Interview conducted by Michele Theil
[T]he answer is forgiveness – forgiving yourself, forgiving other people… It’s important to help people who are struggling and listen to their struggles. We’ve got to realise that terrible things happen and that people feel really bitter and hurt by it, but we have to help them move on and move through the pain towards resolution, acceptance and growth.
Earlier this academic year, Michele Theil interviewed Royal Holloway’s Catholic chaplain, Father John. Theil delves into intriguing questions about faith and its relationship with current debates. The interview sheds light upon the love, understanding, and acceptance encouraged by the church. It is an incredibly important piece that ought to be shared in a time hungry for tolerance. Here are snippets of Theil’s interview.
Are there denominational rivalries nowadays?
I don’t think so. I think that denominational rivalries are a thing of the past, to be honest. It doesn’t mean that everyone agrees of course – they don’t because there are significant differences between us. But I think what we aim to do is everything that we can do together, we do. And where we can’t, we can’t. It’s important because the statistics at university are something like 30% of students would say they’re religious and of that, Christians represent something like 24.5% with Catholics representing around 10% of that. So, relative to what people say, it’s a small group. But, they make a significant impact on the feeling of the place: which is that everyone’s welcome. That’s what it’s all about. But, it’s also about educating people to show that Catholics and Christians are not crazy or demented or people who are really strange. When actually they’re ordinary and have parties, and do fun things just like everybody else.
And yeah, one of the things I’ve done is take Founder’s Choir to the church where I help on a Sunday and they do a couple concerts and raise money for their choir tour in the summer. A lot of them have never been in a Catholic church so it’s really great for them and they have a lot of fun. That’s a big part of the job of chaplain: educating people and showing people what they haven’t experienced or seen before.
What would you say to someone who might be religious, or grew up religious, and are now trying to find their place and don’t know if Christianity or Catholicism in particular is going to be accepting of them? For instance, if they were gay?
That’s always been part of our job, to welcome people to the church. It’s supposed to be an open door to welcome everyone and we have done that. There’s a Catholic professor from Kingston who is gay and was very happy to come to RHUL to talk to our students about being gay in the Catholic faith. It was a joint event between the Catholic Society and the LGBT+ Society here on campus.
That kind of thing is important because it’s clearly a question that lingers. People feel hurt and feel rejected and all that. But, that’s not what we’re about here.
What would you say to someone who is using Christianity to justify bigotry and bigoted views?
I think one of the things we’ve got to realise is that everyone carries with them levels of insecurity and I think that everybody, whatever background we have, has their own hangups. Anybody without baggage isn’t human. And I believe, like a lot of those things, you might think those views in theory but if your best friend is gay and wants to get married, it can be a different story. For most people, it’s something they’ve just never experienced. So it all seems terribly strange and frightening. It’s important that we’re here and we say, as we do, that we have to respect each other and everyone’s cultures. The fundamental thing of Christianity is that we believe that God’s spirit is in everyone and it’s up to them to do what they think is right for them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody agrees but we have to agree to respect each other. Everybody is doing their best under the circumstances that they live in and that kind of education is what we’re all about.
Do you think there might be a little bit of a stigma for young people nowadays if they identify themselves as religious in general or as practicing Christians/Catholics in particular?
I feel like that is the case, that actually people like – have you read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins? – people like him basically says that people who believe in God are deluded. And it seems to be a way for liberal people to believe they are unprejudiced but they’re actually prejudiced against religious people. So, they could not like Muslims and predicate it on the fact that they’re deluded or misogynists and all the rest of it. Or they could say that Catholics are all paedophiles or something. It’s easy and often not thought through. I think it’s difficult for young people to feel like they can explore their religious faith. You know, I’m very limited, but I like who I am. I’ve got prejudices, like everyone else, but being happy in who you are is a great message to others. Also, I’m happy to talk to everyone, I don’t care at all.
You’ve long been an advocate for LGBT people being able to get married here at RHUL, can you talk a little bit about that?
We’re nearly there with that, I think we’re getting to the final stages of getting approval for it to happen. I suppose that the reason actually comes from the Book of Genesis: one of the first lines, one of the first things God says is that it’s not good for humans to be alone. I think that loneliness is the most crippling and destructive thing to happen to people. And many gay people feel really isolated and alone and have absorbed homophobia into their hearts and minds and I think that this feeling of rejection and loneliness is one of the reasons that people in the gay community don’t have relationships for very long because, actually, they’re quite insecure about themselves. Actually, if you think about it, to help people have stable relationships and to have the confidence to have someone else love them is a great thing – whatever else you think of them. It’s really important for them to have that. For a university that’s committed to inclusion and, actually, has this spectacular chapel that was intended to be inclusive from the beginning (RHUL’s founder prevented sectarian exclusion), I think it’s very important to allow gay people to get married at RHUL’s chapel. And, I have many friends who are gay and are married and are very happy. Before that, they had very rough experiences and so, I’m thinking, this must be a good thing.
What would you say to someone who might feel like they’ve lost their faith and are struggling to find it again?
Everyone comes with baggage. If you think about Jesus crying out on the cross (My God My God why have you abandoned me), it’s one of the strangest things to see in any religious text – to see that the Son of God has said that God has abandoned him. So, it seems to be a part of people’s life experiences where they go through really dark patches and at the heart of it is this sense of rejection. He also cries out “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” as this kind of questioning of “How do you get through this period of anger and darkness?” And the answer is forgiveness – forgiving yourself, forgiving other people etc. It’s important to help people who are struggling and listen to their struggles. We’ve got to realise that terrible things happen and that people feel really bitter and hurt by it, but we have to help them move on and move through the pain towards resolution, acceptance and growth. That’s what we’re about.