The Anglican Communion

and priestly celibacy

David Michael Hope

Bishop of London

The requirement for celibacy in the clergy was formally abolished in the Church of England in 1549. Since that time, and continuing in the present time, there is no requirement for celibacy even among single clergy within the Anglican Communion. Indeed, the point has been made again only very recently in the report from the House of Bishops, on Human Sexuality, that "celibacy cannot be prescribed for anyone. What is needed is that the single should live in the form of chastity appropriate to their situation."

In one sense, I suppose I conclude my presentation here and now. But that would be to do an injustice to all those clergy who have lived and continue to live the celibate life, among whom I would count myself to be one. For us in the Church of England, and indeed in the Anglican Communion as a whole, there is the frustration that nowhere is there the availability of any publicly recognized form of commitment to such a state. Some individual clergy are associated in some way or another, either as members of a third order or oblates or associates with a religious community, and that association may contain a commitment to celibacy as part of the rule which is agreed between the community and the individual. Some seek to make a more formal commitment on a regular basis before a bishop, seeking possibilities of renewal on a three-year or five-year basis; others make a commitment for life. But it has to be said all such arrangements are to that extent informal. There continues to be no recognition of the celibate state of the clergy.

Undoubtedly, the rise of the religious orders in the wake of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England in the last century insured the re-establishing of lives in community dedicated to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. The current Directory of the religious life for the Church of England speaks of poverty, chastity and obedience as being primarily ascetical spiritual aspirations. It goes on to spell out what it means when it speaks of the vow of chastity — "the religious seeks freedom to devote the self entirely and directly to Christ in singleness of heart. Celibacy is the distinguishing external characteristic of the vow of chastity. By seeking to serve God in celibacy, the religious witnesses to the imminence of the kingdom of God and to its absolute claims on all human life". A number of the earliest ‘sisterhoods’ and ‘brotherhoods’ were certainly misunderstood, and a source of diversion and amusement for some time. Nevertheless, soon they became established, and a considerable force for spiritual renewal within the Church of England and again more widely throughout the Anglican Communion. It is through an association with religious communities that many, both men and women, particularly those who are single, have found a strong bond and fellowship by way of support for their celibate state.

However, to make the point that there is no formal recognition of the celibate state does not imply there are no clear standards or expectations for the ordering of the lives of clergy, be they married or single. The Ordinal itself either of the 1662 Prayer Book or the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England make very clear the demands upon behaviour, public and private, which the Church expects of its ordained ministers.

The ‘charge’ from the ordaining Bishop to those to be ordained deacon or priest, as well as the questions put by him to all the candidates, speaks clearly of the wholesome pattern and example which they must be to those among whom they exercise their ministry. The Book of Common Prayer speaks both of the ‘excellency’ and of the ‘difficulty’ of the priestly office, recognizing that the expectations of the Church are well nigh impossible, and indeed that it will be quite impossible in and of one’s own strength and powers ever to live up to this ideal — "therefore ye ought, and have need, to pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit." To this end all worldly cares and studies are to be put aside so that the individual’s life may be rooted and grounded in prayer and the study of the Holy Scriptures; the word of God thus forming and fashioning the "manners both of yourselves and of them that specially pertain unto you".

This theme is taken up again in the direct questioning of the bishop to the ordinances, both in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Alternative Service Book where they are asked directly: "Will you strive to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ?". The same theme is underlined in a paragraph of the bishop’s charge in the Alternative Service Book "because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. Pray that he will each day enlarge and enlighten your understanding of the Scriptures, so that you may grow stronger and more mature in your ministry, as you fashion your life, and the lives of your people, on the word of God." The candidates are further encouraged to give themselves ‘wholly’ to God’s service, to "devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit so that as you daily follow the rule and teaching of Our Lord, with the heavenly assistance of his Holy Spirit, you may grow up into his likeness, and sanctify the lives of all with whom you have to do."

Although, however, there is nothing here said explicitly about celibacy, there is nevertheless a clear standard for all those ordained, either married or single, that they are to use positively and creatively all that God has given them, including the gift of sex, for the purposes which he has intended, and that their giving of themselves ‘wholly’ in their ministerial office and work will be a sign that they are so committed. And that all the time their ministerial lives are to be rooted and grounded in a spirituality which is nurtured in Word and Sacrament.

This grounding in a spirituality of Word and Sacrament is reflected in the canonical provision for clergy, more particularly in Canon C26 — Of the manner of life of ministers where it is clearly stated that every bishop, priest and deacon "is under obligation" not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause to say daily the morning and evening prayer, either privately or openly: and to celebrate the Holy Communion, or be present thereat, on all Sundays and other principal feast days. He is also to be diligent in daily prayer and intercession, in examination of his conscience, and in the study of the Holy Scriptures and such other studies as pertain to his ministerial duties. Arising from this firm basis, there are echoes in the Canon of expectations of the ordinal with regard to the person’s manner of life. For the Canon stipulates that "a minister shall not give himself to such occupations, habits, or recreations as do not befit his sacred calling, or may be detrimental to the performance of the duties of his office, or tend to be a just cause for offence to others; and at all times he shall be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ".

Whether then the ordained minister is married or single, it is clear from this brief review of the norms which the Ordinal and the Canons set out that the ordering of a person’s life including the sexual, is part of that process begun in baptism whereby we are enabled both to die with Christ, but also to rise with him into a new way of life. And it is this altogether more positive view of sex and sexuality which I believe needs to be commended as the possibility of celibacy is set before those to be ordained. Generally speaking it has had a bad press because it has been and continues to be often understood in terms of negativity and denial. And yet as the House of Bishops report on Human Sexuality sets out: "It is increasingly recognized in the Churches today that celibacy is a special gift and calling of the Holy Spirit in accordance with Jesus’ own words in Matthew 19:12 ... celibacy is thus a choice of the unmarried state not for self-regarding reasons but from love in order to be able to serve God and neighbour more freely, whether through the life of prayer or through activity or both." The House of Bishop’s statement however is equally clear that celibacy ought not either to be assumed or imposed upon the single person. It ought to be a deliberate choice and act of the individual.

One of the major issues at the present time centres around the ordination of the homosexual person. This was one of the main themes of the House of Bishops report on Human Sexuality. The bishops concluded that the very fact that a person is homosexual by orientation should be no bar to ordination. Indeed, the bishops recognized that "we know for a fact that the ministries of many homophile clergy are highly dedicated and have been greatly blessed. God has endowed them with spiritual gifts, as he has his other ministers, and we give thanks for all alike." Further when such a person wishes it to be known more publicly that they are homophile in orientation, but who are nevertheless committed to a life of abstinence — a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit and out of love for Christ, a life of great faithfulness, travelled often under the weight of a very heavy cross — such a person ought to be accepted and supported by the Church in every way possible. However, the bishops concluded that because of the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration, there were inevitably certain restrictions upon clergy which were not necessarily incumbent upon laity, and one such restriction was the possibility of living in a sexually active homophile relationship. Needless to say, there is much discussion over this last mentioned matter and there continues to be widely divergent and differing points of view held and expressed within the Church of England at the present time.

Given that celibacy is not enjoined on any ordained person in the Church of England, there is nevertheless no doubt about the Church’s expectation with regard to chastity both for married and unmarried clergy, and for the single person whatever their sexual orientation may be. Moreover, this is not seen to be a negative disavowal of the gift of sex, but rather a positive movement of the whole person, sexuality and all, into the maturity and fullness of life which Christ wills for all people, and upon which, in baptism, we are already entered. The Church exists to live out in the world the truth it has been given about the nature of God’s creation, the way of redemption through the cross and the ultimate hope of resurrection and fullness of life. All clergy, as consecrated public and representative figures, themselves entrusted with the message and the means of grace, have a responsibility on behalf of the whole body of Christ to show the primacy of this truth by striving to embody it in their own lives. The way often may be problematic and difficult, a way of frustration and struggle, truly the way of the cross. But then those who follow faithfully in the way of the cross find in it not only their Lord’s resurrection but their own also — the way of the resurrection, the way of joy and of life eternal.