THE BISHOPS’ Conference of England and Wales rejected calls to ordain married men and permit services of General Absolution during a private session of its November plenary meeting.
At that meeting in Leeds a majority did not back a motion by the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, to support the ordination of married men.
The discussion, which was reported in the Northern Cross, the diocesan newspaper for Hexham and Newcastle, took place during a closed session of the plenary meeting. Topics for these sessions are not noted on the public agenda and the outcome is not made public with the objective of allowing bishops to speak freely.
Bishop Cunningham told his diocesan Council of Priests, who had asked him to raise the issue of married priests, that the bishops had a “calm and thoughtful” discussion about the tradition of the Church, the nature of sacrifice and celibacy, as well as the positive contribution of married priests. Following this the general consensus was “to maintain the traditional teaching of the Church for a celibate priesthood”, he said.
Bishop Crispian Hollis, the Bishop Emeritus of Portsmouth, who has spoken in favour of the ordination of married men but did not attend the plenary, said that he was not surprised at the outcome.
“This would be a testing of the waters, and that was the general opinion.” Their conclusion did not mean the issue was shut down forever, he explained.
“There are between 10 and half a dozen bishops who would be prepared to explore the issue,” he told The Tablet.
Eileen Fitzpatrick, former chairwoman of A Call to Action, which calls for reform within the Church, said the bishops’ conclusion was disappointing.
“We do have a married priesthood in every diocese, in the form of former Anglicans. As the country appears to be submerged in flood water, Canute and the tide come to mind,” she said. She also criticised the secrecy around the meeting.
“None of us outside the bishops’ meeting in Leeds would know that this discussion had even taken place except for the fact that just one bishop, Seamus Cunningham, chose, quite rightly, to report back to his Council of Priests,” she said.
The plenary also ruled that it “does not approve the use of Rite III celebrations, commonly called ‘general absolution’.” Bishop Hollis predicted that many priests and their bishops would ignore the pronouncement.
“They might just let the lads get on with it. I think a wise bishop lets sleeping dogs lie,” he said.
But he warned that this could lead to competition and division between parishes.
Fr Kevin T Kelly, a retired priest in the diocese of Liverpool and a distinguished moral theologian, said that the bishops’ conclusion was irrelevant because canon law does not require priests to seek their permission before holding services of General Absolution.
He said that services of General Absolution took place around the country already and were always well attended.
“The bishops can’t forbid it,” he said. “Their conclusion shows a bit of ignorance of canon law.”
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