Terence Grigg wonders why the church of England seems no longer to value its celibate priests

ONE OF THE GLORIES of the Church of England has been the diversity of its ministry. Most of the theological colleges produced different styles of priests, those who were learned, those who were devout, those who were practical. They produced priests who were very aware of their priesthood, some who virtually denied it and others who when ordained lived and acted like country gentlemen. And within that variety there were other things, most obviously those who married, those who stayed single and those who actively chose to remain celibate. The Church one had room for them all and rejoiced in the diversity of life style and in the forms of ministry it produced. Now we appear afraid of difference in our new, open church. We have certainly refused over the past ten or twelve years to appoint single priests as diocesan bishops, the exception being the present Archbishop of York, who has been a bishop for twelve years anyway. No others have been appointed in that time even though six celibate diocesan bishops have retired.

Why has this happened? Partly, I think, because all Catholic minded clergy have been denied recognition, partly because the idea of celibacy is not understood and when it is understood, it presents a challenge to the comfortable, establishment minded bishops and partly because of fear. Some of this fear must be that single men are more likely to transgress in matters of morals, in which case the whole of the Roman Catholic priesthood, let alone every modern Pope must give such people cause for great concern and their concern must go back right through church history to Our Lord Himself. It will include many saints and most of the heroes of the Catholic movement of the C of E.

The call to celibacy, which is the renouncing of marriage and family ties for the sake of the Kingdom, was made by Our Lord himself and is recorded by both St Matthew and St Luke. The great missionary, St Paul, went further when he wrote that “it is better to marry than to burn” in his first letter to the Church in Corinth.

Often the Lord calls people to live in this single state by the nature of their work. How many of our parishes owe a great debt to the countless single women who devoted their lives to “church work” either as Deaconesses, parish workers or parish sisters. The work, the accommodation and the pay meant that they had to live their lives in the single state. The Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) would only accept single people to work in their society for they discovered the value of staff who were not limited by family ties and who because they were free, could easily be moved from one station to another with ease. They could also live on less pay. It was the nature of the work which led the founders of the Korean Mission to ask for the same sacrifices of those who worked for it. But it was not only overseas missions where this vision was presented. At home the Company of Mission Priests was formed to foster and support single priests in the celibate ministry, as does the Oratory of the Good Shepherd.

The Church still needs single priests, and other workers who will willingly give up the joys, ties and responsibilities of family for the sake of the gospel. Our Lord still calls people to this state of life. In fact, in the Prayer Book we told that people are “called” to this holy estate of matrimony – that being the call to marriage, rather than a call to the single state. We are born single, not married and it could be the pressure to conform to the idea of universal marriage, that leads to many marriage breakdowns, but that is another subject. The need for single clergy is obvious. See how hard it is to fill many of our inner city parishes, where there are few facilities and poor schools. However, the single priest is not only needed in such jobs for he can exercise an enormous ministry in school and university chaplaincy work, where he has greater control of his time and where he is not distracted by family ties. Students are notorious for having their crises and questions just at the time when a married man should properly be with his family. Nor has the work of prison and military chaplains, nor those who work in our hospitals been mentioned. All these are areas of work where the single, celibate priest can be effective.

There is a certain glamour in seeking to follow the Lord in the single state and certainly single clergy are often treasured by their people. This is especially true in Catholic parishes. The care, gifts, and food which is lavished upon them is wonderful as are the numbers of jobs and chores which are done for them; a true bearing out of what Jesus promised to those who followed His call to this style of life.

However, this is only part of the story. There are enormous gaps too and the price paid is high for those who are called to be celibate. There is no close human contact (or there was not till we all got into the kidding and hugging which seems so prevalent in our society; where total strangers kiss one another on their first encounter). As one young priest remarked “I spend a lot of my time putting my arm around people, but no-one even seems to notice, that I too am a man and that I too need that kind of comfort”. He has since married. Or the sheer hell of Christmas. The weeks leading up to it, with all the talk of families and family time. Or after the Midnight Mass – “lovely service Father” and off they go to their families and leave you alone. And yet I am not alone.

With whom does the celibate priest share his problems? But more importantly with whom does he share his joys? To whom does he talk after the PCC has tried to make mincemeat of him? And who does he talk to on a Sunday night?

Remember Michel Quoist’s “Prayer of a Priest on a Sunday night”. The celibate priesthood can be very lonely. Thank God for the telephone and the parish treasurer who understands. Thank God for friends and for the older women in every parish who can listen and do. And for me, thank God for my dogs. There is also the problem of the day off and what to do with it. The question of holidays can be worse.

Some of the good things are being able to order one’s own time. The freedom. Probably easier finances (though not so if there is a working wife). The freedom to concentrate on one’s religion without extra distraction. To be free to move from one job to another, where the only factor is how you “feel” about it. The freedom with the daily timetable to be able to come and go as you choose. The Lord really does honour His promise that there are great rewards for those who follow in this way.

Much of what I have written is obvious. There is a cost which is much higher – that of being alone. Yet even here in the loneliness, there is a sharing with the Lord, for He must have felt that very keenly when He was about the Father’s business. The concept of freedom has been mentioned but the freedom is not to do one’s own will but the will of the Father. The secular celibate priest travels a hard, lonely road. He is often misunderstood, he has no Superior to direct him, no wife or close family to correct him – he is alone and free – but these gifts are there for a purpose and that is to help better to do God’s will.

“If you have given your whole life to God, there is no need to consider it but if not there will be much need to mortify it” The Kelham Principles.

Terence Grigg is Rector of Cottingham in the diocese of York.