by Geoffrey Kirk

BY A CURIOUS COINCIDENCE, on the very day that Channel Four was pursuing me to appear on a discussion programme about clerical celibacy, my PCC secretary passed on an appeal for money from a group called ‘Broken Rites’.

This, apparently, is not, as one might suppose, a group mounting a rear-guard action to preserve the English Missal, the Book of Common Prayer, Series Two and Three-quarters, or any of the varied liturgical antics dear to one ecclesiastical sub-culture or another, but an association of the divorced spouses of Anglican clergy. They exist, it appears, in considerable numbers; and they feel the need to band together for mutual support and understanding. All this – the banding together, I mean – is no doubt admirable; but it set me thinking.

Why has the Roman Church in recent weeks, allowed itself to be rolled over by the media on the simple matter of the misbehaviour of a personable Scottish Bishop and a middle aged divorcee? Why in the world did Cardinal Hume and the eloquent Bishop of East Anglia allow to pass unchallenged the idea that one man’s misdemeanours (however flagrant) necessarily call into question a practice of the world-wide church? It is obviously bread and butter to the likes of Jeremy Paxman to suppose that this must be so. But to those who are not making a living out of fomenting controversy, it is by no means obvious. As well argue that the high level of adultery among Anglican clergy is a reason for embracing celibacy, as maintain that concupiscence among erring Roman priests is a reason for abandoning it.

Except, of course, that there are now established ground rules for the pursuit of ethical arguments of this kind in the public media; and they had better be understood. The basic rule can be simply stated: that indulgence is natural and abstinence is perverse. So, for example, celibacy, far from being seen as an elected condition, like matrimony, is portrayed as an intolerable imposition, like incarceration. On this view every Roman priest is a helpless victim and every married ex-priest a fighter for basic freedoms.

All this, though inherently ridiculous, can be made to seem quite reasonable, until the ultimate and necessary conclusions are drawn. They are, of course, that matrimony itself must be a form of incarceration, and that freedom and normality are nowhere to be found but in libidinous license and unrestrained intercourse. On this view every spouse is a helpless victim and every adulterer a commando of liberation.

But Roddy Wright was no victim, as everyone was all too ready to agree when a former lover and a teenage son appeared on the scene. He was under no constraint to become a priest, and positively obliged, in the cold light of his own self examination, to refuse a bishopric. He became both, and failed as both; a man not without talent, but without self-control. Roddy’s problem was the problem of our whole society. Focused poignantly in the hurt of the mother and son whom he betrayed, it was a problem of fidelity.

Problems of fidelity, witness ‘Broken Rites’, are not exclusive to the celibate. As the statistics tragically demonstrate, it is not celibacy but monogamy which is in crisis. In vast swathes of our inner cities (and not inconsiderable tracts of suburbia) matrimony is in terminal decline. Children whose natural parents live together with them under the same roof are rare indeed among the intake of my parish school. Only two of the twenty-eight babies I have baptised so far this year have parents with the same surname.

It is against this background that current media attitudes to celibacy have to be seen and judged. In a world where relationships are viewed almost exclusively as a means of self-realization and self-fulfilment, a mode of life which is intended to give public expression to principles of self-giving and self-denial is bound to seem either sinister or stupid. And failure to live up to so subversive an ideal quite naturally brings calls to abandon the attempt altogether. No rage is more predictable than the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass.

So what is to be done? If clerical celibacy is a sign which can no longer be understood – if it can no longer speak to our world about selfless love of neighbour and of God – has the time come to give it over? Should the Roman Church retreat, and regroup strategically around a model of matrimonial innocence: a faithful and loving family in every presbytery? To well-meaning liberals such a proposal is coming to seem plausible and even achievable. It was, after all, the strategy of the Reformation; Martin and Katy playing happy families in the converted friary, entrancing Melancthon with their scenes of domesticity.

Alas, it is already too late for such an idyll. Trends in the mainline Protestant churches in the United States, where divorce and remarriage are nearly as common among the clergy as in any other profession or stratum of society, will almost certainly be followed elsewhere. The lesson seems to be that a church which makes reiterate concessions to contemporary mores is eventually overwhelmed by them. The trick, as always, is to know where to draw the line.

Rome would be well advised to draw it precisely where it is. Let the liberals long for Montini; and let him disappoint them when he appears. For, paradoxical as it may seem, clerical celibacy may well be the only way left to defend Christian monogamy; abstinence from married commitment the best way to witness to it. Anyone who supposes otherwise would be well advised to take note of the Episcopal Church in the United States, where divorced bishops are plentiful as tabby cats, and one of them has recently been exonerated on the charge of knowingly ordaining a non-celibate homosexual on the extraordinary grounds that the Church has no teaching on the matter.

Now there’s a hierarchy in which Roddy would distinguish himself!

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark