I HAVE NEVER REGRETTED LEAVING THE PRIESTHOOD FOR A WOMAN BY ALEX WALKER
The Telegraph 27th March 2019 Telegraph Article 27.03.19
I remember the moment I first set eyes on Jan. It was 1986, and I was a 31-year-old Catholic priest at a church in Kendal, Cumbria. She was a member of the congregation, who ran aerobics classes for parishioners. She knocked on the presbytery door to hand over some money and there she was: a pretty 26-year-old gazing up at me. "Father, this is for you:' she said, handing over the collection. I did not realise at the time what a huge impact she would have on my life.
I had known that I wanted to be a priest from the age of 13. Raised in a Catholic family, I packed myself off as a teenager to Underley Hall boarding school, ajunior seminary for boys. Ordained in Blackpool at the age of 25, I knew that celibacy was part of the package. It was discussed openly and we were all acutely aware that by dedicating our lives to God, we were forgoing any possibility of a wife and children. But talking about it is very different from living it.
After meeting Jan, we quickly developed a close, platonic friendship, and I always looked forward to seeing her at parish walks and barbecues. Before long, the two of us were taking trips to cafés and the cinema. She was chatty, intelligent and very attractive, and I enjoyed our long chats about faith and theology. At some point - I'm not exactly sure when - we developed feelings for each other.
So followed a painful three-year journey, during which I was forced to decide whether I could maintain my vow of celibacy.
The thought of living without her was terrible and as a priest, I could have been told to pack my bags and move to another parish at a moment's notice. The prospect was too grim to consider. But, on the other hand, I had made a vow to dedicate my life to God. Would the other priests think I was betraying them? And I worried that Jan would be labelled a scarlet woman, who had tempted a religious man from his calling.
But in the end, it was clear what I had to do. Saint Irenaeus said "The glory of God is man fully alive", but I felt dead without Jan. Bumping into my parish priest in our church kitchen, my heart was pounding as I said to hits: "I've got something to tell you, I think I've fallen in love with someone - you probably know who it is - and I've decided I can no longer continue as a celibate priest.
He already had an inkling and was very supportive, telling me: "Well, thank God you've made a decision." We're still friends. I had to see a psychotherapist before I was allowed a dispensation by the bishop - he put me in touch with Advent, a support group for men thinking of leaving the priesthood, which I now run. But not
I worried she would be labelled a scarlet woman -for tempting me from my calling everybody was so understanding. I had wanted to announce the news from my pulpit - I had served my parishioners for years and they deserved to know why I was leaving - but was politely told it was a bad idea. Jan's mother, meanwhile, took it badly: coming from a different generation, she was terrified that people would
point the finger at her daughter.
The first few months were difficult. I had to sign on to unemployment benefit and move back in with my parents, who had been extremely proud of their son becoming a priest, and took some time to get used to my decision.
But I never regretted it. I married Jan in 1989, and got ajob at a Citizens Advice bureau, before becoming a welfare rights officer at Lancashire County Council. Soon, we had two beautiful daughters. When they were young, I looked at them and felt sure I had made the right choice.
We still play an active role in the Church, although my dispensation means I am not allowed to carry out some duties, like taking communion to the sick. I do sometimes become irritated with the hypocrisy: I'm seen as a "baddie" because I did the honourable thing of quitting when I fell in love, but at the same time there are cardinals living a double life, covering up paedophilia.
I think the Church needs to make celibacy optional, and Pope Francis has made promising steps, recently telling bishops in Brazil that they may ordain married priests if they consider it culturally necessary.
Jan and I have now been married for 30 years, with one grandchild and another on the way. I hope the Church eventually sees sense, and more priests can find the happiness I have been so lucky to find.
As told to Luke Mintz