A wife in the presbytery

 — Dec. 6, 19976 déc. 1997

What has been the effect on the English Catholic Church of the arrival of married priests who are former Anglicans? What do the parishes think? Can current celibacy rules be sustained? An assistant editor of The Tablet went to find out.

A sign in the hallway of the presbytery at St Patrick’s, Middlesbrough, leaves some visitors open-mouthed if they are unaware of the priest’s marital status. Under the heading of Turnham House Rules it reads: If you drop it — pick it up. If you sleep in it — make it. If you open it — close it. If you empty it — fill it up. If it rings — answer it. If it cries — love it. The list is not addressed to a misbehaving curate, nor is it there for mere display. Its author, Fr Derek Turnham, and his wife Margaret have three children, the eldest of whom has recently started at university. It’s his first time away from us and so we’re really feeling the loss at the moment, Fr Turnham says, echoing the common view of parents in a similar situation.

Yet as he leads me towards the living-room, it is also clear that this is a Catholic presbytery like most others: austere, modestly furnished and free of ornaments apart from the odd icon or statue. Outside lies the scabrous wasteland that covers much of post-industrial north Middlesbrough. Fr Turnham anticipates my thoughts as we survey it, explaining that the diocese were frankly very glad to have us occupying this house, because it would almost certainly have been vandalised if it had lain empty any longer.

Like the scores of married priests who now minister in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Derek Turnham is a former Anglican. Like most of this group, said by church sources to number between 75 and 100, he left the Church of England after the decision in 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood; and in common with a growing proportion (now about 50 per cent), he has been allowed to extend his profile from chaplaincy work to either part- or full-time parish ministry. I am technically known as priest-in-charge rather than parish priest, he says, and I was told to get advice and guidance from the PP in the next parish. He just told me to get on with it.

That message is understandable. Derek Turnham is in his mid-forties and knows the turf, having been vicar of the neighbouring Anglican benefice before serving as a eucharistic minister and then deacon at St Patrick’s after his reception in 1995. Ordination as a Catholic priest came 16 months later. The church had been without its own pastor for some years, and closure would have been a likely option but for Fr Turnham’s arrival.

The knowledge that he has helped to keep a congregation together is clearly among the recompenses of his departure from the Church of England. As with many former Anglican clergy, the move entailed protracted soul-searching and considerable hardship. But all of those I spoke to remain convinced that it was the right step, stressing the peace of mind it has brought them along with a sense of coming home. The sentiment was echoed by their wives, all of whom have become Catholics as well.

A number of lifelong Catholics fear that the influx of Anglicans opposed to women’s ordination means a lurch to the theological right, but clergy who want to come over are specifically dissuaded from shifting their allegiance because of this question alone. It wasn’t women priests, it was authority, states Fr Tim Edgar, assistant director of studies at the Missionary Institute in Mill Hill, north London, and one of a group ordained by Cardinal Hume a year ago. The General Synod’s decision was sectarian. How could the Church of England claim to be Catholic when it was changing something that belonged to the whole?

So these men do not necessarily oppose the ordination of women as such. On the contrary, all the married priests I spoke to said they could accept the change if it were ever authorised by the Catholic Church. For Fr Peter Cornwell, whose ministry in the Catholic Church is now of long standing, said that the current set-up made him more convinced with each passing day of the necessity for women priests. And as another recruit cited Fr Charles Curran (the ethicist who spearheaded opposition to Humanae Vitae in the United States), as one of the foremost influences on him, it seemed safe to conclude that ex-Anglicans come in many theological shapes and sizes, and find acceptance as they are.

A sense of gratitude to the Catholic Church is a persistent refrain, and congregations across the country reciprocate it. At the shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, for example, parishioners were quickly won over by Fr David Goddard, a Friar Tuck-like figure of great pastoral experience who moved into the presbytery during Lent this year. To begin with, the omens appeared dark, one lady in the congregation told me. We were very fond of our previous priest. When I asked him who would train Fr David, he replied that it was up to us. We were upset and wondered how the sheep could be expected to train the shepherd. On the other hand, we knew we could not be choosy about who we got. Numbers had varied considerably over the years and closure of the church was a serious threat. Now we see that in fact we got someone special. Fr David and his wife have worked unstintingly for us. The fact that he is married is no bother at all. It’s just another change, like Vatican II.

A similar note was struck by a fellow-parishioner who said that Fr Goddard’s approach to worship had brought back an emphasis on the spiritual which was also prompting the children to behave better. Another said that having a family in the presbytery is a reminder of God’s love and that as a woman, I find it much easier talking to a married man. There was a barrier before.

The reaction of Catholic clergy is also reported to be positive, though it is note-worthy that former Anglicans have tended to gravitate more to some dioceses than to others. (None, for example, has so far been incardinated in Liverpool.) The married men I met were unanimous in saying that other priests had treated them with nothing but kindness, thereby dispelling concern about possible animosity to them among celibates. All supported a relaxation of the existing rules on celibacy; most, though, drew attention to the burdens caused by combining marriage and ministry. Marriage can bring a separate set of frustrations, said one, for example involving the pastoral confidences I receive and cannot share with my wife. Tim Edgar, who combines his teaching with a part-time ministry at St Mary’s, Hampstead, was especially keen to banish the idea that married priests were having their cake and eating it. The primary commitment of both married and celibate people is to a covenant, he argued. Both ways are demanding. If anyone feels resentment towards us, I’d refer them to the parable of the vineyard. We were hired late in the day.

Given that married priests span the theological spectrum, it was no surprise to find contrasting approaches to the liturgy among them. Anglo-Catholic worship is renowned for a meticulousness considered by some to be fussy, and ex-Anglicans are keen both to disclaim and to build on their pasts. I’ve become more relaxed, Fr Turnham said. I’m no longer trying to prove a point and Mass is a simpler affair now. Another priest said the opposite. When I arrived at my new church, the Blessed Sacrament was unworthily displayed in a side chapel and one of my first acts was to restore it to the high altar along with six candles. I was thanked all round. Fr Bill East, who ministers at Our Lady’s Church, Acomb, in York, said he had introduced Stations of the Cross and Benediction to a congregation unfamiliar with such observances. We had them regularly in my Anglican parish, he recalls. But here, people weren’t even aware where to stand for Stations. But a colleague in another part of the country was more cautious. I would have considered it presumptuous to move the tabernacle. I think it’s important to be aware that we’re the new boys. We shouldn’t be telling others what to do.

This concern was shared by a senior Catholic cleric in London. Tabernacles were moved after Vatican II to shift the focus from the reserved sacrament to the eucharistic action, he said. If some ex-Anglicans are unaware of this, I would be worried about their commitment to other provisions of the Council. Conversion should be a process of developing a new spirituality.

Less contentious were the efforts of married priests to improve musical standards, granted the manifest superiority of Anglican choirs. Most of the clergy surveyed or their wives had good keyboard skills, and were striving to improve Catholic hymn-singing by measures such as setting up groups of cantors or instrumentalists. Much the same applied to preaching, although two priests commented that their homilies were now shorter and crisper. Catholic congregations have briefer attention spans, remarked one. Another said he wanted to encourage a more sophisticated approach to Bible reading, describing the scriptural material in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) as too pedestrian.

All the priests expressed delight at being unshackled from parochial church councils, which have powers to regulate budgets and other matters in the Church of England. We needed a photocopier and I just went out and got one, said one. That wouldn’t have happened in my Anglican days. Having access to parish ministry had clearly raised other expectations, however. One ex-Anglican now serving as assistant priest said that he would be disappointed not to have a parish of his own pretty soon.

Many commentators have seen in the dispensation granted to married Anglican clergy in 1994 the start of a historic upheaval within the Catholic community that will trigger the end of compulsory celibacy. Some who have left the priesthood to marry may feel bitter about the latitude accorded to Anglicans, one well-known Catholic priest told me. But I see it as cause for hope.

Yet the arrangements of three years ago are set to remain in place only until 1999. It is perfectly possible that history will show us to have been no more than a blip, argued one married priest. A more reliable consequence is the steady broadening of attitudes within the Catholic Church and thus, ironically perhaps, the further erosion of barriers between Catholicism and the tradition from which these men migrated.

Posted: Dec. 6, 1997 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6613
Categories: Tablet
Transmis : 6 déc. 1997 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6613
Catégorie : Tablet

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