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David Monteith: 'I felt history on my shoulders when I laid Richard III to rest'

Joanne Sweeney talks to the Dean of Leicester Cathedral about growing up in Co Fermanagh, his religious calling and burying the last Plantagenet king.

Published 04/05/2015

The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester Cathedral. 'People remember me as that vicar who always wears a scarf.'
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester Cathedral. 'People remember me as that vicar who always wears a scarf.'

Q. So how come a Co  Fermanagh man ended up burying a king of England?

A. It's a great mystery to me as well how this has happened. I came to England to university and I never properly went back to Northern Ireland as I trained for ordination here and ended up as Dean of an English cathedral, which just happened to be where Richard III was buried right across the road.

Q. A case of being in the right place at the right time?

A. Absolutely. It feels like I'm Dean of Leicester Cathedral at a very significant and interesting time of change. I think organisations go through different phases and moods, and we are in the middle of significant development.

Q. Did you feel the weight of history on your shoulders over the reburial of Richard III last month?

A. I not only felt the weight of history but also the proximity of history, and that has been with me vividly, even before the first public announcements were made that Leicester University had found the bones. When I went to the university to see Richard's remains, I was suddenly very moved by being up close to history.

Q. So this colourful figure from history became very real to you?

A. Yes, and it happened again when I went to Lambeth Palace, where I was given into my hands Richard's prayer book, which we had at the ceremony. I saw how, in his own handwriting, he had noted his birthday, and suddenly the textbooks of history become very close and personal. I was also very aware that we were making new history as this was the next chapter of Richard III's story.

Every single thing we did after that would get thought about, written about and described for years to come. As it went on, I was very conscious of trying to create something of a coherent narrative for the next stage of the story.

Q. Can you tell us about the controversy before your cathedral got to re-inter Richard's remains?

A. In February 2013, Leicester University made its big announcement that the remains uncovered were those of King Richard III. The licence from the Ministry of Justice named Leicester Cathedral as the place where he could be buried. We began to make preparation for the reburial from that moment.

However, an organisation called the Plantagenet Alliance, who were people who claimed to be relatives of Richard III, requested a Judicial Review, but it was a limited company that was only formed after Richard was found. They wanted him to be buried in York. During the period of time when the Judicial Review process was taking place, we continued to make preparations for the reburial in Leicester.

Q. Was that not a risky thing to do?

A. Formally speaking, I was doing that at risk, so that was a very difficult period for us as we were spending money on architects' fees. We knew how long it took to make alternations to a listed building, and it could have taken years to do this. It seemed to be that we needed to bury him as quickly as humanly possible. After the Judicial Review came through, we just had about 10 months between then and his reburial in March. We had to make some estimate as to when the building works could take place and if I could raise the £2.5m in that timescale. It was very tight.

Q. The project had its contentious issues then?

A. Absolutely, but I always insisted that this was a reburial of a human being and deserved the same respect that we would show during any funeral. Whenever you do anything with such significance, there will be diverse opinions about it. In this case, those ranged from local people who said that we shouldn't have been spending all that money when there's poverty. I fully understand where they were coming from as a major part of our work is about tacking poverty and social injustice.

Q. So Richard III was as controversial in his reburial as he was in life?

A. Yes. Even though the War of the Roses happened a long time ago, the stories are still physically alive for those families who were deeply associated with that. While they are not killing each other today, the need to look beyond the divide of the Houses of York and Lancaster was very important in the ultimate success of the project. Another important aspect to us in managing conflict and resolution was to remember that Richard was a pre-Reformation king, a king whose allegiance was to the Bishop of Rome. As an Anglican cathedral, we wanted to make visible signs of our unity with respect as both Protestant and Catholic.

Q. Did the cathedral get any government financial support for the project?

A. No, we didn't get any external help from the Government. We were given a real head start by the Diocese of Leicester as it gave me a grant of £500,000, which covered all the essential costs of consultants and admin costs. This then meant that I could go out and fundraise for the £2million I needed. I went to big national trusts, supportive individuals of means and there was also an appeal to the general public to help us as well.

Q. Were you starstruck meeting celebrities such as Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who read at the reburial service?

A. No, I wasn't starstruck. As a priest, you end up meeting all sorts of people and all manners of people all the time. It may sound crass, but I've become used to meeting people like that as I used to work in St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, where we did many services and events that were attended by people from public life. So it's part of the role of the priest to work with every strata of society.

Q. Can you describe your early life as a boy growing up in Co Fermanagh?

A. I grew up in Irvinestown, which is about 10 miles from Enniskillen. I went to Irvinestown Primary School and was involved in the local Church of Ireland. I went to Derryvullan North Parish Church, the Boys Brigade and the local youth group in the town.

Q. What about your family, any other clergy there?

A. While lots of my family are farmers or teachers, my father Malvern worked for Fermanagh District Council, and my mum Molly worked for the tax office in Enniskillen. I'm the eldest of four - two boys and two girls. My brother, Maurice, and I went to Portora Royal in Enniskillen. My sisters are Sandra and Lynda, but Sandra died in her thirties. Maurice now works as a house master at Rugby School, and Lynda lives in Enniskillen with her family. She works for Irish Central Border Area Network Ltd, which helps with rural economic development projects.

Q. When did you discover that you had a religious calling?

A. Well, I was always involved in the Church. When I went away to Durham University, I read Zoology. However, I still attended church regularly and dabbled a bit in attending theological lectures. I gradually got more involved with this in university.

Q. Was there a pivotal moment that finally made up your mind?

A. When Marie Wilson died in the 1987 Enniskillen bomb, that was a significant moment for me as her father, Gordon, spoke about forgiving the IRA for the murder of his daughter. That was the moment that I saw with real clarity that the Church could be good news for the world and not merely a part of the problem of the world. That really provided me with the opportunity to pursue my sense of vocation further. One of the good things that emerged out of it was the creation of the integrated primary school in the town some time later.

Q. Did you know Marie or her family?

A. I didn't know the family well, but they were very well-known in Enniskillen as her father ran a shop. So I would have known Gordon, even though he might not necessarily have known me.

Q. Were you and your family ever directly affected by the Troubles?

A. Thankfully, no we weren't. Those days in the Seventies and early Eighties were a period of deep conflict, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone was a marginal constituency. As it was adjacent to the border, there was a lot of terrorist activity going on all the time. Bobby Sands was the MP during my time at school, and there was also the hunger strikes going on, so all of that background certainly had an influence on me and shaped me. Trying to deal with conflict and working for reconciliation is still a major part of what I'm about today.

Q. Did England always feel welcoming to you after coming from Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles?

A. Actually, it was often a way into conversations as people didn't always understand what was going on and so wanted to know more. There was also a large Irish diaspora in England, particularly in Birmingham, where I worked at St Martin in the Bull Ring Church. My neighbours across the road were third-generation Irish, so I was very comfortable.

Q. Has the Church of England been enriched by the ordination of women priests?

A. It has been greatly enriched, and I welcome it warmly. When I was ordained, I was part of a first group where men and women were ordained together. I'm very glad that the Church of England has welcomed women bishops, and I look forward to them reshaping the Church.

Q. Can you see there being a female Archbishop of Canterbury in your life?

A. I'm sure at some stage we will see a female Archbishop. The Church of England thinks in decades rather than in years, and while I can't predict the future, I'm sure we will get one.

Q. You are not married. Has it been hard to maintain your high profile without the support of a partner?

A. I'm in a civil partnership with my partner David Hamilton, so I do have the support of a loved one. We've been together for 20 years.

Q. Would you and your partner like to get married one day inside your church?

A. It's funny. While I completely understand the issue about marriage equality - and also why people feel its important - I don't actually think that it's really for me. Marriage is not a lens through which I understand my relationship with my partner. It's equivalent to it, but its distinctive to it, and I'm very happy for that to be the case. I've no great desire for that to happen.

Q. What about your church's attitude to same-sex marriage?

A. I'm looking forward to our church having a welcoming and inclusive attitude to all the people of our community. The Church of England is not able to take weddings for same-sex couples at the moment. However, I have gay people in my congregation who are in same-sex relationships, and they are a vital part of our community.

Q. Have you and your partner ever thought of having children?

A. We have nieces and nephews who we really enjoy being with, and I'm godfather to a great many children, so children have always been part of our lives. As a priest, in a way I feel that I have positively influenced the lives of many children, so I didn't ever feel the desire to have our own.

Q. Surely you must be somewhat dismayed that Northern Ireland is regressive in regards to equality for gay people?

A. Northern Ireland is lagging behind on this aspect of equality at the very same time as it is striving for inclusive politics. The quality of public debate about this seems sadly lacking. When I hear many Northern Ireland politicians speaking about gay matters, I rarely recognise myself. Instead, I sense a lot of ignorance or naivety.

I am a professional person in public life - a senior ordained Christian with a loving partner and a wider family, contributing to the upbringing of nephews, nieces and godchildren. I don't think politicians have the likes of me in mind when they speak.   

Q. What has been the biggest challenge in your ministry so far?

A. God gives far more opportunities than we ever respond to, and the real challenge is having the wisdom to identify the things that you have been called to do. That became very obvious when I worked in Trafalgar Square and St Martin-in-the-Fields, where we did a lot of work with the homeless. There was a constant stream of people coming to the door, and I had to work out quite quickly that you can't solve the world's problems. You have to work out what your contribution can be and encourage others to take up theirs so that together you begin to try and address the issue. I have a strong work ethic, which comes from my Northern Ireland background, and I have had to learn not to overdo it.

Q. What's with the scarf that you regularly wear around your neck?

A. As a priest, you tend to wear a dark suit and black shirts, but I like a bit of colour in my life, so it's a bit of contrast to my dark suit. As Dean, I was very conscious that I needed to speak with a distinctive voice and for people to recognise me. So now people remember me as that vicar who always wears a scarf.

Q. What's the next aim in your career?

A. I need to get the cathedral on a stable footing in terms of its finances as we are the second poorest cathedral in England, and I have to do something about that. I will soon need to work closely with the new Bishop to help her or him in their role. Beyond that, I can't see much further as that's going to take up for the next five or so years.

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