Celibacy: The Gift of Alone for the Whole Church

UPDATE 3/10/18

When I first wrote this piece I hadn’t been able to check with my colleague and friend in the Diocese of Liverpool, whether she was happy to be included in this post, she is!

So please do also read Single Minded by Kate Wharton. Kate comes from an Evangelical / New Wine background and brings therefore, a different perspective to some of these issues. Kate made her commitment to celibacy in a beautiful ceremony in Liverpool Cathedral, the text is available here and here. An overview of Kate’s journey may be found here. Kate has also written recently about virginity. This is really significant. Common Worship: Daily Prayer replaced the tradition Common of Virgins with one for “Members of Religious Communities”. The traditional Office is very beautiful, I realise there are questions about why only women are included in this category, but it would be a shame to lose this important tradition.

The statistics show us that there is a crisis for marriage in our society. As a teacher and headteacher I have been concerned for a number of years with how we address this crisis. It is particularly difficult to do so without seeming to criticise children’s home situations. When I was a school chaplain in Portsmouth a group called Students Exploring Marriage were really helpful, they provided couples to come and speak to pupils about marriage. There is much mileage in this. Ironically, though, the most significant impact on young people I have worked with in thinking about marriage has been in introducing them to celibate men and women. Principally, this has been at Taizé meeting the brothers of the community and the Sisters of St Andrew who live nearby. For young people who do not know anyone who has made any commitment to anything or anyone for life presenting them with marriage can seem alienating. Presenting them with men and women who have or who are preparing to commit themselves to a whole life of celibacy is very powerful.

I have been thinking about this as I prepare prayerfully for Monday 1st October. On that day I shall stand alongside a priest friend as she makes her first, three year commitment of celibacy to her bishop in the Single Consecrated Life.

I have known and enjoyed friendships with vowed celibates for my whole life. They were part of my childhood, adolescence and ever since. Reflecting on Monday’s event I want to suggest some further reading, the ways in which celibacy is a gift for the whole church and the important way in which celibacy and marriage belong together and inform each other.


The literature on vowed celibacy is disappointing. Partly because it is often confused with something else. Much Roman Catholic literature conflates vowed celibacy with clerical celibacy, the obligation on priests of the Latin rite to be celibate. This is even partly true of Max Thurian’s otherwise excellent Marriage and Celibacy. Other, more contemporary literature blurs celibacy with singleness, those people who would have liked to marry but have not been able to, or have not met the right person to marry. Still further confusion is the language used in some Anglican circles for the requirement for same-sex couples to refrain from sex.

All christians are called to chastity, to a right ordering of sexual desire and action. I am talking about vowed celibacy freely chosen for the sake of the kingdom. Although even here the vocabulary is complex. At the Reformation vowed celibacy was largely rejected, partly because of a nervousness about vows. Even now at Taizé the brothers make ‘life commitments’ rather than take vows.

The best book I have read on the practice of vowed celibacy is still Donald Goergen’s The Sexual Celibate. Published in 1975 it was revolutionary for its time, although dated in its discussion on homosexuality, and it makes no reference to clerical sexual abuse, it is a very helpful text. Goergen understands absolutely the need for sexual maturity, for the integration of our sexual and spiritual lives into the whole personality whether celibate or married:

“I see both celibate and married people struggling with their sexual lives as well as spiritual lives… People felt that they had to choose between them—to be either sexual or spiritual. A fundamental presupposition of this book is that there is another alternative, that it is possible to be both sexual and spiritual whether celibate or married, and that this integration is for the greater glory of God.”

Goergen stresses the need for healthy friendships for celibate people and the need for friendships between men and women as well as with people of the same sex. Given the paucity of other reading of such high quality this is almost the only book on my “essential reading” list when thinking about vowed celibacy.


There are four Grove booklets that relate to this area.

A Biblical Theology of Singleness

Barry Danylak

Grove, 2007

Danylak provides a theology of singleness from the Biblical tradition. This is an overview of the Old and New Testament references to marriage and singleness. Although he doesn’t touch on later developments on celibacy it is a worthwhile read, showing that the Jesus community is oriented to more than offspring, land and the continuation of the family name.


Singleness and the Early Church

Kathryn Wehr

Grove, 2012

“living the eternal life now” is how Wehr describes the committed choice for celibacy in the early church. I really like the image she draws of those caught between a sex obsessed culture and a family-centred church. This is very helpful. Wehr takes the patristic witness seriously and the spiritual tradition of psalmody, prayer and fasting as well as other disciplines. I’m not completely convinced that she draws a link between celibacy and these disciplines, isn’t the link baptism? But it is music to my ears.

I think she is on stronger ground with her list of possible reactions to our sexual desires:

Wehr is spot on with her certainty that “We cannot live such a life on our own.” and we must “Find an instructor.”


Singled Out Or One In the Body

Lakshmi Deshpade

Grove, 2001

Deshpade addresses the issue of inclusion of single people in the church, despite over a third of people in churches being single. This is not so much about celibacy as inclusion, an interesting read.


Celebrating Celibacy

Stephanie Corvela

Grove, 2007

I think this is a really important piece. Written after research about women’s experience of celibacy it would be good to see similar work on the experience of male celibates. Corvela chooses to use celibate to describe her state (at the time of writing) of singleness but hoping to marry. It is a very good read.


Between 1979 and 1984, Pope John Paul II spoke on 129 occasions about sexuality and relationships. These papers and talks are known, and published together as his Theology of the Body, his training as a philosopher is very evident, I don’t agree with his conclusions but his methodology is excellent. There is much of enormous value in this material which is well worth reading.


For a Reformation perspective on celibacy Max Thurian is important, this thesis, Toward A Protestant Theology of Celibacy, available online here also provides a thorough summary.


I would also recommend a recent article by Eric Varden, abbot of Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicester in the Tablet on 1st September, 2018.



A few weeks ago I put out a request on Twitter and Facebook for good literature on celibacy and was surprised and disappointed not to receive any new recommendations. This is disturbing because I don’t think we will achieve a balance in our teaching on marriage and sexuality without good teaching on celibacy. If you know of good material please let me know. I am looking for something like updated versions of Goergen which are academically serious, as well as spiritually, theologically and psychologically mature.

I will sketch some thoughts here, beginning with the obvious. Celibacy is very like marriage in not being easy. The initial bloom of passion fading, early mid-life crisis, late working life crisis (this just prior to retirement crisis is not much written about but I have seen several times in reality), falling in love with other people, use of pornography; all of these can and do happen to married and celibate people alike. A few years ago I and many of his friends travelled a long way to attend the 60th anniversary of ordination of a celibate priest. At the reception afterwards it was almost impossible to speak to him because he had attention, only for the female ordinand in the parish; it was so obvious that it was much commented on among the guests and he later phoned around his friends to apologise. We loved this wise and holy man and were more than happy to forgive. Great age is no protector from the foolishness of sexuality.

One of the justifications for celibacy, often suggested around clerical celibacy, is that it provides greater availability, as if it provides more hours in the day. I think this is a dangerous notion. Every human being has needs for relaxation, friendship, hobbies and activities that are not work. In some ways celibate people, particularly those not living in community, need more time for these, they may have to travel to be with friends or find places other than at home. There can be a spiritual and psychological ‘availability’ that is a fruit of celibacy but it is not, I think, the right word to describe that and I shall say a little more about that later.

Sometimes a theology of celibacy is suggested that highlights its relationship to eternity, where no one will be married. In this sense celibacy is a kingdom vocation. I think this is very valuable especially in our current debates. It can help us not to idolise marriage but to see it as a ‘sacrament of creation’, that existed before the new covenant. It can help us recognise that the church does not own marriage and that marriage, alone of the sacraments, exists outside the church. In the Christian marriage rite the ministers of the sacrament are the couple being married; the church’s minister only witnesses the marriage – and then offers the church’s blessing on it. Marriage is also a sign of God’s relationship to his chosen people and Christ’s relationship to the church, but a sign.

It is as a sign, a sacrament (though not formally so in the western church) that, I think, we can best understand celibacy. The fact that marriage and celibacy have so much in common is precisely the point of the call to vowed celibacy. It is because of that commonality that celibacy can be a sign to married and celibate people, and that we can all learn from both.

For the Reformers there were only two sacraments ‘ordained by Christ’, baptism and Eucharist. This is right. Really, of course, Baptism-Eucharist are a single sacrament by which we are initiated into and participate in the Ur-Sacrament of Christ’s death-resurrection. All the other ‘sacraments’ are simply magnifications of that participation which order the church’s life and enable us to die and rise with Christ. When I marry couples I always give them a crucifix, a sign, alarming as it might be on their wedding day, that marriage is the means they are choosing for holiness, and marriage will certainly involve many crucifixions, many ‘dyings to self’ if it is to be fruitful. Every negotiation about “what shall we do tonight” is a reminder that the married person is not the centre of their own universe.

There is a healthy co-dependency needed in any marriage. But that co-dependency must have its limits if marriage is to be a means to holiness and happiness. When this post is published I will be just a few miles, God willing, from the town of Cavaillon in Provence. The (former) cathedral in the town is a particularly good example of romanesque architecture. The church is often full, in the summer, of tourists, but when I visit I head first for the cloistered garden off to one side. Many of the tourists miss it. I often find myself alone there. I prefer the cloister when the sun is high, searingly hot in the sunlight the shade of the walls creates instant cool.

We so love the social image of the Trinity, the community of three, the eternal dance – all dubious theology to say the least – that we forget that when we say that God is One, we are also saying that God Is Alone. Over the entrance to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton was a monk, two words dominate. God Alone. This can be read two ways, we seek only God, but also God is Alone.

Every human being, married, celibate or single, needs the cloister garden, the place of inner alone-ness and solitude. In fact every human being has that place, although it can cause, and perhaps need, an existential crisis to find it. It is not a place of emptiness (a ‘God shaped hole’) but of fullness, a searing fullness.

The vocation to celibacy is a gift to the church because at some point the celibate is faced with that alone-ness and can choose to find joy in it. I listed above some of the pitfalls of life that can afflict celibate and married alike. There is, though, a particular quality to the celibate life that the word ‘availability’ is approaching. In his article in the Tablet, Abbot Erik calls it ‘luminosity’ and writes of the standards set for celibates:

“… standards to which we should dare to aspire.

A standard first of all

of honesty and fidelity,

of readiness to seek help,

to struggle,

to trust grace,

to believe that holiness is possible;

a standard, too, of conversation.

To become trustworthy,

we must learn to entrust ourselves.

Sometimes when a marriage fails a partner will say, “I thought I knew him.” In fact, we can never totally know another human being. We are all Alone, as well as all one. I sometimes wonder if the debates about homosexuality are a displacement activity for our problem with heterosexuality, but perhaps the real deflection is from our unbearable alone-ness. Perhaps the key is understanding the gift of celibacy to the church. There is a wonderful gift of renewal in the church in fresh expressions and new communities but the real renewal of our church will be when we renew our understanding and joy in the gift of freely chosen celibacy, and when our celibate communities are thriving.

Sitting beside the bed of an elderly celibate priest with whom I had just concelebrated Mass, and who I had just anointed, we held hands for a few minutes in companionable silence before he said, “If I had my time again, I wouldn’t live it like this, all alone.” I squeezed his hand tighter and we sat there for a few minutes longer. I think both our eyes filled before he smiled and let go of me, “I don’t mean that. You’d better go and me leave me, alone.” His face was luminous. He had entrusted the liminal quality of his choices to me, “To become trustworthy, we must learn to entrust ourselves.”

Every vocation is a liminal thing, a not knowing, a ‘what if’ we had taken the other road. Marriage and celibacy freely chosen have much to teach us and we are enriched when we hear both.

In the rite for the vow of celibacy given on the Single Consecrated Life website the following beautiful prayer is offered. I have been praying it for my friend as she prepares for her vows on 1st October, I shall continue to pray it as I accompany her:

Through the gift of your Holy Spirit,

give her chastity with right judgement,

kindness with true wisdom,

gentleness with strength of character,

freedom with purity of heart.

Give her the gift of love to love you above all others.

May her life deserve our praise, without seeking to be praised.

May she give you glory by holiness of life.

Be yourself her glory, joy and whole desire.

Be her comfort in sorrow,

her wisdom in perplexity,

her protection in the midst of in justice,

her patience in adversity,

her riches in poverty,

her food in fasting,

her remedy in sickness.

She has chosen you above all things,

may she find all things in possessing you.

The 1st October is also the memoria of St Thérèse of Lisieux who had such devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to his divine compassion for us. Marriage and Celibacy are means by which God tenderises our hearts, softens them so that we may love as He loves.

Voici ce coeur qui a tant aimé les hommes.

Behold the Heart that has so loved humanity.


    1. Thanks Kelvin, I agree and try and point out that difference. My perception is that the elision is because of an undeveloped tradition of vowed celibacy in some traditions.


      1. I think it is hard to deny that more thinking about avowed celibacy might be a good thing. However, I think that it is the other way round. The elision is more because there is some tradition of celibacy but almost no thinking, theology or Christianity discourse about what it means to be single.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s