Saturday, 18 November 2017

Breeding Pairs ...

... was Il Rettore's not-entirely-complimentary term for husband-and-wife clergy couples. I never cease to be grateful that Ms Formerly Aldgate isn’t involved in Church life to any great extent. She strives to make it to church for Christmas and Easter and comes to the occasional lunch or other event, but doesn’t claim to be anything other than a well-disposed agnostic. It’s useful to have someone around who is an outsider, both in terms of what the Church does and in terms of parish life.

I’d find other forms of clerical domestic arrangements a little bit confining. Of course, allowing clergy to marry and then opening the priesthood to both sexes inevitably means that you will eventually have priests marrying each other, or a priest marrying someone else who later themselves decides that they have a vocation to the ordained life. I’m starting to feel, I confess, a little itchy about this. My edition of the Guildford Diocesan Directory is out of date by two years, but with its assistance I can count eight parishes in this small diocese which now have married couples of priests on their staff. The arrangements vary: in one parish the incumbent’s wife was ordained deacon this year, in another the couple were appointed as a unit and are designated ‘Joint Vicar’ in a job-share. Both our bishops are married to other clergy: our suffragan’s husband is a leading incumbent in London, while our diocesan Andrew’s wife was found a parish in the diocese after he moved in. She is by all accounts doing a perfectly good job there, but I wasn't the only one whose eyes widened at the news. There are other clergy couples outside the parish level: one may be an incumbent, for instance, while the other works for the diocese.

What happens when you have bishops who are in a relationship with each other? Everyone rather expected our suffragan’s husband to get a pointy hat before she did, and he still might. How would that affect relationships within the College of Bishops? Married relationships are at least overt, but you can’t just suddenly marry someone, so relationships happen, or might happen, before they become public. In the senior management of a business, you’d expect such relationships to be declared to the HR people to avoid conflicts of interest, but we don’t seem to have thought of that. Typically, the Church of England absorbs more and more of the World’s way of doing things, without adopting the safeguards and standards that, in the World, make those habits tolerable.

Then, of course, there’s the Gay Thing. Homosexual clergy can’t marry, but they can contract civil partnerships; there’s at least one parish priest in the diocese of Guildford who is in one. How is the Church going to cope with two priests in a civil partnership who want to look after a parish together? It will, I think, have no choice but to accommodate them, and one part of Anglicanism will go through the roof as a result. Perhaps this has already happened somewhere, I don’t know.

Now, to be sure, this situation reveals something which was masked in the older way of doing things. In many traditional parishes, it was expected that the vicar’s wife would be in charge of something or other, usually to do with specifically female experience – chairing the local branch of the Mothers’ Union, for instance. At the big conservative-evangelical church of St Aldate’s in Oxford, where Dr Bones used to take me on free Sunday evenings while I was at St Stephen’s House, Rector Charlie Cleverly shares the leadership with his wife Anita, who is designated ‘Staff Pastor’; this reflects traditionalist approaches to gender roles, in which women do the cuddly peopley stuff while a man runs the show (although they do have one ordained woman on the staff now). Some of the parish set-ups headed by a husband-and-wife clergy couple round here, especially in evangelical churches, may work like that.

I never thought the St Aldates model was completely healthy, quite apart from the gendered division of labour it sets up – and quite apart from conflicts of interest and the issues of accountability it raises. The Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to represent the irruption of the values of the Kingdom into the fleshly world, and once it becomes penetrated by the World’s habits, something of that otherness, that radicalism, is lost. ‘He who does not hate his father and mother, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple’, warns Jesus hyperbolically; where is that troubling, dramatic, outsider-edge in a Church where husbands and wives (or same-sex partners, potentially), run church communities? Is it not turning into something else, something more conventional and everyday? It’s instructive, if odd, that non-Church people often expect this is how the Church is organised. I once came across someone in Swanvale Halt parish who clearly assumed I would be married to the then curate, and in Lamford I and Dr Bones met a man whose first thought was that we were Il Rettore’s children: it was weird, but you can see where he was coming from - a kind of childlike attempt to conform an unfamiliar structure to a familial model. The expectation is sort of natural, and natural, in any simple sense, is not what we are called to be. I wonder whether the outcome of all this cozification, if the Church of England survives at all, will be to conclude that there was a point to clerical celibacy after all. 

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