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To Rome, with a wife

LAST YEAR saw the tenth anniversary of the ordination of the first women priests in the Church of England. This year, it’s the tenth anniversary of another historic moment, brought about by the same event: on 2 June 1995, the Vatican passed the statutes to allow married ex-Church-of-England priests to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.

Since 1994, 441 clergy have made use of the final provisions for those leaving the C of E over women’s ordination. Some retired early, but nearly 350 found other employment. An estimated half of those who resigned their orders have since been ordained in the RC Church.

Many of these former Anglican clergy are married. When the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure was passed, there was no indication that ordination would be an option for them, and most resigned themselves to a future within the laity of the RC Church. But, word eventually came from Rome that the Vatican was prepared to treat their situation as “exceptional”, and would grant dispensation from clerical celibacy.

One such ex-Anglican is Fr Derek Turnham, parish priest of the Sacred Heart in Middlesbrough. He was ordained as an Anglican in 1975, but was received into the RC Church in February 1994, together with his wife Margaret and their three children.

“When I first approached the local RC bishop in 1993, I didn’t think ordination would be possible. I had steeled myself to becoming a lay person,” he says. “At the time, my Anglican parish was also in a situation where I felt I couldn’t possibly leave — it needed at least another two years from me. But I went to see him to say, ‘Help! I feel an orphan.’ The bishop was so open and welcoming, and understanding of my situation, and we agreed I would approach him again at some point in the future.”

In due course, the Turnhams underwent instruction, and were received as Roman Catholics. Leaving the Anglican priesthood was painful: Fr Derek remembers celebrating the eucharist for the last time, and putting his vestments away in a case, possibly for ever. When the time came to leave their vicarage, the Bishop offered them an empty presbytery in an inner-city area, free of charge in return for acting as caretakers.

“At the same time, the diocese began a process of discernment, and for two years five of us [ex-Anglicans] went regularly to Ampleforth, where some of the monks helped us on our journey.”

He was ordained as an RC priest in 1996. “I describe it as a computer upgrade,” he says. “The new version completely overwrites the older one, but that doesn’t destroy what you were doing before with the old version.”

His bishop continued to be supportive, leaving him in the presbytery where he had been caretaker, and giving him charge of the parish along with a second small church nearby. Three years later, he was moved to the Sacred Heart in the centre of Middlesbrough, and oversaw the closure of the two little churches.

The people in the congregations have been very accepting, he says. “I have never been aware of any problem either because I’m married or a recent convert. When I was first appointed to the two little churches, they were very run down, and I think they were just grateful to have anyone living there. When we moved to the bigger, more traditional church, I suspect some people quietly took themselves off, but there was no drop in numbers.”

As far as his wife and family are concerned, he says the congregation has been fine. “Some take an interest, and some take no account of them. My wife finds there are no expectations of her, which is wonderful. She sits in the choir, and a lot of people don’t even recognise her as the priest’s wife.”

His fellow clergy have also been welcoming, and he says he hasn’t met any resentment among his celibate colleagues. “I would count as good friends two men who are married former Catholic priests.

“You would have thought that my situation might cause them some pain, but I have never been conscious of any resentment.” His acceptance in the area was confirmed three years after ordination when he was made dean on the recommendation of his colleagues.

Fr Derek is very positive about the entire experience. “Looking back, November 1992 was absolutely right for me. I am so certain that I am now where I am supposed to be.”

FR ANDREW Behrens is now Priest-in-Charge of the RC parish of St Gregory, Northampton. In his former life, he was Rector of Cogenhoe and Great and Little Houghton with Brafield, outside Northampton.

It was, he says, rather frightening at first. “It was uncertain, and I didn’t know where I was going to go, or what I was going to do.” He got a job teaching at a Further Education college, and gained a teaching qualification.

This, together with working in a prison, proved to be an extremely worthwhile experience, and offered him missed pastoral opportunities.

At the same time, the RC Bishop of Northampton asked him if he felt God was calling him to the RC priesthood. “It all took a while. There was one other married person, and one unmarried man in the diocese, and we all applied to Rome. As soon as we had permission from Rome, my preparation for the priesthood started.”

Fr Behrens was ordained in 1998, after which the bishop sent him to a parish in Bedford, leaving the family behind. “We had bought a house in Northampton, and the children were settled. The bishop was very canny — he didn’t ask me to live [in Bedford]. He was being very gentle to the people. The parish he sent me to had never seen a married priest, let alone a priest’s wife, but this way it was not that big a shock. They received me very well, and I was there from 1998 to 2002. Now I’m in Northampton and we have moved into the presbytery.”

He says people have been very generous. “They are welcoming and tolerant, and there hasn’t been any problem that I have been aware of.” Nor, he says, has his family experienced any awkwardness. His wife Carole continues to work as a classroom assistant at the local village Church of England school that their two children attended, and they are still invited back to functions at their former Anglican parish. “We haven’t been rejected,” he says.

FR PETER GELDARD, a vocal opponent of the ordination of women in the Church of England, resigned from the General Synod immediately after the debate of November 1992, in which he spoke against the Measure. He stayed on in his parish of Davington, Kent, for the next 18 months, but finally left the C of E for the RC Church at Easter 1994, taking 38 members of his congregation with him.


The Revd Peter Geldard (above at the microphone) at a fringe meeting during the General Synod session in February 1993. He is with the Revd Stuart Wilson (left in picture), who also went over to Rome, and the Revd John Broadhurst, now the Bishop of Fulham

The move left him out of a job, and he and his wife Judith lost their home. It wasn’t easy; they had to downsize considerably, and some of their friends mysteriously melted away. “Fortunately, because my wife is a well-established teacher, we had other common friends. But it’s not easy being out of work at the age of 50.

“At this stage, the RC authorities had decided there was a possibility that married men might be ordained, but there were no guarantees. It was a worrying time.”

 With the support of Bishop John Jukes, auxiliary bishop in the Southwark diocese with responsibility for Kent, whom he had known for 20 years, Fr Geldard appealed to Rome in September 1994, and there was, he says “a long silence”. 

Eventually, he got the go-ahead, and went to seminary at Wonersh “to be resprayed”. He was ordained in 1996, and was appointed as the RC Chaplain for the University of Kent, where he remains today.

At the time of his resignation, Fr Geldard attracted a lot of press attention, because he had spoken out so publicly during the debate, and because so many of the congregation followed him into the RC Church. But he says he and his wife have encountered “overwhelming support” from even the most conservative members of the RC Church. “Any resistance has come from the ultra-liberals, who, by some kind of false logic, feel that, unless Fr Bloggs can marry Sr Maria, it’s not good enough, and there’s a slight embitterment there.

“But generally people have been very welcoming. I think that, as those of us who have come across have settled into the RC Church, and been very loyal, and made a strong contribution to upholding the Catholic Church in this country, people have begun to judge a priest as a priest. Whether someone is married has very quickly evaporated.”

FR JAMES BELL, a former Anglican, hit the headlines last year when he became, it is said, the first married man to be ordained as an RC priest in Scotland for at least 1000 years (although there are other married former Anglican priests working in Scotland).

Fr Bell, who is 64, was ordained in the Church of England in 1971. After a number of parish posts, he was Chaplain of Tonbridge School in Kent for 17 years. He was received into the RC Church the day after he left the school in 2000.

He received instruction, and was received in St George’s RC Cathedral in Southwark. He and his wife then moved to Scotland, where they had a retirement home. He was already in touch with the then Bishop of Aberdeen, the Rt Revd Mario Conti, who was “very encouraging”, Fr Bell says, and supported his application to Rome.

The process stalled for 18 months when Bishop Conti was appointed Archbishop of Glasgow, leaving a vacancy that had to be filled before  any decision could be made. But “Rome was generous,” he says, and, four years after being received as an RC, Fr Bell was ordained. He now works as an assistant priest at the city-centre parish of St Mary’s, Inverness.

Fr Bell says he and his wife Lesley, who runs a bookshop, have met “extraordinary warmth and generosity” from both lay people and clergy. “In the Catholic Church, there is a sense of belonging. The fact that the late Holy Father gave his permission — on the advice of Cardinal Ratzinger — means that the people [in the congregation] accept the decision. My fellow-priests have been exactly the same.”

NONE of the four men regard their situation as the start of a revolution. Fr Turnham says: “I’ve always said we are a blip. I don’t think the Church will see us as an experiment. In future, I won’t be surprised if [the situation changes], but I don’t think we will have been part of it. Globally, we are a very small part of a very big world.”

Fr Geldard agrees. “Our experience is at least an example of what is possible, but it is an exception to the norm. It shouldn’t be treated as anything more important. I see us as a ten-year factor, something that will carry on as long as we live.”

But, as Fr Behrens says, there are no guarantees about future Vatican policy. “We are right at the beginning of a new papacy. I would not like to make any predictions as to the future. I think we are in for a lot of surprises.”

THE Codex Iuris Canonici (1983) states that Roman Catholic clerics are bound to celibacy, and that a man who has a wife is impeded from receiving orders unless he is destined for the permanent diaconate. Dispensations may be granted.

Nevertheless, there have been periods in the history of the Roman Catholic Church when clerical concubinage has been rife — the tenth and 15th centuries, for example. It was a matter of debate whether celibacy was enjoined on the clergy by the law of God or the law of the Church. The debate concluded in favour of the latter (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica).

From The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone

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