The queering of celibacy

Wedding ringsThose who sometimes compare the thirty-nine articles to a confession of faith overlook the practical and non-confessional nature of some like the thirty-second. This deals entirely with the non-credal topic of clergy marriage. It is also (at least nowadays) not an issue between the Roman Catholic and other Churches. The Vatican is quite clear that this is not a matter of divine law, but of ecclesial discipline and tradition, which the Church could change as and when it chooses. Moreover, in the significant number of former Anglicans now working as parish priests in the Roman Catholic Church, many RC parishioners are getting accustomed to a married parish priest.

In some ways, therefore, there is little to say about this article. In other ways, however, it is well worth some reflection, even if what follows is a little disconnected and incoherent.Here is the text of the article:

XXXII. Of the Marriage of Priests
Bishops, Priests and Deacons are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.

This article was part of a move that re-emphasised the virtue of marriage. The marriage of clergy did a great deal practically and symbolically to insist it was not a second-best state of life. More strongly, it undermined the superiority of celibacy, which seemed to be embedded in the tradition. Indeed, given the traditional interpretation of Paul, celibacy as a higher calling was seen to be firmly rooted in Scripture.

Clergy marriage also brought in its wake some unintended consequences, not least of which was the increasing framing of ministry as a middle-class occupation, often domesticated and in many “clerical” families becoming almost hereditary. The eschatological note that celibacy at its best represented was too easily overlooked. Clergy marriage almost certainly contributed to the Church of England’s loss of touch with the emerging working classes.

In today’s context the almost complete disappearance of celibacy among the clergy (and more widely) is a question the Church seems unable to address. It is hardly valuing celibacy to turn it into a compulsory option for gay clergy (as some seem to promote it), while vaunting the joys of marital sex for everyone else. Turning to it as the “solution” for the “church’s problem” with homosexuality is not much more than binding heavy burdens for others to carry. Either celibacy is fully encouraged and promoted as a serious and valued vocation for straight as well as gay Christians, or it is misunderstood and poorly valued.

(Discussing people in terms of them being a problem tends to indicates where institutional thinking dominates theological and pastoral approaches.)

In a society which is, at least by many historical comparisons, heavily over-sexualised, perhaps the Church’s most distinctive stand against modern culture might be found in promoting celibacy as either a time-limited or permanent vow, among ordained and lay alike. As such, it witnesses to several strands of the gospel:

  • our name and identity are guaranteed their future by God, not by having children
  • our most enduring relationship is one of love in God
  • the fulfilment of all desire is the full and final vision of God

These are all positive elements to stress in a society concerned about inheritance and property, troubled by swathes of broken relationships, and seeking the instant gratification of desire.

Affirming these does not mean we cannot also affirm the many blessings of marriage and rather less grudgingly than Cranmer’s marriage service. Cranmer had not quite worked out how to deal with the traditional understanding of Paul. Notoriously he presents marriage as an option for those “who have not the gift of continency” and “to avoid fornication”. (Is that how he saw his own?). But these affirmations do mean even conservatives should stop talking about marriage as a blessing by which God affirms “normal” people, and celibacy as a prison sentence for anyone who isn’t conventionally heterosexual.

Talking up, as many Christians now do, the blessing and enjoyment of straight sex – even inventive straight sex – and the importance of focussing on the family, is itself a partial capitulation to contemporary culture and its definitions of human fulfilment. The language of cultural capitulation, however, seems unfairly reserved for those seeking to affirm blessing life-long fidelity (in sacramental imitation of God’s fidelity) for gay and lesbian couples. Yet that affirmation of life-long and exclusive fidelity is also countercultural for gay and straight alike, in a world where promiscuity and serial monogamy are increasingly the norm.

What is a clear to me is that the Church of England has forgotten how to value celibacy, and trotting it out as “the gay vocation” is an insult both to gay people and to the celibate call. A positive affirmation of it as a call – perhaps even a call particularly congruent with ordained and apostolic ministry – will do far more in the end to offer a countercultural engagement with our society, even if it will be less pleasing to our African brothers and sisters than thunderous denunciations of gay people.

I don’t want here to comment on the rights or wrongs of same sex-marriage. However, to this extent it is relevant to the main point I am making. In the past, it seemed ludicrous to entertain the idea that same-sex marriage might be legally possible within a foreseeable future. In that context, queer theory joined forces with strong feminism to delight in the idea of overthrowing the fortress of patriarchy known as marriage. That critique has been superseded by a strong desire to sign up to the institution instead.

There is a great deal that needs to be said about marriage that is positive, grateful and affirming. Contemporary marriage rites do that rather better than Cranmer’s, and in the light of a mutual and egalitarian relationship, rather than a hierarchical one.

The danger is that it is not only idealised, but that it becomes the only desirable framework for human fulfilment. Yet as the older queer and feminist critique recognised, it could reinforce a hierarchy of relationships in the family and society (and had often done so). Also, by offering a strong framework for economic and social security for family members, and an incentive to build an inheritance (traditionally of both honour and wealth) for future generations, it could easily become an engine for a greedily accumulative capitalism.

With the  capitulation of queer theory to the delights of romantic marriage, voices of protest are even harder to come by. Perhaps the articulation of celibacy as a virtuous vocation, and the redevelopment of associational structures to support those who enter it, takes on an even greater importance as a countercultural witness to the fact that “here we have no abiding city.” (Heb 13:14)