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Unmarried Men and the Church

Unmarried Men and the Church

By David G. Duggan
Special to Virtueonline
October 31, 2019

The death last week of the longtime (1962-87) and long-lived (98 years) Episcopal Bishop of Chicago the Rt. Rev. James Winchester Montgomery has saddened me but also caused me to think of the role of unmarried men in the advancement of the church and its doctrine. It probably was not for nothing that Jesus chose only men to be His disciples, and though women played an important role in the Gospel message, the fact that for most of its history the Western church has embraced celibacy says something about how God has viewed the body as the earthly vessel of His divine message.

I can't say what it is about the abjuration of earthly delights that yields some coherence of doctrine. So far as I can tell no other "Abrahamic" religious tradition imposes or even suggests the practice of celibacy: rabbis, emirs, mullahs all marry and have offspring, and in the Eastern Orthodox tradition priests may, indeed must marry. Orthodox bishops by contrast are drawn from ranks of the unmarried at ordination. Put in monasteries until such time as they are tapped to lead a diocese, these unmarried men have also advanced the faith. Think for instance of St. Basil, 4th century bishop of Caesarea and author of the liturgy still widely used in the Church across denominations, and St. John Chrysostom, 4th century archbishop of Constantinople regarded as the finest preacher in church history whose Easter sermon welcoming all no matter how long they've toiled in the vineyard is still read each Easter at Orthodox churches.

The Bible records that Jesus healed Peter's "wife's mother" (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-41) which suggests that his wife was still living at the time of Jesus' miracle, but we know nothing of Peter's wife after the Resurrection. The only named witnesses to Jesus' death on the cross were women, and women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection. That Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James [and Salome and Joanna per two Gospel accounts] were going to the tomb to prepare Jesus' body for burial gives an insight into how antiquity viewed the body: from her son's development of a conscience until his death, a woman of 1st Century Judea would likely never have viewed a man's naked form. Connubial relations were conducted in the dark.

Every man passes through a woman's body yet a man's conscious forsaking of that passageway perhaps yields a focus on eternity. The lack of domesticity is traded for the relentless pursuit of the Truth in Jesus, a pursuit that few wives would put up with. Swiss Reformers John Calvin and William Farel never married, nor did John Henry Newman, the one-time Anglo-Catholic tractarian who became England's first Roman Catholic cardinal after Henry VIII declared himself the supreme head of the Church in England. Even Martin Luther's most productive years were before his marriage to the former nun Katharina von Bora. One can hardly imagine a married Luther uttering his "Here I stand" speech to the Diet of Worms offering himself as a sacrifice for his beliefs.

Bishop Montgomery, who confirmed me in 1965, had a long-time companion but for all of his active ministry in Chicago, his identity was unknown. "Jack" was the headmaster of a prep school in the DC area and after Montgomery's retirement the two established a household. But they never flaunted their relationship, and though "gay marriage" became the law of the land in 2015 (legal in IL in 2014) they never sought that sacrament and I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

With recent disclosures about the relationship between Newman and the Rev. Ambrose St. John, his cohabitant of 32 years and fellow convert from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic Church, prompted by efforts both to canonize Newman and to recognize homosexuality within the Church, it is too great a lift to suggest that a homosexual orientation is key to the spreading of the Gospel. And with the incessant disclosures of aberrant behavior by clerics of all stripes it is wise not to go down that path. Still the facts are the facts and the Church would not be where it is were it not for unmarried men who preached the Gospel.

David Duggan is a retired attorney living in Chicago and is an occasional contributor to VOL

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