Priests in search of a role
Elena Curti

Hundreds of priests who have married and left active ministry would like still to serve. The Tablet's reporter found that the Church is beginning to use these men more fully, and that the attitude of congregations appears to be changing.
LAST February, a mysterious advertisement appeared in The Tablet. Under the heading "Cradle Catholic", it read: "Married priest, available for Sunday supply for any parish otherwise deprived of Mass due to the shortage of priests."
The married priest in question has revealed himself to The Tablet as the veteran peace campaigner Bruce Kent. "I was being a bit cheeky, I suppose, but I was trying to bring out the fact that there is a number of us around who could be useful", he told me.
Kent knows full well that as a married Catholic priest he is not allowed to celebrate Mass. The only sacrament he is allowed to administer is that of absolution, and that is permissible only in the most dire emergency when someone is dying. He thought it very unlikely that he would receive any positive responses to the advertisement. In the event, he received three replies, one from an academic doing research on married priests and two who got in touch purely to express sympathy.
Exactly how many married priests there are in England and Wales is hard to discover. The Catholic Communications Service has no figures. Neither does the National Conference of Priests. Advent, the support group for priests and religious who have left, sends out its newsletter to between 300 and 500 people. There must, of course, be others with whom it is not in touch. Another group, the Movement for Married Clergy, estimates there could be around 700 married priests who have not yet reached retirement age. It is probably fair to say that many of these men are unwilling or unable because of work commitments to do much for the Church. But Advent says it has many members who are pressing to do more and I have spoken to a number of priests who are or would like to be more involved.
One of them, whom I will call James Milton, left active ministry in 1977 at the age of 35. Since then he has had an extraordinarily varied career. He trained as an engineer and became the export manager of an engineering company. When he got bored with that, he founded a company exporting slate to mainland Europe and supplied slate roofs for 300 churches. Now he runs another company helping wealthy individuals "realise their dreams". Such dreams can be altruistic or money-making ventures. His line of business is called personal project management and he is at present masterminding building projects which together are worth £20m.

Somehow, he also finds time to assist his parish priest. He brings Communion to the sick and has even preached. What is more remarkable is that he is ministering in the same area where he was once a parish priest. He says he was afraid of an adverse reaction, but has not encountered any. "Some of the older people who remember when I was a parish priest still call me Father", he says.
He recently celebrated his first Mass in 25 years as an emergency for a close friend who was dying, though his bishop's permission was not given. He says: "At the moment I am sticking to non-sacramental duties in public, but I feel there has been a gross injustice in taking my priesthood away just because I am married."
Despite the cross words, he advocates a softly-softly approach. He has little time for Advent's campaigning, which he considers likely to produce the opposite effect to that intended. "For them, it is very much a ‘them and us' confrontation. I prefer to be more friendly", he says.
Another married priest who got in touch told me that for years his offers of help to the Church were rejected. These days, however, Robert (not his real name) is a eucharistic minister, helps with marriage preparation courses and has given a talk to engaged couples. Now 69 and retired from teaching, he feels he could be doing a great deal more for the Church, if he were allowed. "I know of one ex-priest who is the parish priest's right-hand man and almost like a deacon. I would like to exercise ministry and use my skills but the Church will not use them", he says.
Robert's story is a good illustration of how priests of his generation were treated when they decided to leave. He entered a religious order when he was just 13. He was sent to India at the age of 16, remaining there for 10 years and missing his family terribly. In his last job he was headmaster of a school with over 1,000 pupils. When he returned to Britain he worked in youth ministry before deciding to leave at the age of 41 when he met his future wife.
"As I grew older, I began to question celibacy. I tried to be loving and kind while the greatest human love of all, that to be found in marriage, was barred to me. It began as an intellectual questioning, then when I met Helen I prayed for thousands of hours before I made a decision", he said.
Once Robert had decided to leave active ministry and to marry in a Catholic church, he had only one realistic option: to apply for the Pope's dispensation, or rescript, releasing him from his promise of celibacy. Technically, it is also possible to nullify a priest's ordination and return him to the lay state but this course requires proof that either the candidate for priesthood or the bishop was not of sound mind at the time of ordination. It is therefore seldom used, although recently men convicted of serious sexual abuse against children have been laicised in this way. In such cases it is argued that the priest did not fully understand or take seriously his priestly promises.
Men who sign the rescript, however, still remain priests. I contacted a respected canon lawyer who confirmed this point. But he stated that in exchange for being released from their promise of celibacy, these men had agreed to relinquish their rights as priests. These rights, crucially, include the celebration of Mass. The wording of the rescript is uncompromising in spelling this out. It says that priests who sign it are officially barred from sacramental ministry. In addition, they are not allowed to be eucharistic ministers and they have to move from the area where their previous state was known. They are not even allowed to teach any subject in Catholic schools with a theological dimension.
At the time that Robert left active ministry in 1974, these requirements were more stringently enforced than they are today. He taught English and RE and embarked on a new career as a supply teacher. He says he was open with his employers about his situation and found most Catholic schools were happy to employ him, although he was dropped by one school when it learned of his background. On another occasion he was offered a job as a youth leader, but the contract was cancelled when the diocese objected. He was turned down to do voluntary work for the Church and also applied twice, unsuccessfully, to be an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist.
Robert believes he would have been a better priest if he had been allowed to marry. It is his conviction, also, that the Church has wasted his knowledge, expertise, and desire to serve as well as that of countless others. As far as he is concerned, what he is allowed to do now is too little, too late.
There have been signs recently, however, that the Church has been more welcoming to married priests who want to serve it, so long as they stick to non-sacramental ministry. Another married priest, James O'Connell, a retired professor of political science, says many of the prohibitions of the rescript are withering on the vine. "Previously when a priest left he became a non-person. In the early years the rules were enforced but recently they have been ignored in most dioceses. People are being drawn in", says O'Connell. But Advent contends that many of its members do not want to be drawn in on the Church's terms and are angry about the uncompromising wording of the rescript. Its spokesman, Alex Walker, a social worker in Carnforth, Lancashire, has called it "punitive, negative and ridiculous". Bruce Kent says he did not apply for it on the grounds that to do so would be demeaning.
The rescript has been far more difficult for priests to obtain during the pontificate of John Paul II. Under Pope Paul VI, dispensations were granted routinely - more than 32,000. These days it can take many years for the rescript to be granted. Michael Winter, a 72-year-old married priest who is one of the leading members of the Movement for Married Clergy, applied for his in 1987. Fifteen years later he still has not received it. In the intervening years he has married and had children and now no longer wants it. "What would I say to my wife if I got it now? It would imply that the last 15 years counted for nothing", he says.
Advent has also noticed that the rescript is never granted to men under the age of 40. Gerry McGarvey from Edinburgh applied seven years ago when he was 33 and is still waiting. He was told that his application had been lost and has discovered that he has been lapped by older men who applied after him. "I have left the Church but the Church has not let go of me", is how he puts it.
Walker is annoyed that Advent has got nowhere with the Church in its plan to compile a database of all priests who have left active ministry in order that they could be called upon if needed in an emergency. "Why not contact us if a priest is not available? We are treated like doctors struck off for malpractice", says Walker.
There has been no progress either in Advent's campaign for a national agreement on severance conditions for priests who resign. At present any payment made by a diocese is discretionary. There is usually no pension. It is Walker's view that the Church is half-hearted about making use of married priests. "It is difficult to know where we stand. They are saying in effect, ‘We want to use you but we don't know how and we don't know what would happen if we did", he says.
As far as Walker and Kent are concerned, it is clear that nothing short of a welcome back to full sacramental ministry would satisfy them. Walker says he is not even prepared to be a reader at Mass because he believes there is not sufficient encouragement of his ministry.
The canon lawyer I interviewed said that dioceses were right in being pragmatic and not implementing the rules of the rescript to the letter. But in turn, he felt, married priests should accept that sacramental ministry for them was not a possibility.
As for the wording of the rescript and its repeated warnings about the need to "avoid scandal", the lawyer believes the aim is primarily to protect the rights and feelings of lay people who are affected by a priest's decision to leave active ministry. "Many would be uncomfortable with a man who has been a priest continuing to be active in the same Church. Intellectually we might think that is a nonsense, but you have to bear in mind there are others who would be wounded by that kind of thing", he said.
Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth is of the same mind. He said he knew laicised priests who were active in the diocese's parishes and parish councils and lived their lives as committed Catholics. Some had immense gifts, but as a general rule he felt they should not perform any public ministry or anything that smacked of an official function. Preaching was definitely not an option, whereas a talk to a prayer group, for example, was fine. "You have to have regard for the feelings of the people from the parishes they have left. Everybody struggles and a lot of people are badly hurt. Sometimes all the sympathy and support is with the priest who leaves, but there is hurt all round."
There is no doubt that most bishops these days see it as part of their duty at least to get to know the laicised priests of their dioceses. The late Cardinal Basil Hume did so, as does the present Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton is taking a leaf out their book by arranging an informal meeting this autumn with men who have resigned from active ministry in his diocese. There is, he says, no agenda. "I am sure there are many ways they could be used in parishes. Of course there is a growing need for people to minister, but that should not be the reason we welcome them, although it happens to make the situation more urgent. They are people with an enormous reservoir of talent", he said.
Bishop Conry has just been appointed the new liaison bishop for the National Conference of Priests. It is therefore particularly significant that he personally would be happy if married priests who want to return to active ministry were readmitted. The acceptance of former Anglican clergy who are married has, in his view, led to a sea change of opinion. "That has shifted the goalposts in many people's minds and they see an incongruity in the situation", he told me.
Most of the married priests I spoke to made the same point and some spoke of instances where married clergy who were formerly Anglicans had replaced Catholic priests who had left in order to marry.
"My conscience told me I did the right thing in leaving active ministry", said Bruce Kent. "The Anglicans followed their consciences, too, but they have not been harmed by their decision. They still have their pensions intact, whereas we are barred from celebrating Mass."
Walker says he is in touch with a former Catholic priest who married and became an Anglican priest but now wants to return to the Catholic priesthood. Such a case would pose an extraordinary brain-teaser for canon lawyers.
There was also criticism of the expansion of the permanent diaconate, whose members are allowed to join if they are already married and can conduct weddings and funerals and preach. "They are a stop-gap. They have had none of the excellent training I have had. I have helped a deacon to write his sermons but I myself am banned from preaching", complained Robert.
Difficulties with the celibacy rule were rarely given by men I talked to as the reason for leaving active ministry. All of them had subsequently married, however. More common were objections to the general way the Church has been governed under the pontificate of John Paul II. These men tend to be liberal in outlook, suspicious of clericalism and sympathetic to lay ministry. They want to see the Church less prescriptive on issues such as birth control, divorce and homosexuality. The older ones are often men who were disillusioned that the promise held out by the Second Vatican Council was, in their view, never fulfilled.
A common thread with all of them is a problem with the way the Church exercises its authority. "Catholic instruction is a one-way process", said Gerry McGarvey, who left the Redemptorist Order in 1986 and describes himself now as a recovering Catholic. He works in adult education, youth and community work. He says he would not consider going back to active ministry unless there was a wholesale restructuring of dioceses to give lay people a much greater participatory role. He believes the work he does now is very much in keeping with the values of the Gospel, but he is certainly not doing it in the name of the Church.
But the other married priests I talked to felt they were doing the Church a great service by discreetly ministering to people who are outside it or alienated from it. They talked of not being rule-bound and therefore trusted in a way that "official" priests might not be. Perhaps it is this work that needs more recognition and encouragement from the hierarchy. Married priests have ministered much more publicly in the United States - where some have formed a rent-a-priest service for those estranged from the Church. There have been similar breakaway ministries on a small scale in Ireland.
In England and Wales, married priests have campaigned against the rule on celibacy, not in the hope of returning but for the sake of the future of the priesthood. Michael Winter hopes that a brave bishop will take the initiative and persuade the rest of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales to make a representation to the Vatican on the subject.
But even if Rome one day agrees to make celibacy optional, it is highly unlikely to budge on the issue of priests who have left and married. The Vatican has made a clear distinction between married men who want to become priests and priests who choose to break their promise of celibacy. John Paul II has said of the vocation to priesthood: we do not return the gift once it is given.
Those supporting the Vatican's view emphasise the hurt that resigning priests cause to their parishioners. Yet today this emphasis might seem misplaced. Of course there is pain when a much-loved and respected parish priest leaves - but it is the loss that causes the pain rather than a sense of betrayal. There seems a shift in lay opinion. Some people would be quite happy for their priest to marry and stay.