Vincent Nichols is the next Catholic Archbishop of Westminster

By staff writers
April 3, 2009

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the 63-year-old Archbishop of Birmingham, has been named as the new incumbent at Westminster, the most senior Catholic cleric in England and Wales.

He succeeds Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. The announcement was made at a press conference in London this morning.

The new incumbent has been the favourite for the post for some time. He will be seen as an intelligently conservative figure with a suave and realtively youthful approach to defending and commending the Catholic faith.

He is likely to join the rhetoric against secularism entertained by a number of senior church figures in recent years, but which those who criticise a 'Christendom' vision of Christianity (one that emphasises cultural and political power) will see as unhelpfully defensive.

Archbishop Nichols has ecumenical experience, having been involved in the setting up of the new instruments in Britain and Ireland (including Churches Together in Briatain and Ireland) following the demise of the old British Council of Churches and the search for arrangements which could include Catholics and black churches in what had previously been an Anglican and Protestant body.

However, he has also been a staunch proponent and advocate of a muscular Catholicism "with a human face", as a former aide put it to Ekklesia this morning.

In recent years, Archbishop Nichols has been outspoken on Catholic education and adoption agencies, where he joined in opposing reform.

In 2006, he defended the way Catholic schools teach children about homosexuality, telling MPs that policies to tackle homophobic bullying were unnecessary. Educationalists and parents disagreed.

He has been criticised by some in the church for being "too ambitious", but his supporters insist he is only "ambitious for God", the Guardian newspaper reported this morning.

His personal charm and persuasiveness, as well as his guile, have been commented on by those from both church and state who have had dealings with him.

Archbishop Nichols is said to have been the second English bishop, after 76-year-old Cardinal O'Connor, to be blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.

He enthusiastically endorsed the pontiff's drive for liturgical renewal in the church.

He will not automatically be made a cardinal by the Pope. Indeed that is likely to wait several years, until Cormac Murphy O'Connor reaches the age of 80 and will no longer be eligible to take part in the college of cardinals which elects a new pope.

As Archbishop of Westminster, Nichols is not strictly the "leader" of the Catholic Church, as is often said, but he is the leading spiritual figure and chair of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor is considering an offer to become a non-executive director of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and may also become the first Catholic bishop in the House of Lords (Britain's unelected second chamber in Parliament) since the 16th century.

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