Timothy Radcliffe Dominican friar and Master of the Order 1992-2001

by
02 November 2006

My book came out of a conversation I had with a friend, who is a professor of sociology. He is a believer, but kept pushing the question: "What is the point of being a Christian?" So my book was born. It is selling well, but of course all my royalties go to the bursar here [Blackfriars, Oxford].

I came from a very Catholic family, but we were not very pious. I was the fourth generation of my family to go to Downside School, which is Benedictine. I learnt to love and appreciate the beauty of the liturgy. The Abbey Church at Downside was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

My family originally came from Yorkshire, and my father’s father actually captained the county cricket team. As I was not born there, I was not eligible — which was a good thing, as I was fairly hopeless at the sport, unlike my siblings. My parents had five boys and one girl.

When I left school, it was the first time I made friends who were not Christian or Catholic. I was constantly asked: "Is it true what you believe?" I had never thought about this before, and soon came to the conclusion that it should either become the most important thing to me or I should disregard it.

The Dominicans’ motto, Veritas [truth], really struck me — at 19 one is very romantic. My father was very good; although we were not Dominicans, he still encouraged me, but made sure I chatted with someone who had joined and for whom it had not worked out. I became a Dominican in 1965 and took my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

After about five years, I fell hopelessly in love . It was a crunch time, as I had to face the possibility that I could leave, get married, and have children. It was a fantastic thing to live through: how can anyone talk about the love of God without any idea of being in love?

You can’t just discard these sorts of feelings ; in the end, I developed a great friendship with the woman. When you make a commitment like becoming a priest or getting married, you close off other avenues. But a little bit of fantasy remains, the "you never know". It made me realise that I had chosen this way for life and that I wanted to stick with it. I carried on much more happily after that.

Some of my friends did leave, but we are all still in touch. Only recently I had a letter from someone I had never met, but who left the Dominicans here in 1948. He said he still felt partly a Dominican; it is that sort of order.

I was completely surprised when I was elected Master of the order. Dominicans are a Roman Catholic order including friars, contemplative nuns, sisters, and lay people (who can be married). We are about 200,000. Some of the lay people may not be Roman Catholic.

Elections are very democratic. Each priory has a prior, and is part of a province led by the Provincial Minister. I had been both prior, here where I now live, and provincial.

Every nine years, the provinces elect a new Master . They can’t be re-elected, thanks be to God. There is a five-day get-together with reps from the provinces (the number depends on the size of the province, but Dominicans are in 104 countries). We met in different groupings to discuss candidates, and, by the end, there were just a few names, and mine was one of them.

I failed on all three key requirements: international experience, a deep pastoral experience, and not just being an academic. They were keen someone had had a second term as a Provincial. Yet I was still elected.

I was based in Rome, at the International Centre in Santa Sabina, which was built in 1219 — but parts of it date back to 432. I was on the road eight months a year. In my first two years, I tried to visit every country with Dominican orders.

I found my experience of Rwanda and Burundi very moving. I tried to go back each year. I learnt so much from both ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu, as the Dominicans managed to cling together, although they lost most of their families.

I love Spanish literature. When I was in Rome, we all spoke four different languages. I had to work on my Spanish, and used to read novels late at night with my dictionary and grammar book. If I have an addiction, it’s novel reading.

Family are important. I have ten nephews and nieces, and ten great-nephews and -nieces. I consider Blackfriars home, but after Christmas I go and stay with family.

At some point I may move to another community . But only after discussion. The vow of obedience involves dialogue, not blind submission.

I get pocket money, but go to the bursar if I need money for things like books and travel. We all queue up together: it is very egalitarian. I have a wonderful coat I got for 20 pence at a charity shop in 1988. It is from British Rail, although someone has had to resurrect it for me since then.

I have climbed over the fence at Upper Heyford in my habit [protesting about US missiles]. A lot of our brothers and sisters have committed acts of civil disobedience. Our letters, OP, Order of Preachers, means preaching the gospel, and we believe the law of God has priority over the law of the nation.

I would call Rowan [Williams] a friend. We were in the same distinguished faculty seminar to talk about theology in Oxford. I have tremendous admiration for him; he is a very holy man.

I was very shocked about people’s initial attitudes to AIDS. I can remember in 1984 hearing about some nurses who left food outside patients’ doors, and they had to literally crawl to get it. I convened a meeting called "The Church and AIDS" — a lot of things started from there.

My biggest regret is not having children. But I have a big family and friends. I think if you believe God made us for happiness, then, because of the choices we make, we are not going to have every possible way of being happy, but the confidence to have happiness with God. There is no point sitting around moping.

I have been greatly inspired by the Dominican Cornelius Ernst. His father was a Dutch Anglican, and his mother was a Sri Lankan Buddhist. He was one of the most intellectually stimulating people I have met.

I can always remember a sermon by Herbert McCabe about genealogy and what a rum lot the ancestors of Jesus were. It was very funny, about Jesus’ coming from this great line of bandits.

I struggle with Leviticus, but love the second part of Isaiah. It is incredibly emotional, about God being our father and mother.

I got very angry recently when I heard the Planetarium was going to be used not to see the galaxy, but celebrities. We have TVs here and papers: we are not cut off.

I am probably at my happiest on a summer’s evening. We have Sunday dinner here outside in the courtyard. We have wine and sit late into the night chatting.

I escape to France when I want to retreat. I go to a place called La Tourette, a Dominican study centre near Lyon. It is part of French heritage.

I would love to get locked in a church with Seamus Heaney, the poet and Nobel Prizewinner. He used to stay here. He is an absolutely superb poet.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP was talking to Rachel Harden. His book What is the Point of Being a Christian? (Burns & Oates, £10.99 (CT Bookshop, £11.65); 0-86012-369-3) was reviewed in the Church Times last week.

To read the review, click here

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