50th Anniversary

This December is the 50th anniversary of the Advent Group, that supports priests and religious who are thinking of resigning the priesthood and as I finish a WhatsApp video call to Peter from Mumbai agonising over whether the work he is doing within an NGO working with the poorest unemployed young people is still the work of a priest, I encourage him as he had made contact through the Advent Group web site to say, yes, the work you are doing is an extension of your ministry and is the work of God. He is comforted by these words and is encouraged to continue in the work he is doing. Peter has the added complication that for the past twenty five years he has been married to a Hindu lady. Leaving the priesthood in India has the same stigma it had when I left back in the 80’s. 



At the same time I am speaking with Peter, I received an email asking me if I had heard of local ordinaries forcing individuals to go through the dispensation process. This causes me to start thinking why should this now be suggested by a local Bishop. Could it be that Rome is wanting to get all its ducks in a row and to make sure that if it does indeed decide to allow resigned priests to return to ministry that at least they are in “good standing” with the Church? Is this a naive thought on my part? I have always been optimistic that the compulsory celibacy rule would be lifted by the Church one day.


The recent Amazon Synod has gone some way to suggest that married men of proven standing in their community may be considered for the priesthood. This is the beginning of hope for a renewed priesthood, even if it is thousands of miles away. 


We have also had the leaching of Anglican priests from 1994 when women priests were first accepted by the Anglican communion. It is suggested that 1 in 10 priests in England and Wales are former Anglican priests. They are now working in parishes or chaplaincies. These Anglican priests were also financially supported when moving across by the St Barnabas Society. Such financial and pastoral support was something that was very hit and miss with regard to Catholic priests resigning priesthood. If you were a member of a religious order you were more likely to get financial support than as a diocesan priest. I remember leaving the priesthood with £56 in my bank account and no financial support from the diocese,


So, this December is the 50th Anniversary of the setting up of the Advent Group. It was hosted by Conrad Pepler the Dominican at Spode House and priests and their partners were invited to attend. From this group, which first met in Advent, there was a nucleus of people who would offer spiritual and emotional support for those priests and their partners who were in the process of resigning priesthood. The stigma back then was a lot worse than it is now. In fact with the poedophile scandal over the years, it is a wonder that priests stay. 


Where have we got to in the last 50 years? During that time Advent has supported many priests thinking about resigning the priesthood. Sometimes after prayer and discussion an individual may decide that resigning is not the right thing for them to do. I can remember offering with my wife Jan, a safe space where a priest could come, either on their own or with the person they were involved with in order to discuss through their thoughts and feelings. One couple flew in from Ireland specially to come and see us and share with us their own journey. The one message that Advent Group members always gave out, was, “there is light at the end of the tunnel”.


Over the years we have had many high profile clergy who have found themselves involved with women, Bishop Casey, Bishop Wright, Bishop Conry to name a few.


In fact, in 1996 when Bishop Wright and Kathleen McPhee were hold up in Kendal, not far from where Jan and I lived, we managed to get a note pushed through their letter box on Queen’s Road by a police officer friend. In the note we simply offered support and if need be, space to talk. Little did we know at the time they were inundated with hundreds of offers for interviews or to sell their story to the press.


Eventually, when the heat died down we did in fact meet up for a meal in Kendal and an opportunity to share stories and to reflect on what had happened and the possible way forward. Little did we realise that soon after Roddy and Kathleen would come and live next door but one to us in Carnforth, until 2002 when they emigrated to New Zealand. Soon afterwards Roddy would die from cancer.


For many members of the Advent Group they had agonised for some time about taking the step to resign from priestly ministry. It wasn’t a decision they would take lightly. There were obvious questions like, where will I live, how will I make ends meet, what job will I be able to secure? Signing on at the Job Centre for a priest is always interesting. 

“How much did you earn in your last job?” 


 “A week, a month?” 

“No, a year !” 

Financial insecurity was a very good way of making sure that the decision to resign priesthood was always going to be a difficult one. 


For many resigned priests there was a desire to safeguard their own personal integrity and that of the priesthood itself. They were concerned they could no longer live a double life if they were in a relationship with a parishioner. They must be true to themselves, the priesthood and to their parishioners. It is not a decision that is taken lightly.


The decision to apply for dispensation from the obligations of clerical celibacy is not taken lightly either. At one point Rome was not issuing these for priests under the age of 40 in case they decided to return to ministry and leaving was all a big mistake. Some clergy refer to this process as laicization but in fact, the rescript of dispensation does not revert the individual back to the lay state as there are certain things a dispensed priest is not permitted to do, such as take communion to the sick and housebound. This is because he is an ordinary minister of the eucharist and not extra-ordinary as are lay people! As a result some resigned priests refused to go through the degrading process of applying for a dispensation. It is only recently, under the Pastorate of Pope Francis, that he has asked local Bishops to make sure that all resigned priests are invited to apply for dispensation or have it forced upon them. Why this push to have these men regularised ? Could it be that Pope Francis wants to make sure this discarded work force are ready and waiting in the wings should the church permit them to return as married priests? What other reason could there be?


So after 50 years of the Advent Group many of its members have died and many are getting on in years. Regional and national meetings have long ceased. The only meetings that were regularly attended were the European Married Priests movement represented by the recently deceased duo Joe Mulrooney and Mike Hyland. Mary-Jo Radcliffe over the years has provided steadfast support to many religious seeking her advice and support. There are many members of Advent who in their own way have provided support too. The glue that keeps the Advent Group together is the web site and this is mainly used as an archive of past news and enquiries from priests mainly in Asia and Africa.


Over those 50 years the Advent Group has appeared in the media promoting optional celibacy for priests. It never once suggested that celibacy per se was wrong. The message has been consistent and honest. The integrity of those who took part could not be questioned. The whole point was to build up the church and not to bring it down. Only recently in the BBC World Service, Husbands and Priests, the radio programme explored a married priesthood already in existence in the Eastern Catholic Church which has long allowed married priests. The Western Church can learn from the experience of the Eastern Church. There is nothing to be afraid of and the laity are ready for it. The time is now.


The Advent Group has probably outlived its aims. The strap line for Advent is - working for a renewed priesthood. It isn’t simply about married priests. We have married priests now in the Catholic Church. 1 in 10 priests in England and Wales are married. The argument for a married priesthood are well and truly won. The recent Amazon synod has suggested ordaining “viri probati”, married men of proven virtue in their communities. It is only time when married men will be permitted in the Western church. A renewed priesthood will have to go beyond simply married men and reflect on the very nature of priesthood itself. Clericalism will have to be eradicated before such a broad vision of priesthood can be accepted.


Only a handful of Bishops have publicly supported a married priesthood and they are usually retired such as Bishop Crispian Hollis, former Bishop of Portsmouth. He has long advocated at least a discussion on a married priesthood. Deceased Bishop Victor Guazelli was also a strong advocate of a married priesthood back in the 1980’s. Sadly there are no active serving Bishops who are prepared to put their heads above the parapets, despite having a much more sympathetic Pope in Francis. 


The Church herself will have to face up to the reality of gay priests in the Church. Celibacy for priests is keeping the lid on the possibility that married priests may not simply be heterosexual. 


The Church has had to face up to the reality of paedophilia in its ranks. It has publicly been held to account in the recent ICSA hearings and Cardinal Nichols has been placed in the hot seat and questioned on how well the Church has responded to children abused by priests. She has been found wanting. Paedophilia is not something of the past as the recent incarceration of a priest only ordained in 2015 has shown. With all the psychological screening for seminary an individual can still hide behind the facade of clericalism and carry out such heinous crimes.


A married priesthood should not be accepted just because the church has a manpower issue, but because a married priesthood is a good thing in itself. One day a married priesthood will be the norm and a celibate priesthood the excpetion. The church needs to restore trust and integrity among the faithful and the wider church and one way she can begin to start that healing process is by welcoming back those priests, who in good faith and integrity, resigned the priesthood. 


Alex Walker

Advent Group web site administrator