BY CRISTINA ODONE THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE of Priests (NCP) has voted overwhelmingly to study the issue of celibacy in the priesthood.
At their annual meeting in Birmingham last week, the 58 delegates voted 54-1 (three abstained) to establish a commission to investigate the impact compulsory celibacy has on the priesthood. Coupled with a resolution to explore the return of priests who have left the active ministry "even if those priests are now heads of families" the Conference promises to refuel controversy surrounding the 800-year-old celibacy rule.
The recent influx of AngloCatholic married priests has forced the issue onto the NCP agenda, according to the Chairman of the Conference, Fr Roderick Strange. He told the Catholic Herald: "When we have a celibate and a married priesthood to some extent working side by side the issue cannot but be raised. And indeed, the debate about celibacy, in any case, is going on outside the Church, so that we felt we should have a voice in this debate."
Although Fr Strange stressed that "not one word attacking celibacy" emerged from the conference, one priest who left active ministry in order to marry said the 16 propositions drawn up during the week-long conference prepared the way for "a new concept of the priesthood".
According to Alex Walker, the propositions "all point to an acknowledgement of our need to look at ministry in a different light. I think in fact we are seeing the return of the worker priest the man whose ministry calls for both secular and spiritual work."
Mr Walker, spokesman for Advent, the group of Catholic priests who left the active ministry to marry, said that at his group's meeting last Sunday in Leeds, members agreed that "we can't see ourselves going back into a clerical caste. Not the way things are now the priest in his present capacity is cut off from his people, and works full time. We need to explore a more collaborative ministry rooted in a wider base."
Mr Walker also pointed out the financial obstacles that would stand in the way of the return of those with families to an active ministry. "Because of the financial difficulties, I think we are left no recourse other than a re-definition of the priesthood." But Mr Walker admitted that this would constitute "a revolu tionary theology" for the majority of Catholics in Britain: "My bishop tells me that his postbag shows considerable conservatism people in the pews are more resistant to change than the NCP."
Fr Antony Conlon, parish priest of St Joseph's Bunhill Row, in London, argued that rather than speak of a "new kind of priesthood", the NCP should focus on preparation and training for the priesthood: "We should prepare them for celibacy and undertake a more in-depth assessment of those who seek to become priests. The seminary had not prepared me for the loneliness of living by myself in a presbytery, or warned me about the burn-out of overwork."
Although Fr Strange stressed that every diocese is invited to send four delegates to the annual conference, and that delegates "represent a fair spectrum of British priesthood", many priests question the representative nature of the NCP. Traditionalists believe that it reflects the views of liberal priests rather than a true cross-section of the clergy.
Next Week: Alex Walker and William Oddie on the modern priesthood.