Heart and Soul: Husbands and Priests
BBC world service
If nothing else, Blanche Girouard’s tactful account of the rise of the married priest (6 October) was big on statistics. Did you know, for example, that the minister/flock ratio in an average West European Catholic parish is 1:1,300, whereas along the Amazon it can be as high as 1:17,000? Or that between 400 and 500 married Anglican priests have taken advantage of the transfer scheme initiated by Pope Benedict?
One of the latter was Jeff Woolnough, incumbent of a church in Southend-on-Sea, who had flown the C of E coop after the admission of women bishops. It was his wife, Julia, Fr Jeff admitted, who gave his ministry its sheen, got him out of bed in the small hours to administer succour to the dying, and provided a settled domesticity beyond the resources of a single man.
Meanwhile, the celibacy that the Woolnoughs had left behind was, various experts insisted, a discipline, not a dogma. The Eastern Catholic church has had married clergy for a millennium or so, and Fr Augustin, with whose six-person family Girouard spent time in Romania, spoke feelingly of the solitude he had experienced alone in his seminarian’s room in Rome, long before he met his wife, Violeta.
Before we reached the now ongoing Synod on the Amazon, Girouard talked to Alex Walker and his wife. The now long-married couple had met when Jan arrived at her north country parish priest’s front door bearing the rent for a gymnastics session at the church hall. “I never thought there would be a romantic connection,” she reminisced of their failed three-year attempt to stay apart from each other, after which Alex resigned from the priesthood.
Husbands and Priests packed a great deal into its half-hour. Frank discussions about whether or not celibacy encouraged child abuse led to an equally frank admission that the introduction of married priests would create problems as well as solving them. There were financial issues, as Fr Augustin – whose wife worked as a teacher to support their family – could happily testify.
As for the future, celibacy still had many advocates (including the uxorious Fr Jeff). The churchgoers whom Girouard interviewed counselled caution. Any decision reached by the Amazon synod to admit married men would be a momentous step for Western Catholicism. But for Alex, who still keeps his vestments under the marital bed, the call can’t come soon enough.