Friday, January 12, 2007

Some more thoughts about celibacy, marriage, and Church Order.

The Rev. Dr. Jean Alden McCurdy Meade
Vicar Mount Olivet Episcopal Church
New Orleans, Louisiana
March 9, 2004

As we continue to discuss in the United States whether homosexuals have a civil “right” to marry or whether the term marriage cannot be reinterpreted to mean anything other than the union of one man and one woman, it seems to me that we in the Anglican Communion should make a distinction between what teachings for the ordained make for good church order and speculation about future conclusions of biological or psychological studies, personal experience, or polls about homosexual behavior as either sinful or worthy of receiving the Church’s blessing. We may need to consider all those things and others in the coming years and perhaps will someday radically reinterpret our Scriptures to accommodate a new anthropology of sexual inclusiveness. But we are nowhere near there now; and of course many of us believe that we will never be there as long as we believe in the authority of Scripture. But I am trying in this essay to bypass that argument and make another one: so please bear with me.
Can we not, in an abundance of caution, insist that those presenting themselves for ordination be able and willing to lead a life which we are assured by scripture and our traditional theology is blessed by God? And can we not require that as a matter of Church policy and discipline and order without making an ultimate claim about the lives of the laity? There is no right to be ordained – it is a calling from God and from the Church. Believing that one can live according to the teaching of the Church is a just requirement for ordination; and the stricter accountability that obtains for the ordained makes greater caution appropriate when testing the spirit of the age against our traditional understanding of holiness of life.
Precedent for this suggestion is found in the order and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Orthodox. Romans require all priests to vow celibacy, without saying that that is a higher or holier state of life than marriage, at least ever since Vatican II. It is just a requirement; and the present Pope has called celibacy of the clergy “a precious jewel.” Those not called to celibacy cannot present themselves for ordination; and those who are already ordained and find they can no longer keep that vow must leave Holy Orders – it’s just that simple. I believe that the history of Anglicanism shows that the dropping the requirement of celibacy in the 16th century was intended to emphasize that marriage is also an honorable state as set forth in scripture, and not just a “remedy for sin” as some medieval theologians had described it. Celibacy has always been honored in Anglicanism as a call given to some to follow in the way of Our Lord and of St. Paul, most notably, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
In Orthodox practice, to which Anglicans have always looked for inspiration and guidance, there is even a more nuanced delineation between marriage, celibacy, and the requirements for Holy Orders. Men who are already married may be ordained to the priesthood; but they may not re-marry if their wife dies or leaves them without relinquishing their Holy Orders. As for Bishops, only those priests who have vowed celibacy and thus are part of a monastic life –whether or not they live in a monastery vowed religious priests are all attached to one - are considered for the episcopacy. So service as a parish priest does not require celibacy; but service to the larger church as a Bishop does.
In the spirit of humility and compromise, notwithstanding the natural law tradition which informs Anglican theology and anthropology, could we not in charity allow for some of us to be agnostic on the sanctity of the lives of homosexually active lay persons while still requiring that those presenting themselves for ordination, and most especially for consecration as a Bishop, be held to the traditional biblical understanding of the right use of our sexual nature and desires? The key word is assurance – we can be assured that the moral ideals of our clergy conform with the teaching of Scripture and our tradition if they vow celibacy or Christian marriage. We know they will not be leading other astray if they steadfastly seek to honor those vows. Right now, I respectfully suggest, that is all of which we have full assurance and so that is where we should continue to make our stand.

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