by Peter Stanford BRITAIN's first two married Catholic priests, both former Anglican clergymen, were announced this week. No dates have yet been set for the ordination of either Peter Cornwell, vicar of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford untif 1985, or 76 year old David Mead-Briggs, who gave up his Anglican ministry 32 years ago.
Married Catholic clergymen exist in America, Australia and in West Germany, but these two men are the first of a batch of applications made by the Church in this country to be approved by the Vatican. Mr Cornwell, who lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and two children, received the news from Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville of Birmingham who described the decision as "a recognition of the present ecumenical situation". However, the Archbishop emphasised that the Vatican's approval "does not mean that the Catholic Church will ever abandon its requirement of celibacy for candidates for the priesthood in the Latin rite".
Mr Cornwell told the Catholic Herald that he saw his case as a particular one, and the Vatican's response as pertaining to a specific situation, and therefore not as a wider precedent for a married priesthood. He added though that "it spotlights the fact of the existing place within the Roman communion of a small number of married priests". The Vatican ruling, he thought, "underlines that this is not a matter of principle but a rule".
Mr Cornwell described celibacy as "a great and creative gift", but went on: "I am bound to say also that an enforced celibacy can be destructive, and that is a problem that the Catholic Church will have to come to terms with".
He praised his wife and children for the support they had given him, and said that he did not know where he would be posted, although he "hoped to stay in Oxfordshire". Under Vatican regulations, neither Mr Cornwell nor Mr Mead-Briggs can head a parish, but may give "suitable assistance".
Mr Mead-Briggs, who has two grown-up sons, was received into the Catholic Church in 1955 after 16 years as an Anglican vicar. His acceptance as a Catholic priest was the end of "a long pilgrimage" he told the Catholic Herald. He made his application for the priesthood with the active encouragement of his local Bishop Cormac
Murphy O'Connor of Arundel and Brighton.
A lecturer in New Testament studies for the past eight years at St John's Seminary, Wonersh, and before that in divinity at Digby Stuart College of Education, Mr Mead-Briggs said that he "would do what he was told" when it came to a posting, but felt that his experience in education might prove valuable. He stressed that the Vatican's approval of his candidacy was "an ecumenical step forward" and this was reinforced by Bishop O'Connor, co-chairman of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II). He stressed that the move was "a sign of the close ties of ecumenical friendship that now exists between our churches".
Although the bishop pointed out that both decisions had been made with "regard to the consciences of individuals", supporters of a married Catholic clergy welcomed the announcement as a move forward. Adrian Hastings, Professor of Theology at Leeds University, and a Catholic priest who got married, said that the cause of a married priesthood had been advanced. "It would be absurd that married people can be suitable for the priesthood only if they were Anglicans before" he said.