I hope that the voices of the retired Bishops Hollis, Crowley and McMahon are not crying in the wilderness with their support for allowing married men to be ordained.
The sacramental deficits which are inevitable as the number of active priests continues to fall could perhaps be addressed by a more imaginative approach to ordained ministry.
Some people have suggested conferring priestly holy orders on married permanent deacons. This might solve some of the problems, since a number of permanent deacons originally tested vocations to the priesthood but found they did not have the “gift of celibacy”.
My own research in this field in Southwark Province, undertaken in 2007/8, indicates that of 53 respondents, almost 27 per cent had originally felt called to the priesthood and an additional 9 per cent (5 respondents) had felt called to other ministry – two in Anglican Orders before becoming Roman Catholics, and three in non-priestly ministry.
A more extensive survey undertaken with permanent deacons from England, Wales and Scotland by researchers from Ushaw College in 2006, indicated that more than half of their 229 respondents had considered a priestly vocation before the age of 18, 7.4 per cent had attended junior seminary and 13.9 per cent had attended a senior seminary or entered a religious order. So, in effect, had it not been for the requirement of celibacy many of these contemporary deacons may well have found themselves in priestly ministry.
However, a further dilemma is captured in the words of the ordination ceremony for permanent deacons. Those who are unmarried at the time of ordination, including widowers, must vow themselves to celibacy thereafter. In the words of the presiding bishop: “By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart.” The subtext of this might be read as a suggestion that the married men about to be similarly ordained do have divided hearts. That their family life and marriage are perhaps regarded as somehow second-best.
There is of course the possibility, that, on the decease of his wife, the deacon might consider a vocation to the priesthood but I would hope that bishops would show the utmost compassion and sensitivity in making such an approach to a deacon in mourning. Those who are called to married life and are inspirational and ethical professionals in the commercial world may not be the best candidates for life as presbyters. Deacons bring witness and ministry into the workplace and the public square in a way that priests and bishops cannot. Deacons are the only rank of ordained clergy permitted to have secular professional and civic roles.
So, in effect, rather than trying to squeeze deacons into a traditional presbyteral mould that may not suit their gifts, a deeper appraisal of Holy Orders is called for. Now seems an opportune time to undertake such an exercise, acknowledging the presence of God in marriage, family life, celibacy, the workplace, civic life – in fact, we need to re-evaluate how best to be Christ to the world.
Dr Bridie Stringer is the author of Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters – A Fresh Appraisal of the Permanent Diaconate (Matthew James Publishing Ltd, 2013)
Above: Bishop Declan Lang ordains two men to the diaconate for the diocese of Clifton. Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk