Magazine article The Spectator

Holy Matrimony

Magazine article The Spectator

Holy Matrimony

Article excerpt

EAST GRINSTEAD, the Sussex market town, has many hidden charms; among them its eerie attraction for unorthodox religious organisations. Something in the air there persuaded L. Ron Hubbard that it was just the place to site the HQ of his Scientologists. The Mormons followed. So did witches, and all manner of tree-huggers. Nothing, so far, has jolted the worldly tolerance of the burghers of East Grinstead; nothing, that is, until the arrival of a new Catholic priest. And the reason the curtains are twitching and the Grinsteaders- some of them - are whispering indignantly, and gesturing at the Presbytery, is that the new chap is no ordinary Catholic priest. He is a married man and, good Lord, he has four children.

Fr Steven Purnell is one of a new and rare breed of clerics: a married former Anglican vicar, now ordained a Catholic priest under the special deal that followed the crisis over women priests - or `Vicars in Knickers', as the Sun called them; and his appointment is nothing short of a controversy. For many in the Roman Catholic Church, he is the thin end of the wedge, the fat end of which is a non-celibate Catholic priesthood. He and his kind are 'pioneers', according to clerical insiders, in a movement which will see the widespread introduction of married priests for the first time for eight centuries.

The Church, as one might expect, will not confirm this plan. According to the Catholic media office in Westminster, `there is no hidden agenda' to use the Anglican converts as test pilots for marriage throughout the priesthood, though a spokesman in the office said there was quite a bit of support among priests'. But the reality is that it is one issue on which many conservative and liberal clergy are agreed. And many say that only the current Pope stands in the way of more radical change.

`They [the married priests] are the pioneers of a new-look clergy,' said one priest. It was, he added, 'a good first step'. Fr Kit Cunningham, rector of St Ethelreda's in central London, said, `The taboo has been broken and people know it's not an essential part of the priesthood.' On the other hand, an overnight switch to married priests would be upsetting for conservatives, laity and clergy alike. `It is being slipped in by the back door,' said a traditionalist. `If a decision is to be made about the celibacy of the clergy, there should be more thought given to it. Having started something, we will wake up one day to find we have a married clergy.'

In 1992, after the special deal was struck with the Vatican to allow Anglican converts to become Catholic priests, the laity was assured by the Church hierarchy that married individuals would not be permitted to become parish priests. To allay concerns among the faithful, a clear indication was given that they would remain in the background - acting as chaplains to prisons, hospitals and so forth, or as assistants in parishes.

Seven years on, dioceses around the country have appointed married priests to run parishes; they are not being made parish priests but rather priests-in-charge. The Church insists, for the record, that this does not constitute a breach of the 1992 pledge. The spokesman for the Catholic diocese of Arundel and Brighton, which oversees East Grinstead, said, `It is consistent with the position of the Church. …

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