The Interview: David Houlding

It must have been two National Assemblies ago, during one of those brief moments when the juggernaut of business, speeches, worship and social intercourse pauses to change gear, that we first exchanged a few idle pleasantries. In the hiatus strategically seated delegates can make a Le Mans start for the upstairs coffee bar or downstairs to what our American cousins call the comfort station. Actually the men’s “facilities” at the Camden Centre are not all that comforting – disconcerting would be a better word. Most places restrict their reflective self-enhancement aids to the area over the washbasins. Camden has its mirrors over the urinals so that, willy nilly, a chap is obliged to observe himself in those last moments of pre-diluvial tension followed rapidly by the glazed idiocy of post sphincteric release. I suppose one should be grateful that they aren’t full length.

I can’t remember whether he was ascending or descending – coffee and cloakroom enjoy a causative and circular relationship – but we were both temporary refugees from the main chamber.

Later on the same day, we found ourselves standing next to one another on the steps of the Conference Hall as hundreds of severely dehydrated delegates surged across the narrow street for urgent infusions at the ‘Hope and Anchor’ and a hasty post-mortem on the last motion. We agreed to talk again, maybe do an interview, ring each other in a couple of weeks “when things are a bit quieter” etc. etc. Of course they never are.

In the intervening fifteen months, the same well-intentioned conversation has taken place whenever we have met at odd catholic gatherings. Institutional life is not wholly dissimilar to family life – you keep meaning to catch up with family and friends and, if you’re not careful, you find you only meet at funerals. Curiously it was in the aftermath of just such an event, that of the much loved Bishop of Edmonton, that we finally co-ordinated diaries and arranged to meet at Faith House at the end of the monthly editorial meeting.

So it was, at the end of last month, Fr David Houlding, Master of SSC. (Society of the Holy Cross) and I finally got together in a little office in the cockpit of catholicism, Forward in Faith H.Q. Actually, judging by the number of steps to get to it, a better image would be that of the crow’s-nest. Houlding is a heavily built man with a cherubic face and the aerobics course that passes for a staircase in Faith House had left him a little flushed.

As ever, the interview began with prayer and then I asked him


“Dartford in Kent. My father was the local dairyman and milkman. He was also church warden of our local parish for many years. My mother, who died last year, was organist at Fawkham. They were old-fashioned low church, not at all keen on choruses and regarding religious fervour of any kind as a very worrying sign.”


“Oh yes! There was the unforgettable moment when I confused the brake and accelerator pedal and drove into a shop window, shattering 140 milk bottles. Mercifully Dad was on holiday that week.”


“Yes. It was at a beach mission at Frinton-on-Sea. I was 10 years old. It was slightly puzzling because, being baptised as a baby and growing up in church, I had always considered myself a Christian. But it was a moment and, as I now see it, a phase on the way to maturity in faith. It has left its trace. For example extemporary prayer has never presented a problem, the sense of personal relationship never leaves and the importance of the centrality of scripture remains.”


“I was sure of my calling from the age of 6! Dad used to take me to Sunday School in the afternoon and I asked to go to the grown-up service. It was Mattins. I was thrilled by the vicar’s surplice, went back and ripped the sheet off my bed, made a hole in it and paraded round the house. I was chastised for my enthusiasm for the externals of religion but I was so excited. I learnt how to celebrate Holy Communion, Prayer Book rite, in my bedroom with a wine glass, a plate and, if I could get away with it, some of my mother’s sherry!”


“French, English, Latin. I went to school in Canterbury and shared a study at the back of the Old Palace. There I came deeply under the influence of Michael Ramsey and his wife. They treated us as adopted sons and we served at the private masses in his chapel.”


“King’s London in the years of Sidney Evans as Dean. He was a huge influence, immaculately smart and very smooth. King’s was in its heyday, Eric Mascall, Christopher Evans, Ulrich Simon – impressive and terrifying talents.”


“Yes – and did a lot of acting. I love drama. Then it was back to St Augustine’s, Canterbury, for a final year – sort of finishing school. Theological colleges always sound a lot more serious these days.”


“I’m sure there were. The real unique friendship that goes back a long way is from when I was 13. Andrew Sloane was a contemporary and friend at school. He went on to be a priest in the US and ended up curate at St Mary the Virgin, New York, when I was curate at St Albans, Holborn. I’m due to go and preach for him again in a couple of weeks.”


“Donald Coggan decided I needed toughening up and sent me to the Christian Medical College in Vellore. It was the largest teaching hospital in South India and practically presbyterian in ethos. I did the R.E. slot in med. college and acted as lay chaplain in hospital to students, doctors and patients alike. At first I was desperately homesick; then I loved it and, in the end, was upset to be coming home.”


“Very. Twice as crowded as England. Relatives virtually live round the bed. They are responsible for feeding the patient. There’s much more infection too.”


“It was here that I began to react most strongly against the evangelical world. Christians there seemed so fundamentalist and exclusive. I rejected this in favour of a much more catholic universality.”


“It’s part of the unresolved mystery of salvation. I won’t reject the claims of Christ but I cannot accept that the majority of the human race is damned. I think part of the resolution lies in the realm of moral theology. There is integrity to be found in the quality of life you have and a person’s religious life and spirituality are not to be dismissed as insignificant. It is possible to understand the Trinity as a universal revelation beyond Christian experience. ”

Houlding recalls the attitude to death as initially shattering. It seemed “more abundant”, “much more out in the open”, “more casual” especially in the Muslim community. He remembers a man who wouldn’t give blood to save his wife’s life because he had “two more wives at home!”


“Curate at All Saints, Hillingdon. It was a Prayer Book Catholic parish, tractarian tradition, dignified worship. There was a strong sacramental and pastoral life there with excellent outreach. Good variety, well attended and a really good training incumbent, Frank Humphries, who let me do a lot and wasn’t threatened by a curate. I did a lot of groundwork there and many friendships endure. Part of me has never left Hillingdon. I looked after the interregnum there for eight months and must have broken every rule in the book. I changed the rite, added incense wherever possible and introduced the full Holy Week liturgy – thoroughly enjoyed myself!”


“Yes, the heart of the catholic world. I went for interview in a grey suit so as not to give an extreme image! I’m not sure I really wanted the job and it took me a long time to settle in. It was a sharp learning curve under Fr Gaskell. I realised how ignorant I was. He was a good priest, good preacher, treated you as an equal and expected to be friends. He was a well-known confessor and taught me how to hear confessions. He insisted on moral firmness, consistency of line and pastoral treatment. People should be reminded of the church’s teaching and the importance of their individual conscience. It was a wonderful parish, terrifying to preach in front of Gaskell and a place where mass had to be celebrated immaculately”.

It was here that other important connections in Houlding’s life were made. He became friends with Stephen Parkinson (F in F director) and Jo, deaconed at their wedding and became Godfather to their daughter, Elizabeth. Houlding describes himself as “the worst Godfather in the world” Amongst other sins he confesses to being so late to Elizabeth’s confirmation that he only made “the last hymn and the bunfight”. Old friends in the catholic movement have long suspected that Houlding’s watch is set to eternity rather than G.M.T.

There, also, Houlding became involved with S.S.C. – Societas Sanctae Crucis – the Society of the Holy Cross. (It is, perhaps, a sign of the times, that in Crockford’s Clerical Directory list of abbreviations, it now comes below the SSC – Secretarial Studies Certificate!).


“It is the oldest clerical society in the C.of E. It exists to help priest be better priests, to support and foster vocation in life as a continuing process of God’s work. It was founded in 1855 by Fr Charles Lowder of St Peter’s, London Docks fame. He and five others began it in Soho as a secular religious order living under rule. Its primary purpose was mission, giving priests a sense of solidarity in the face of opposition and persecution. Very significant for today’s church where priests are being picked off one by one.”

The rule is a fundamental catholic discipline, offices and prayer, sacramental life, frequent Holy Communion, confession, retreat and exercising charity, care and support to one another.


“About 550 in England, worldwide c.900. About 200 of our members went to Rome after the crisis and it brought S.S.C. to the brink of collapse but, in the last two years, we’ve had 100 new admissions. People are realising the need to belong somewhere, that you can’t go it alone anymore.”

The.S.S.C. is strong, according to Houlding, in Blackburn, Manchester, Kent, York, Sheffield, Wakefield, London and Chelmsford. Even “struggling” areas like Devon and Cornwall chapters are beginning to revive and Scotland and Wales are also showing signs of growth. All three “Flying Bishops” and Fulham are long-standing members.


“We’re trying to merge with the Fellowship of Catholic Priests. There is a great need for unity in the catholic movement, not lots of little kingdoms. We should not be about promoting ourselves but rather the catholic cause. Too often catholics have been divided or content to settle for being a tradition in the church. We need to work for the catholic identity of the church. S.S.C. needs to be the clerical presence in catholic life and enterprise not a cosy club. We exist for mission and our involvement with Forward in Faith is vital. It’s also very encouraging to see good and able younger clergy coming through via the ordinands conferences and post-ordination work. They are full of enthusiasm and vigour and I hope the church will recognise their gifts.


“Yes. I almost went. I was on the last carriage and got off. A mixture of reasons really… fear of the unknown, always been C. of E., change of culture, worry about starting all over again. I admire the courage of friends who went but it wasn’t the answer for me.”


“The consecration of women as bishops.”


“I wouldn’t be happy with it as a sort of mock continuing C. of E. Any such plan must be tied into the greater unity of the church and deeper unity with the universal church.”


“Stay together and grow. Get involved in the church at every level. Of course, I realise there is a huge difference saying this in London or Chichester and your diocese. But some dioceses, like Wakefield for example, are playing fair. Diocesan bishops have nothing to lose and everything to gain by acting honourably and I hope more of them will come to see that.”


“All Hallows, Gospel Oak. I’ve been there since 1986. It’s one of the most beautiful churches in London, the worship and liturgy are inspiring. Over the last ten years, it’s changed from working class to middle class – downtown Hampstead. There has been and is tremendous movement and therefore a struggle to build. Some move so quickly they never make the roll. Only 4 of the original roll are still there twelve years on. The parish is financially secure by property rents. The original Victorian vicarage allows me to use it as open house ministry, creating a sense of community and fellowship. This really needs to be done before you can achieve anything else.”

During Houlding’s time there he has played a large part in ministry to asylum seekers, both practically in the use of the undercroft as a refuge and in his work on General Synod. He sees this as an important part of the social dimension of Catholicism. Predictably it has not been universally popular. He has also nurtured the vocations of a series of ordinands and feels the contribution of such young and enthusiastic men has revitalised the parish. Houlding is fulsome in his praise of former assistant Fr. Mark Brackley.


“There is a tension but the parish must come first. I know it’s tough on the people and they do put up with my nonsense but they know I’m happy here and have no desire to move. It is a secure base. ”


“Funnily enough right until the end of college I always saw myself as marrying. In my first parish I decided I was probably called to the single life. It’s no good getting hung up, you need a sense of joy in who you are. There is a great sense of fulfilment and happiness in the single life. Single celibate men are not second class or second best. They’re a vital part of the western tradition and tragically under represented in the councils of the church. Of course there is pressure. You are aware that you are a focus for the community – there is no such thing as a private life – you are there for the people.”


“It’s vital for the priest to have intimate friendship, to model friendship, to have a closeness that enables him to share and be open. If he doesn’t there are many temptations to fill the gap unwisely. Proper wholesome friendship is part of our fulfilment as human beings and part of our priesthood.”