has a conscience so spotless we can condemn another? We must forgive whatever there is to forgive, pray for his conversion (and remember, confession of wrong is a first step in that direction) and continue to try to live godly lives ourselves as well as we can. That is where St Michael the Archangel, whose feast we keep today, comes in. He is the great protector saint whose aid we invoke against evil in all its most seductive forms.

Those who think of angels as charming little putti, running riot over Baroque altarpieces and ceilings, have clearly never stopped to consider the terrifying aspect of angels in the Bible. They are mighty spirits, messengers of God, with Michael the chief of them. The old Catholic prayer asking his intercession is not ‘quaint’ or ‘outmoded’ any more than evil itself is quaint or outmoded. Evil is deceptive and leads even the best of us astray. The sad story of Bishop Kieran is a reminder to us all that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ I think there are good reasons for making the prayer our own and praying it whenever we face situations that place us in moral, physical, or spiritual danger — remembering always that pride, the idea that we can cope without help, is one of the biggest sins of all.

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.