Saturday 23 February 2013

A married priesthood?

As the old Irishwoman said in disgust, seeing the Anglo-Catholic priest on the other side of the road; 'Calls himself a Father, and him with a wife and four children!'

Well, what a lot of fuss. I suppose I was naïve to have thought that the reign of Pope Benedict would, besides having set the barque of Peter on a more steady course, have done more to quiet those who would see it return to a more 'liberal' point of view.

We have seen two prominent Catholics recently express their support for a married priesthood in the Church—one not to be surprised at, Catherine Pepinster, the Editrix of the Tablet, but the other nothing less than a prince of the Church, Cardinal O'Brien.

We're not talking doctrine here: wishing for a married priesthood is not heresy. Indeed, some of the most orthodox of clergy, such as Fr John Hunwicke, have argued in its favour, at least for the Ordinariate. So I wonder why there has been such a reaction. Perhaps it is simply a collective groan of 'oh for heaven's sake; I thought we were beyond all that now!', not a million miles from my own thoughts.

I can't lose much sleep about Ms Pepinster's and the Cardinal's comments, unlike some others on the net. But I do not agree with these critics of celibacy, and thought that I would look at some of their arguments in favour and see what they amount to.

1. They say that it was the ancient practice to have a married clergy.
Let us be clear from the beginning that what people like Ms Pepinster and the Cardinal are asking for is not just a married clergy, but a co-habiting clergy. That sounds like stating the bleeding obvious, but it isn't, really. For the major part of the first millennium, priests might well have been married, but the custom was for them, once ordained, to sleep apart from their wives, while continuing to be responsible for them and their children. To cut a long story short, men would marry relatively young in those days—by 16 or so—have some children and then seek major orders, upon which they would separate from their wives. In the East this developed into a fully cohabiting clerical body, while in the West it developed into full celibacy. Marriage after orders has never been practised in the Church.

2. They say that St Peter was married.
Yes; at some stage he certainly had had a wife (because he had a mother-in-law), but there is no evidence that she still lived at the time of his calling. Another very early source (St Papias) tells us that the Apostle St Philip lived in his old age in Hierapolis (modern Pammukale) with his daughters—in this case, too, there is no evidence of a living wife.

3. They say that it will solve the vocations deficit.
I suppose that it is possible that a married priesthood might go some way towards helping this problem. But it isn't as easy as that; there are too many other difficulties to solve, not least the question of money. I heard tell recently of a (married) Anglican priest desiring to convert. He approached his local Catholic bishop and was warmly welcomed, but told that parish ministry would not be possible, because all the parishes that could support a married man were already taken by others. He will have to find a chaplaincy of some sort. Any married man would need an assurance of sufficient income to support his family (and just think how expensive children are these days!). Unless his wife was a serious earner, this would be a very difficult problem to solve unless the whole perception of giving were given a serious overhaul in our parishes—parting people from their cash is not fun.

Sometimes what is called the 'viri probati' argument is advanced; these are worthy men from the parishes ordained to administer the sacraments. I suppose these are what the Church of England would call non-stipendiary ministers. Here one runs up against the problem of training—something that would also apply to full-time married priests. Seminaries these days have great difficulty squashing all the courses they are required to teach into five or six years. But could the church support a married man and his family for all those five or six years? Okay, so we shorten the course, or make it part-time. Then we will get priests who are theologically unformed. I know of a 3-year course for the preparation of permanent deacons who, because of shortage of time, only study one Gospel. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you; one Gospel only! And then people wonder why the homilies of some permanent deacons are not very good……! One might take the Greek system and ordain married men as, simply, sacrament dispensers; forbid them from hearing confessions or preaching. But does anyone think that this would be acceptable for long? The Church of England has begin ordaining non-stipendiary clergy on the basis of a two-year correspondence course; once ordained, many of these clergy may and do apply for stipendiary posts. It won't be long before they find out the problems of this one—the hard way.

4. Priests will more have more in common with their parishioners.
In an obvious way, of course that is true. But I'm not so sure that it is such a valuable point. After all there can be few who need sexual counselling these days, and I don't think that anyone would think of seeking that from a priest, either single or married. And as for family life; well, nearly all priests have been family members at some time or other. But it seems to me that what is needed these days is not more people having sex, but somebody who can stand aside from it and challenge the current world view that sex is the only non-negotiable right of all breathing beings; the most fundamental human right being to be free to have sex without responsibility. Celibacy challenges this, not least in the common assumption that priests must be getting it somewhere, surely, mustn't they?

No doubt there is more that could be said, (the argument from tradition, from the practice of our Lord, from the priest as Ikon of our Lord) and perhaps you might have some comments for the com box.

Sunday 17 February 2013

All change

I have been quite astonished at the world's interest at the abdication of Pope Benedict. When Rowan Williams announced his retirement there was some polite notice taken, but it tended to be of the five-minutes-second-item sort on the main television news. Tim Stanley has written a post on the subject which has deservedly attracted much attention; he understandably expresses concern and annoyance at some journalists' efforts to dictate to the Church just what sort of Pope ought to be elected. They wouldn't do this to other faiths, he says.

And, of course, he is right. But it is interesting, isn't it, that somehow the world genuinely feels that it has some sort of a stake in the man who will become the next successor of St Peter? Gordon Brown, towards the end of his premiership (and possibly in an effort to curry favour with the Catholic vote) described the Catholic Church as the 'conscience of the nation' or something like that. This impression was reinforced at the visit of Pope Benedict in 2010; David Cameron said to the Holy Father that he had 'made us sit up and think'; I expect Mr Cameron did sit up and think—perhaps for as long as half an hour—before reverting to type. For some reason the world is mighty keen to bring the Catholic Church on side. Which I think we ought to take as (as Ronald Knox said of Arnold Lunn) 'a compliment of sorts, like the crocodile pursuing Captain Hook'.

What I am trying to say is that the walls of the ghetto have truly been torn down now, and this has both good and bad consequences. Walls make good protection; it is possible to escape notice entirely with a good wall around one. But walls also prevent any contact with people outside. Though not the case on the continent, the Church in this country had become very used to its walls and a near-complete separation of our faith from the doings of the world. Some might say that there was something Catharistic about it.

As I said, on the continent, it was not so; from the time of Clovis the French have had a very close, almost incestuous, relationship of throne and altar. Italy too has a long tradition of close engagement, which was what rendered the 'non expedit' of Pius IX and Leo XIII such a problem for the Italian state and paved the way for the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Other (though not all) states have had similar arrangements, though since the American and French revolutions there has been a growing tendency to desire a clear separation of Church and State, something very hard to achieve unless one is going to deprive every communicant of their citizenship, for members of churches also vote and pay taxes and therefore have a right to exercise as much influence on government as any secularist.

By the twentieth century, even in countries that engaged with government there was some sort of ghetto mentality. Perhaps this was partly due to the wave of revolutions in the mid to late nineteenth century, mostly of the socialist/masonic/agnostic type, which caused the Church to retreat from the modern world as from something which fundamentally threatened her existence. Perhaps it did and does. The Syllabus of Errors, even the Anti-Modernist Oath, reinforced this sense of suspicion of the modern world which, it seemed, would never understand unless it submitted to the grace of God.

Was this retreat from the world good? I think that as an unrepentant traddy I'm supposed to say yes. But I don't think I can entirely, because the world continued to develop in its own way, and that was increasingly at variance with the Christian foundations of those very societies themselves. The Church may have protected herself against the world, but at the same time she diminished her ability to influence that world for good.

Pope John XXIII, when a papal diplomat, engaged with a lot of people who were not religious, and found that generally they were nice people. But then he was the sort of person who got on with others anyway. And I think that he saw clearly that the Church was becoming increasingly meaningless to an awful lot of people: the book France; a Missionary Country? was published during his time as Nuncio in Paris. To him, perhaps the Church needed to come down off her dignity a bit and try to re-engage with a world that was rapidly becoming more and more secular.

To many this came as a great breath of fresh air. To others, it did not. As one priest put it to me, 'to "throw open the windows of the Church to the world and let in fresh air" implies that the air outside is better than the air inside!'

Vatican II firmly brought the walls tumbling down. The difficulty is that, precisely, it was the worldly media which interpreted Vatican II to the world. There were two councils; one of bishops in the aula, and the other, far more influential council, of 'experts' (ecclesiastically or self-appointed) and journalists in the bars outside. Inevitably, it is not the council documents that made the headlines, but the comments of the 'experts', who created the expectation of vast change that swept the Church. Bishops returned to their sees from the Council amazed to hear that they had voted for a completely vernacular Mass, for instance—as Cardinal Heenan commented, that wasn't what they thought they had done. But the newspapers had brought the news ahead of them, and created a climate of expectation of more and more radical change on just about every subject. The bishops simply had to get on board the bandwagon or be left standing.

Probably the most damaging thing was not the changes made to the liturgy, but what has been called the catechetical revolution. It robbed two generations (at least) of the ability to articulate and understand their faith. It took from them a standpoint from which to assess the assertions of the newspapers, and made them prey, like everyone else, to the murky world of 'feelings' without understanding. 'Securus judicat orbis terrarum' has always been a motto that made sense in the Catholic context—it was the thing that changed Newman's life. And now, having had the wind sown for us, we are reaping the whirlwind.

The walls of the ghetto are indeed down; Catholics have been permitted to rejoin the human race, but they have been deprived of the very means of preserving their faith against the world which is now staring in and making rude observations, long and loud, about what they see.

Siobhan McDonald MP (a practising Catholic) ridiculed Archbishop Peter Smith over his suggestion that people would leave the Church over this Gay Marriage thing. But the Archbishop was perfectly right; people have left, and continue to leave. I can think of three or four in this parish alone; one of them came to tell me, in a perfectly friendly but firm manner, that she was going, and why. There are probably many more of whom I am not aware. This is not entirely their fault; they have never been given the necessary information to help them make a proper assessment of the situation. I have tried, and continue to try, but all their mental formation has been in a secular context, and their religious formation has been so impoverished that I feel sometimes as if I am speaking Chinese to them. It isn't that they won't understand, they can't. To them, I, and the Church, are simply homophobic bigots and bullying autocrats without an ounce of compassion or genuine faith.

So what now? Yes, we are under fire, but I am not convinced that this is entirely a bad thing right now. The world continues to be intensely interested in the Catholic Church because, I think, it has a sneaking suspicion that we might be on to something. Otherwise it would dismiss us as irrelevant. It may call us irrelevant, but its actions belie this. As long as we continue to stand, if necessary to the last man, then we continue to preach the Gospel which challenges them, and some will listen.

And this is a challenge to us. We need to prepare our young people adequately for the road ahead. Finally, I think that this particular message is getting home; the years ahead will be interesting.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

The Aftermath

Well, it has been astonishing, hasn't it? Yet again Pope Benedict takes the world by surprise. When the Archbishop of Canterbury retired there was a five minute slot on the BBC news; today there seems widespread amazement. I've just been to get my hair cut, and in the barber's shop the radio, a day after the announcement, was full of chatter about Pope Benedict and the succession. The man in the chair next to me started to go off on one about the Catholic Church, and how all priests were sex offenders; meanwhile the barber, who knew very well who I was, was desperately trying to head off the conversation without causing offence to either of us; in a way it was rather comic.

Then I went to the co-op to get some Shrovetide supplies, and saw the newspaper headlines. Most of them were respectful and interesting-looking, and the main cover story. But these two caught my eye (I had my iPhone handy):
I chuckled out loud at The Sun's dreadful Dun Roman pun, but noticed that Gazza's £40k takes pride of place. As for The Daily Star: well, the parish secretary (a devotee of fly-on-the-wall TV) told me that Speidi apparently is two people from Big Brother whom everybody knows–apart from me apparently. Which Speidi half the picture shows, I couldn't say. In her turn, she said that she had been listening to the Pope's brother; she asked me his name, so I said 'George'. 'No', she said, 'what's his other name.', 'Er, Ratzinger…'. 'No, no' she said'; that isn't the name'. 'Er…' I said again. 'I've got it' she replied, 'Lombardi'!
So it was one all: Speidi for her, and Ratzinger for me.

Monday 11 February 2013

Thank you, Holy Father

When you were elected, I remarked several times to friends and colleagues that what we needed was 'eight good years'. I little thought then that my wishes would be fulfilled so closely. Thank you, Holy Father; I pray that your retirement will be everything you wish and need. May God reward you for the extraordinary things you have achieved in these eight wonderful years.
And may God grant the increase!

Sunday 3 February 2013

A Visit

A lovely occasion today: six students from St John's Seminary at Wonersh came today to assist at Mass in Steyning: it was simply a free weekend for them, and I was delighted that they decided to spend the day in the Valle Adurni—though its beauties were not really at their best today, on account of the miserable weather.
It was a rare opportunity for me to be able to connect two important but distinct parts of my work. And I think that our parishioners were edified to see a bunch of splendid young men giving their lives to God.

A letter

The Valle Adurni parish is itself rather a strange marriage of two very different communities with two very different sets of needs. It has two different telephone exchanges, which means that a lot of the calls one makes have long numbers to dial, it has two different local councils with different sets of rules about what, for instance, can go into the recycling bin. The communities really ought to be in two different counties, too, but fortunately aren't. And I could go on.

In the very first parliament, what is now this parish sent no fewer than six men to Westminster. Nowadays, we have to make do with two: Shoreham has Tim Loughton, and Steyning has Nick Herbert. And, as you would expect, these two MPs are very different, not least on the forthcoming debate about so-called 'gay marriage'. I understand that Nick Herbert is in fact in a civil partnership.

Tim Loughton was kind enough to write us a letter a few days ago, which I distributed to all the parishioners in Shoreham, and offered copies to those in Steyning. I asked him whether I could post it here, and he kindly agreed.

I thought it might be helpful if I wrote an open letter to you and your congregation about the forthcoming Parliamentary vote on proposals for 'gay marriage.' This is a subject which I know to be of particular interest to my churchgoing constituents many hundreds of whom have already written to me individually. Please use or distribute this letter as you best see fit, which is based on my views which have been publicised on my own website for some time.
It is particularly gratifying to see the personal testimonies that many constituents have written to impress upon me why they take a particular viewpoint, rather than having simply forwarded on a pre-prepared text. That is all the more appropriate because the issue of 'gay marriage' should be a matter of personal conscience, rather than of party political line or institutionalised agenda. The Prime Minister has clearly set out his reasons for being in favour of 'gay marriage' and I respect his right to do so. But, I particulaily respect his acknowledgement that this should be a matter of personal beliefs and that Conservatíve MPs at least will be free to make up their own minds.
As such, I have to say that my instinct has for some time now been not to support these proposals and, as it stands, I intend to vote against measures to legalise gay marriage. It is likely that this opportunity will first come before the House of Commons on February 5th though that is subject to change. However, it is right that we should take soundings from our constituents on this sensitive issue and I certainly welcome your representations, as I will any other constituent with whatever viewpoint.
In coming to this view, it in no way diminishes my passionate support for sexual equality and that everyone of whatever sexuality should have equal opportunities and rights in our society. That is why I enthusiastically supported the creation of civil partnerships which put gay couples on an absolute equal footing with heterosexual couples in the eyes of the law. I believe that was, and remains, the right thing to do although some people may still take a different view. What has particularly annoyed me in this whole debate, is the tendency for certain elements of the lobby in favour of 'gay marriage', instantly to caricature anyone who is against, as homophobic. That is grossly unfair, misleading and does nothing to promote their case, let alone a grown-up debate about what is a very sensitive and personal subject. In my case, certainly nothing could be further from the truth and previously as Minister for Children & Young People I particularly valued the work I did with LGBT young people and community groups.
From my personal perspectíve, when I entered into a Church of England marriage with my wife 20 years ago 'ast July, and with my father presiding as the local rector, it was a
 tremendously special and solemn occasion. It was characterised by the part of the Church of England marriage service which defines marriage as:
'a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured.'
I hope you will see, therefore, why it ís diffícult for me to accept that the solemnity of marriage as a religious institution can be anything other than between a man and a woman, and particularly where all the rights and responsibilities of marriage are now available to non-heterosexual couples through civil partnerships. I do not see why we need to change the law and I also do not see why we need to change the law at this time when there are so many other important matters for the Government to be addressing, not least on the need to restore our economic fortunes.
I am also concerned that despite assurances given by the Government that the change in the law proposed will not be the end of the story. Given recent rulings in the European Court of Human Rights regarding the wearing of religious symbols and the sacking of those who feel unable to counsel same sex couples on matters of 'conscientious objection', I cannot believe that the law will not be challenged there and the prerogative of churches to be exempted will be undermined. There are also many practical considerations around how 'gay marriages' can be annulled and what will be the obligations of churches renting out church property etc. All in all this is a move which I believe will become a legal minefield.
However, my position, which has not been taken lightly, does not preclude me from listening closely to the many different representations that I am sure will continue to be made to me. I therefore welcome any questions or comments from constituents through the normal channels which can be found on my website and this will certainly help better to inform my contributions to the Parliamentary scrutiny of the legislation.
Thank you for passing on the contents of this letter and I am particularly grateful for the many people who have already offered their prayers for my deliberations in this issue.