Page 5, 19th May 1995

19th May 1995
Page 5
Page 5, 19th May 1995 — In praise of clergy wives

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Brian Brindley argues that despite the unique qualities brought by married convert del& the end of celibacy is not close at hand THE CATHOLIC Church in England faces a problem peculiar to our own time and place. Over the past 18 months as many as 350 former clergymen of the Church of England have been received into full communion; over the next five it very likely that a further 500 will ask for reconciliation.

Of that number, there will be many who believe that they have a vocation to the priesthood and who will ask the Church to test that vocation; it is likely that in a number of cases the Church will recognize that vocation and conclude that they would make useful priests, and among those it is probable that a high proportion will be married men.

To most Catholics the identification of the priesthood with the centuries-old rule of celibacy is something not to be questioned. We know that in the Orthodox churches a different rule is followed: a priest must make up his mind before ordination whether he is to be a monk or a married man, in which case he is obliged to take a wife. We learn that in the Eastern-rite (Uniate) parts of the Catholic Church, a modification of that is followed: before ordination a seminarian must opt for a vow of celibacy, or marry; so there are priests in full communion with the Holy See who have wives.

In the Latin Rite the rule of celibacy is universal, and married priests are almost unknown. It is true that as early as the 1840s the Rev Piers Connolly was ordained while his wife, Cornelia, became a religious; but for the most part Anglican clergymen received and ordained were either bachelors or widowers. More recently there have been a few instances of married clagymen being ordained; the most notable is Fr Graham Leonard; but these have not involved parochial appointments.

It is important to understand that clergy of the Church of England who have married have not done anything wrong. Indeed, it might almost be said that the Church of England expects its clergy to be married, and makes arrangements for stipends and housing accordingly. It so happens that I was for many years the incumbent of an Anglican parish, and unmarried; not only did I have the awkwardness of living in a large family house, with no proper provision foia housekeeper; I also felt the lack of a wife to run the Mothers' Union, or to supervise the flower roster.

I do not for one moment suggest that there is a special vocation to be a clergyman's wife; individual people marry individuals; but the parochial ministry is one of a number of occupations which make special demands on the spouse. There are, to be sure, some "bad" vicar's wives just as there arc some comic vicars but taken as a whole the wives of Anglican clergy are an admirable set of women; what traditional Catholic piety would refer to as "the devout female sex".

These are the women who will be, for the most part, accompanying their husbands across; and certainly remaining die loving and caring wives of some aspiring priests. Can the Catholic Church receive them graciously and honourably?

Two arguments are deployed against the possibility. One is that to permit a whole lot of married priests would be unfair to those priests' who had accepted compulsory celibacy as an essential prerequisite to ordination. I do not think very highly of that: no man has been compelled to be ordained; and the vast majority of celibate priests have accepted their demanding vocation with joy.

It is also said that our arrangements for supporting our priests financially and providing them with housing cannot be adapted to the needs of a married priest, possibly with a family. Again, I believe that, in the majority of parishes, the faithful would find ways to shoulder such an additional responsibility.

No doubt there would be

some badly-instructed Catholics who would say "I cannot accept as a priest the man who sleeps with that woman." But I believe that the great majority of ordinary Catholics would be glad to know that the new priest had a loving wife to look after him.

It is a matter of justice that these men and their wives (who in many cases have given up so much) should be ungrudgingly received by the Church.

This cannot be so if given the impression that having been married makes the men into second-class priests and the women into those who would be better off dead.

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