The debate regarding the issue of homosexuality, particularly the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions, has been arguably the debate in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for quite some time now. A popular attitude now is to throw one’s hands up in disgust at the “extremists” on both sides of the debate that are splitting the church and bemoan the obsession our has culture with sex, which is keeping the church from focusing on much more important things like education and evangelism. Those who are fed up with and critical of the preoccupations of the Presbyterian General Assemblies of the past decade might be surprised to learn that sex was as much a topic of religious debate in England in the 1520s-1560s as it is in America today. In fact, the sexual explicitness of some of the mudslinging makes today’s debates look rather tame. Robert Parkyn, for instance, describes married clergy as men “whiche had ledde ther lyffes in fornication with whores & harlotts.” Even more shocking is John Bale’s assertion that even the most chaste priests were “lecherous as goats” for whom a “well-papped pigeon of Paul’s” (a London prostitute) does “cool the contagious heats of a coltish confessor.”
Of course, the debate on clergy marriage wasn’t just about sex, though that dimension was certainly explored—no doubt because of its popular appeal. At its heart, it was about the Reformation itself. The battle lines had been drawn, not between liberal and conservative Presbyterians, but between Protestants and Catholics, and the specific issue of clergy marriage often raised much broader theological issues such as Biblical authority, tradition, salvation, and the sacraments which were key to the larger debates of the Reformation in Europe. In this way, supporting clergy marriage could be seen as an integral part of and even synonymous with supporting the protestant Reformation.
Despite the common depiction of Protestants appealing only to scripture and Catholics appealing only to tradition, Helen Parish’s analysis of the theological debate reveals that more often than not Protestants and Catholics alike were seeking to defend their position and attack their opponents’ on any available ground, whether it be scripture, tradition or morality. Reformers cited myriad examples from the Old Testament of godly marriages, such as that of Abraham and Sarah, and saw the prohibition on priestly marriage of widows or prostitutes Leviticus and Deuteronomy as proof that priests could marry. Meanwhile, their Catholic rivals pointed out the numerous celibate men such as Joshua and Daniel, and interpreted the holiness codes as evidence of the importance in the Old Testament of purity in the presence of the sacred. If anything, the changed role and function of the Priest and especially the Eucharist required more purity than in ancient times, not less.
Protestants, however, had different views of the sacramental nature of the Eucharist and argued that Christ had freed us from the need from ritual purity. For them, the issue of clerical celibacy became inextricably linked to what they saw as the flawed theology underpinning the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist and its role in salvation. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the means of our salvation, not the priestly offering of the Eucharist. Related to this was their objection to the implication that celibacy was a gift granted to anyone who asked for it and allowed one to achieve a certain degree of perfection for which one would be rewarded in the life to come. Both these views, in the reformers’ minds bordered on idolatry. Given the extent of the fall, human nature was such that celibacy was a rare gift, and as there was no Biblical mandate for its requirement, making it compulsory was in effect creating sin where there otherwise would have been none. In the frequently cited words of Paul, it was better to marry than to burn, that is to burn with lust and then burn in Hell for having committed fornication or adultery to satisfy it. In the same vein, it was better for those who had made vows that were based on faulty theology and would thus be displeasing to God to break them rather than descend farther into sin, both by his actions and false beliefs.
The claim that the Catholic church was encouraging sin through mandatory clerical celibacy was an important one with regards to the support of clergy marriage. The failure of the priesthood to keep their vows of chastity was one of the chief signs for reformers that those vows were misguided. It fit neatly into their depiction of the presence of the Antichrist in the Catholic Church. The popular image of the priest handling the body of Christ fresh from a rendezvous with a whore was a convenient parallel to the passages in Revelations concerning the overthrow of the whore of Babylon.
It was part and parcel of their rewriting church history to show that the Roman Catholic Church and not the Reformers had been the ones to break with the Apostolic Church and that the Protestant Reformation was about restoration, not innovation. To do this, they appealed to accounts of the lives of the apostles and the early church in the New Testament. From Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy that “The Bishop should be the husband of one wife” to the marriage of Peter, in Catholic eyes the first pope, it was clear to Reformers that clergy marriage had been a vital part of the early church. Supporters of clergy marriage also appealed to patristic sources to confirm that celibacy was not mandatory in the early church but introduced later by the Catholic Church. They pointed to early controversies to invalidate Catholic claims to unity and continuity, and, no doubt to the amusement of many Protestants, listed a surprising number of bishops and Popes from the first millennium who were either married themselves or the children of clergy.
The use of extra-scriptural sources to support their argument, however, raised the issue of authority and highlighted a key difference between the supporters of clergy marriage and their opponents. Whereas Catholic writers saw the teachings of the Church and the early Fathers as a source of divine revelation and authority, the Reformers subjected them to the test of scripture and thus could reject their teachings as easily as they could endorse them. This is obviously what they did when discussing medieval church history, where “the history of sacerdotal celibacy in the church after the pontificate of Gregory the Great was portrayed as a story of disunity and innovation, as successive popes and prelates attempted without success to enforce celibacy upon their clergy.”
Reformation theology, however, was not the only thing that influenced the support of clergy marriage in England. The peculiar and uncertain political situation in England from Henry’s divorce to the first few years of Elizabeth’s reign certainly affected the consequences of support and thus the amount. For instance, when Anne Boleyn and her circle were in royal favor, it looked as if Henry VIII might carry England through the Reformation in sync with the Protestant churches on the Continent. Some, like Cranmer, married during this time, only to be put in an extremely awkward position once it became clear that Henry most certainly did not approve of clerical marriage, specifically in 1536 when he ordered his bishops to secretly find out which of their priests were married and then report them to the council or arrest them and send them to him.
In 1539 in the Act of Six Articles, those violating freely and maturely made chastity vows was made a felony punishable by death, though the sentence was later reduced to loss of benefice or life imprisonment on the third offence. Although this was not as strictly enforced as it could have been—Thomas Cranmer, for instance, was never prosecuted and actually had the power to grant dispensations—it made things that much more difficult. Cranmer’s wife, for example, is reported to have lived “in the deepest seclusion” in order to avoid prosecution, and like many clergy wives was sent abroad for her protection. Some bishops, like Nicholas Shaxton, understandably repudiated their wives were forced to choose between marriage and being burned at the stake. These tribulations were that much stronger and widespread in Mary’s reign following a period where clergy marriage was legal and coupled with an attempt to stamp out Protestantism.
Although Henry’s prohibition on clergy marriage was removed entirely during Edward’s reign, the new king’s poor health made the situation precarious. Nevertheless, Spielmann notes that at least 1000 clergy must have married, based on the deprivations recorded during Mary’s reign. Even with the full support of the regime, clergy were faced with other practical considerations that might have curbed otherwise enthusiastic support. The economic and legal status of clergy wives and children was ambiguous—not only did the first Edwardian legislation neglect its mention, there was no precedent to guide the way. In a period of inflation, reduced Episcopal estates, and new and heavy taxation, the government seemed unsympathetic to the needs of married clergy to provide for their families. The first clergy wives also suffered from popular harassment, from being called whores to being refused service by midwives.
The financial and legal difficulties continued into Elizabeth’s reign, where clergy marriage was again legalized—this time for good, though with the cumbersome and perhaps humiliating restriction that the intended wives of clergy or deacons must first be approved by the bishop of the diocese as well as the woman’s parents or next-of-kin. At least eleven married bishops who had been in serious financial trouble at some point in their lives died in Elizabeth’s reign without leaving a will, which meant that their wives had no clear right to dower. Many others, such as Bentham, John Bullingham, and Thomas Godwin, owed money to the crown and others; as a result widows like Bishop Best’s were often left destitute. According to one source, 45 per cent of the Elizabethan bishops who died before 1580 did so poor or in debt. It’s no wonder that bishops like Cox and Fletcher were often reluctant to give courtiers the advantages leases of their lands that the queen demanded. On top of all this, clergy wives, unlike the wives of temporal lords, were denied the social rank of their husbands and were thus excluded from state occasions. Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s rumored and apparent dislike of clergy marriage did not seem to influence her choice of bishops in a negative way.
Even the political circumstances in England cannot be viewed in isolation from the larger context of the Reformation. In a large part, support of clergy marriage both by the government and the people was an indication of support for the Protestant Reformation in general. Thus Henry can be seen as “not quite Protestant,” rejecting the pope but embracing most other Catholic doctrines and ceremonies, and Mary as very blatantly Roman Catholic. Meanwhile, Edward and Elizabeth are harder to place. The negative language of the Edwardian Act legalizing clerical marriage and Elizabeth’s restrictions on the clergy’s choice of wife can be read as arguably symbolic or perhaps prophetic of the via media that the Church of England was to claim between Puritan theology and Roman Catholicism.
I have argued throughout this paper that the debate on clergy marriage wasn’t just about sex but about much bigger issues about what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be Protestant, and what it meant to be an English Protestant. Perhaps those American Presbyterians frustrated with the ongoing and seemingly irresolvable debate on sexuality can see it more constructively as a point of entry into much bigger issues. It, too, is as much about Biblical authority and interpretation as anything else. It touches on the theology of baptism, the duty to respond to a call and use one’s gifts, the standards and role of the ministry, the theology of “the priesthood of all believers”, the definition of sin, the viability of “true repentance,” the purpose of marriage, and many more issues that were central to the debate on clergy marriage in the 16th century. Christians have been vigorously debating what often seem like minor points of doctrine for as long as there have been Christians, but these seemingly pointless debates are usually tied up in some significant way to our struggle to understand ourselves and our relationship to God. To dismiss them is to misunderstand them and also to miss an opportunity, perhaps the opportunity, to wrestle with your faith in a meaningful way, both individually and as a community. That being said, given that the context of the debate on clergy marriage was the splitting of the Church, perhaps our goal in these debates should be not to unequivocally condemn those we see as “wrong” but to find a way to preserve the unity of the church in the midst of our disagreements. To resist the temptation to impose uniformity of doctrine, seeking consensus through our wrestling with each other. To trust that in the midst of our struggle, we will find God.
Marshall, Peter, The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation, 1994.
Parish, Helen, Clerical Marriage and the English Reformation: Precedent, Polity and Practice, 2000.
Prior, Mary, “Tudor Bishops’ Wives,” Women in English Society 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior, 1985.
Spielmann, Richard M., “The Beginning of Clerical Marriage In the English Reformation: The Reigns of Edward and Mary, Anglican and Episcopal History, 156: 3 (1987)