Will Married Anglican Priests Pave the Way for a Married Priesthood?

In my diocese this weekend our Bishop will be ordaining a former Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism. He’ll lead a church where a bunch of former Anglican Catholics worship together in the far reaches of the diocese.

You have to ask the question though…

If the priesthood works for this married guy then, why wouldn’t it work for other married men?

Many are begging the question why exactly do we have a celibate priesthood? And to be honest, it does make some sense to go that route. Marriage and family are a primary call for those of us who are married. For those of us also in ministry we have to remember that our marriages and our children are whom we are called to first and I know I often have to remind myself of that, mostly because I love my work so much. My wife understands that and she does what she can to involve herself in my ministry where that is appropriate. (For instance, we do some marriage prep work together). For those unlike myself, who have children, the time commitment to ministry and family is difficult indeed. So the wisdom of this particular tradition is that one can’t really divide themselves, or better said, that it might be difficult to do so.

But would we say that the same is true for other professions that are often “on call” all the time? Doctors, dentists, plumbers, nurses and many other careers. Even with people staying later in the office, it seems that many more people need and are expected to spend more time in the office these days. And perhaps that’s not exactly healthy for a family dynamic and so people are beginning to get creative with things like flex time or the ability to telecommute from home and the many businesses that now offer the opportunity to work from home.

So how is the priesthood or even the lives that religious women lead any different? In fact, you don’t often hear of the concept of married women being part of a religious community of sorts. We tend to place all our focus on the ones who offer mass and provide most of the sacramental rituals.

Maybe we need to look at things just from another angle? How are we forming people for service to the church? How do each of us, married and single contribute to the church’s livelihood? Would we even need a priesthood if just some of us dedicated ourselves to working for the church? Might more people consider that if the church could pay all of their employees a just wage? How did the early church work with all those married disciples? All good questions with no easy answers.

However, while some may be angry at the notion of Anglicans being offered the opportunity to join the ranks of the Catholic priesthood (and even retain the right to use their book of common prayer while the rest of us use the Roman Missal), I’m not among them. Why? Because I believe that this may in fact, lead to the church realizing that a married priesthood is possible.

A classmate of mine was a Bishop in one of the Eastern Churches and he often cited how hard it was for his priests to maintain their family life with the demands of their ministry. “But it is possible!” he would remind us. “I order them to take Saturday off to be with their family and Monday as well. I even give them a half day on most Fridays so they can be home with their families. The worst case scenario here would be for me to have a bunch of priests with marriages that are in a shambles and priests who are seeking divorces!”

And perhaps that’s a legitimate fear. Would marriages between priests and their wives succeed as well as people in the general public. Which by the way is about 50%. Catholic Deacons who are married buck the trend as only 1% of Catholic Deacons are divorced (I’m not sure how that would work) and as an example, less than 40 remarries without a dispensation as cited in a 2005-2009 poll by CARA. So we have good reason to believe that married clergy are likely to stay together in marriage. (Now who knows about the quality of some of those marriages? A bigger question!)

We also assume that these married priests will be accepted by their brother priests and not be treated as “less than” or a “semi-priest”. Some might be resentful because they took a vow of celibacy and they might look on that as unnecessary once they see their married counterparts. I could envision a jealous priesthood as well, which may not bode well for anybody.

Regardless, I wish our new priest of the diocese well, Deacon (and soon to be Fr. John Cornielus) and hope that this is the start of opening a dialogue on married priesthood—or even just on the role of both priesthood and laity today. We’re at a very creative time in church history. Maybe our opportunity is to see what lies ahead not merely for the priesthood, but for our giftedness as people of God. Might we look at expanded roles for lay people as preachers, ministers of the word, funeral leaders, marriage ministers and more? This new option for some clergy to be married will give us the opportunity to look more carefully at the celibate priesthood and also give us the opportunity to look at the laity amongst us. The result may be a stronger and more inclusive church.

If only we bother to look deeply at this.