THE CHURCH OF ENGLANDAND ITS DIVORCED VICARS

In a comment on my post I'M HAVING TROUBLE BEING SYMPATHETIC, my good friend, Klady (from the USA) states that, "Until fairly recently, a priest who divorced (or even was divorced), even with little or no "fault," had to leave his parish and possibly be unemployed or underemployed for some time."

This situation has definitely changed now in England although getting married to someone else after being divorced can still be problematic (the ease of doing so being dependent on the beliefs and personality of the divorcee's bishop). In fact, some bishops lean over backwards to help clergy ditch their spouses.

The nearest I ever came to being offered a vicar's post in Newcastle was when I went for the job of vicar of the two parishes of St. Hilda and St. Aidan near Whitley Bay. The representatives of St. Aidan's were in favour of my appointment but the reps of the "stronger" parish of St. Hilda decided that they wanted another candidate to get the job and they persuaded their colleagues at St. Aidan to back down.

The priest who got the job was a woman. As she was married to the vicar of a church nearby I asked the rural dean, Geoff Miller, what was going to happen to the vicarage in the parish where she was going to work. He told me that she was going to live there. So I said, "So her husband is moving to the vicarage with his wife?" "No," he replied. "They will be living in sparate houses from now on."

Of course, the two priests involved were academic types who were close to the Bishop of Newcastle, but it still went to show how much things had moved on when it came to priests separating from their spouses. The Bishop of Newcastle (who personally oversaw and was present at the interviews) was much happier to employ a priest going through a divorce than a priest who had suffered from, but recovered from, depression ten years previously.

Comments

THE CHURCH OF ENGLANDAND ITS DIVORCED VICARS — 36 Comments

  1. Treating clergy with one kind of breakdown differently than those with others is largely due to ignorance, not hypocrisy. Those who break down without moral fault are certainly deserving of both compassion and assistance, but I don’t see how pointing out their moral superiority is itself a worthy argument in their favor.

    Yes, it is easier now, or at least finally within the realm of possibility, to salvage careers in the wake of the breakdown of a marriage. However, how one fares often depends on who one knows and how much one can rely on friends and allies in high places within the institution. Thus, those who are well-connected have better options and a greater chance of avoiding outrageously immoral behavior. To a lesser extent, the same may be true of those with disabling mental conditions – if one has friends in the right places one has a better chance of coming out of it with employment. No doubt the big difference, however, is that people with the power and inclination to assist are more understanding of marital difficulties and more likely to recognize their own vulnerabilities in that regard, then they are with regard to mental problems.

    None of it changes the fact, however, that clergy are expected to be super-human, in terms of mental, spiritual, and moral health. That’s a serious problem for everyone.

  2. I still think that playing away whilst you are married is wrong as is beating on your spouse or psychologically abusing your spouse. A marriage breakdown without such evil components is a different matter entirely which is why I started my previous post with the statement that I never condemn people in such situations. I expect marital fidelity off every Christian equally. Being a priest has nothing to do with it as far as I’m concerned.

    Heck, Klady, I fall in love with people all the while but I don’t shag them. I’m neither a rabbit or a robot. I have free will.

  3. So you are morally superior and you attribute it to being a Christian. Seems to me that is the same position taken by those who claim to Stand Firm in Faith. I think a sermon on grace is in order here, but I’ll leave that to the professionals.

  4. It’s not only the church that has double standards, particularly where marriage breakdown is involved.

    Many years ago, in the armed forces, my marriage broke down. My spouse was at fault, but the service I was with, blamed me. It was an inconvenience to have someone in a senior position breaking up with their spouse – it was untidy and meant finding alternative accommodation for me, as my Ex remained in the service provided accommodation.

    I was shipped off to the other end of the country, without any choice in it. Spurious reasons were that I was depressed as a result of my split with my spouse and couldn’t function properly or give full attention to my role.

    There is so many discriminations there that I can’t count them. In the meantime, others, who broke up with their spouses, who held similar positions to mine, were allowed to continue unimpeded and even promoted and commissioned. As you describe it, they were the ones who were well connected, had support from their chain of command, so were not put through being forcibly separated from their children by 350 miles.

    It’s a hard road to come through. I went to a Psychiatrist to seek their opinion about the supposed depression – they said that it was grief over the broken relationship, a sense of loss, which would pass. I had been removed from my job because one person, not medically qualified, had the power to just do it, to remove an inconvenience from their unit.

    I was bitter about the treatment that I received, it effectively ended a promising career and precluded any further advancement – no wonder I left as early as I could.

    There is no moral excuse for the way people like you and I were and are treated. It’s purely discrimination based on spurious opinions, gossip and the perception that you are a ‘basket case’ and need to be sent away, not for your protection, but for their own.

    I’m not going to identify myself if you don’t mind, because I’ve had to revisit this recently for reasons completely unconnected to my previous marriage, so it remains a little raw.

  5. No, Klady. What a silly suggestion. I am saying that Christians follow a specific moral code and that we are hypocrites when we fail to obey it, especially when its just for our selfish pleasures. I said “Christian” because I don’t have the right to speak about the moral norms of other belief systems and secular ideologies. You will notice that, in the same way, I always talk about England and not Scotland. It’s a respect thing.

  6. Thanks, Anonymous. I am as a guilty as anyone in behaving as if only the church existed when people in other situations have it just as bad and, sometimes, even worse.

  7. The lack of compassion and assistance from those who are not only in a position to give it but have a responsibility to do so, as well, is certainly an awful thing to suffer. I appreciate the horrors you have gone through, anon., because of such treatment, and I admire your courage in sharing them.

    Divine justice and mercy, however, while intertwined, are not always the same thing. Unmerited ill treatment is one way humans fall short of divine standards. Another is failing to fully embrace the notion of unmerited grace and mercy. While the latter is largely in the hands of God, humans can and do nevertheless do their best to stand in its way and to rush to shame and humiliate anyone who does not meet their standards of virtue and right behavior, because somehow leaving such persons to simply suffer the consequences of their behavior is never enough for the righteous.

    The only way to avoid the latter is empathy, and empathy requires being able to put oneself in another’s shoes. In my book, a pastor, priest, or lay Christian who does not know and appreciate that he or should could easily sin as egregiously as the sinner before them, has missed the heart of what Jesus tried to tell and show us. If we cannot honestly say and feel that “there but the grace of God, go I,” we cannot begin to be merciful even to the limited extent that humans are capable of. If you, MP, can reduce an extra-marital affair to sex, and at that, the “playing around” kind, then that shows as much a lack of imagination and understanding as those who view faithful same-sex relationships as consisting of nothing more than indulgence in perverse pleasure.

    Adulterous extra-marital sex is no doubt poisonous, and infidelity is certainly a grave sin. But it is not necessarily about the pursuit of pleasure or even escape from pain and responsibility. While any sexual relationship, licit or illicit, that is only about the pursuit of pleasure is demeaning and ultimately hurtful, any sexual relationship, licit or illicit, may involve two people sharing vulnerability and exposing their hidden truths to each other, with as much potential for “both revelation and pain” as licit sex. The critical difference, of course, is that the price to be paid for adultery is exorbitant, in terms of the inevitable pain to others and the despair, shame, and guilt that comes from knowing the moments are stolen and fleeting, and that both the illicit relationship, as well as many others, is on the brink of destruction.

    So, yes, it should and must be avoided, no matter what. But anyone who does not have compassion for those who might succumb to the temptation for reasons far more compelling and deeper than surface pleasure, who cannot imagine doing the same thing under similar circumstances, who honestly believes that a cross or a Bible will protect them from such transgressions, cannot effectively pastor or even show love or care as Jesus wanted us to do, empowered by God’s grace alone, without the ugly shadow of moral rectitude.

  8. Of course, I can imagine doing it. But I don’t do it. That is the point.

    I have consistently kept my comments to discussing the morality of the situation. It is others who keep trying to set me up as being without compassion so they can win an argument I’m not even having. As I keep saying, there will be forgiveness and it is not up to us to cast the first stone (to punish).

    Tell me, why is screwing around behind your wife’s back so much less a form of abuse in your book than beating your wife up, Klady?

  9. MP, you continue to be an inspiration, and saying it as it is openly and transparently demonstrates your integrity and exposes the lack of it in others.

    I wish I had your courage to face things so openly, sadly I haven’t. But I support you all the way.

  10. I’m not sure what the point is in creating grades of sin. Both are wrong, and, yes, both are abuse. But if you insist on drawing distinctions, physically assaulting someone is not the same thing as making love to someone out of desperate need and loneliness, with no conscious desire to inflict pain on others, no matter how delusional that behavior may be. Both are wrong, extremely hurtful, and a betrayal of the trust and mutual respect that marriage requires. But it is much easier to see, know, and understand that the first is always wrong, than the latter, and I am afraid it has always been thus. Either way, I do not see what that has to do with mercy, rather than justice.

    The fact that you, MP, are certain that you would never commit sexual infidelity (and I have no doubt that you are right in that self-assessment) is not much different than the person who refrains from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, self-destructive eating habits, and cannot imagine why others cannot simply say “no” and not refrain what they know is harmful or wrong, just as you can. We all have different proclivities towards harmful and sinful behavior, and what you would never allow yourself to do, no matter how tempted, may involve much greater and different self-restraint and self-knowledge for someone else to resist the same temptation. What we all have in common is that we have our own tipping points, so to speak, and we cannot simply say that one kind of transgression can be avoided by sure force of will because we “know better” and think we and anyone else so informed should be able to act accordingly.

    There are moral codes across cultures and religions, and one can reasonably argue that there is or should be some kind of universal morality based on some core Christian concepts. Moral instruction and the real threat of shame can deter some bad behavior, but only so much. The best deterrence is to not only recognize how one feels when treated badly by others and to avoid doing it to others, but to go further to empathize with others who suffer in ways outside one’s own experience or outside one’s immediate sphere of friends, family, tribe, or nation.

    Perhaps even more important is the ability to see the divine image in every human being, even and especially those who do wrong, and help them find the way to go out and do their best to “sin again no more.” I believe that requires standing in their shoes, understanding the depth of their shame and knowing that one is not necessarily stronger or better or wiser, more virtuous or more Christian, than the other person just because one has managed to refrain from committing the same kind of sins.

  11. Yes. But all this has nothing to do with my post. I keep saying that this is not about compassion and forgiveness. Of course, I understand (although to be honest I understand the need to do violence more than I understand the need to pursue the experience of new love). I have no desire that these people should be punished. I wrote to Tracie privately and told her that if this man was my friend I would stick by him but I would also tell him that what he did was wrong. All I am saying is that betrayal is an evil thing. A major sin.

    I do think that the so called liberal part of the church has got the compassion and forgiveness exactly right. We also get the condemnation right when others are attacking our people. But we do not get the condemnation right when our own people do evil stuff. This makes it too easy for us to hurt others.

    If we are going to throw out the concept of hell and damnation then we have to be stricter with ourselves. I am talking about controlling ourselves before the event and condemning the event if it happens. Doing this does not have to effect our attitude to those involved after the event.

  12. I would agree that the liberal part of the church often does not police its own as it should, but I question whether it is less attentive with regard to this kind of basic moral failing.

    In any event, I’m not sure what you think “condemnation” is supposed to look like in this context. It sounds to me like you are talking about laying on as much shame as possible. Brown distinguishes between shame and guilt, finding the latter necessary, important, and fruitful and the former damaging all round and counter-productive. I’m not sure there is as clear as a distinction as she’d like to make (but then I haven’t delved into her writing and research yet). But I think there must be some way that liberal Christianity can promote clear and strict moral standards without competing with the conservatives in the shame department so as to do one’s utmost to degrade and humiliate the wrongdoer for the purpose of communicating how totally unacceptable such behavior is in both civilized society and Christian community. Such degradation generally only leads to worse kinds of behavior. And we all know that hating the sin and loving the sinner is pretty darned difficult to pull off.

    What I object to is you’re reiterating that you would never do it. What is the point in your declaration that it is a line that you would never cross? Do you really think that saying that sternly and severely is going to make anyone sit up straight, take note, and start living their lives in accordance with all such moral imperatives?

    I honestly don’t believe that hell and damnation ever did much to scare people into being good. Fear and shame have been tried since the beginning of humanity, with little success. Perhaps what liberals lack is not strong, swift, or loud condemnation but rather conviction in the power and necessity of goodness for its own sake.

    ———————————
    [Written before reading MP’s last post]

    I fully agree that the issue is not punishment. It seems, instead, to be merit — whether a priest or anyone else who does not violate their marriage vows is more deserving of employment or other benefits than someone who does violate them. I would grant you that this may be the case in some circumstances (while noting that the priest in question has not kept his position, as far as one can tell). But I would not grant that someone is is morally superior to another just because he has refrained from sinning in a particular way and that such restraint is evidence of greater merit, as a human being, a Christian, or a priest of the church.

    Those kinds of comparisons seem repugnant to Christianity, as I understand it, which is not simply a moral code of behavior that requires strict adherence. The rules are not the thing; it is the spirit within them, and that spirit requires empathy so as to not only refrain from harming others, but also to refrain from lording over those who break the rules, especially if they are finally exposed and must face the consequences.

    I’m not sure I would want a pastor or a fellow layperson who is constantly mindful of the sins and shortcomings of others for the sake of pointing out his or her superior moral sensibilities and conduct. I would want a pastor who can deal with everyone as having equal merit, and who, like Jesus, seeks out sinners and dares to know, understand, and bring them God’s forgiveness. I don’t see how that is possible if one cannot honestly say “I could actually do” that or any other sin, even though I knew it was deeply wrong, and from that perspective love and respect the person and do whatever is humanly possible to help him or her work out some kind of redemption through God’s grace.

  13. To condemn something is to say that it is wrong. Nothing more. And that is all I am talking about which is why I haven’t argued with anything you have said, klady. You’re talking about different stuff. All very fine stuff but beyond what I am talking about.

    But I do think there are commandments that require strict adherence. Of course, if someone fails to adhere to them there is forgiveness (although to sin because you know God will forgive you is a dangerous thing to do). But that doesn’t invalidate the requirement of strict adherence. For example, Jesus condemns adultery and makes it something that is a complete no no, but then he goes and forgives the woman caught in adultery.

    You seem to want only the second bit of that equation.

    To say that you are capable of doing something is honesty. To say that you might do something is giving yourself permission to do it. It is better to say you will not do something with the intention of not doing it. Then if you do end up doing it you can truly repent having not just tricked God into forgiving you.

  14. I don’t think that people sin and expect to be forgiven because they think or know that God forgives sin. Nor do I think people are saved from sin by knowing that something is wrong. Sin can occur in total desolation and absence of all sense of God, no matter how well one has been instructed or how strong one’s convictions have formerly been. People who sin in a major way do not care about the consequences, on heaven or earth, and sometimes want nothing more than to burn in hellfire, literally or otherwise. It can be like a moth drawn to the flame. They already think so little of themselves that they do not believe it matters what they do — if they think or feel at all (hard to say whether someone totally lacking in empathy or shame or guilt can be a moral agent and whether being in such a state is a result of some path that led them to immersion in evil and/or is the result of a severe psychological or neurological disorder).

    Whether one is in the grip of suicidal thoughts and behaviors or anger and rage, awareness of the moral code is not going to prevent injurious conduct if the person is already convinced of their unworthiness. It takes both courage and some kind of sense of self worth to behave as one should in the midst of numbness, emptiness, or deep emotional or psychological pain or stress. That doesn’t mean that anyone is “excused” because of what torments them, what they have suffered, or because they fail to keep in mind what they should know about hope, decency, and concern for others. But it’s complicated, and only God truly knows what is going on and how to judge it. I just think one needs to have a healthy respect for the living hell that people sometimes find themselves in and not try to dissect how the forces of good and evil fought, won or lost.

    What we can do is recognize when we have succumbed to it, do our best to understand how it damaged us and others, and come to know that we, with God’s help, can resist and overcome it the next time, and the next time, and the next time, and the time after that, doing our best not to repeat the same sin over and over, and to support others struggling to do their best, as well.

    The hard part is when one emerges from one crisis, thinking and feeling that one is born again, so to speak, but later finding that one continues to fall short in one way or another. To keep on going, picking oneself up after each fall, and honestly endeavoring to do better and believing it possible, is so much more difficult than just identifying the rules to live by. It takes strength and courage and singleness of heart to go forward.

  15. All that is true.

    As is the fact that to betray someone is the worst possible thing you can do in life.

    At least it is in my mind.

    It is an idea that is both a friend and an enemy. But if I did not have this idea I would be alone and lost. I would have no faith because my faith is based on this idea. It makes my faith make sense. It is my key to the story.

    I have stuck to this idea even when it was a car careering down a hill with broken breaks, on many occasions.

    My blog is this idea.

    But, as I said, it is my idea.

  16. There once was a Reverend who found
    There are prettier women around
    Well we all know that’s true
    But we don’t all go do
    What we want, if we’re feeling spellbound

  17. We all need some kind key to the story or we will be lost. However, a key only opens a single door, and no key unlocks the entire mystery.

    It is understandable that many of us spend much of our lives trying to combat those evils we identify as having causing harm to ourselves or those whose suffering has deeply affected us. Sometimes this inspires us and allows us to persevere beyond the point when others might give up hope, perhaps even with some success. Other times it may keep us so bound up in the struggle that were are locked in for life, as if in wrestling match that goes on forever, with both sides pinned to each other, straining with the effort to get the final advantage and win. Hard to say how any such struggle will turn out.

    Ran across this view of betrayal:

    “An act of betrayal creates a signature constellation, in both its victims and its perpetrators, of negative behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. The interactions are complex. The victims exhibit anger and confusion, and demand atonement from the perpetrator; who in turn may experience guilt or shame, and exhibit remorse. If, after the perpetrator has exhibited remorse or apologized, the victim continues to express anger, this may in turn cause the perpetrator to become defensive, and angry in turn. Forgiveness of betrayal is exhibited by the victim foregoing the demands for atonement and retribution; and is only complete where the victim does not continue to remind the perpetrator of the act, to demand apologies, or to review the incident again and again.”

    Note that betrayal can come in many forms, with the worst trauma being the result of being turned on by someone or something one had depended upon and trusted completely. Sexual infidelity may or may not represent betrayal because, among other things, it requires some kind of relationship that creates such expectations, trust, or need. One can also be the victim of deep betrayal by a spouse who never commits any kind of sexual indiscretion and who appears to the world to be faithful in all respects. Those are sometimes the hardest to bear and recover from.

    God, at least, is merciful, and in due time, all wounds may heal (or heal enough).

  18. If a person’s marriage has broken down to such an extent that both people are more unhappy together than they would be if they parted then they should get a divorce. Getting a lover to either avoid or force the issue is cowardly and it’s adultery.

    God is merciful after an evil act not before it.

  19. I’m afraid that psychology is not your forte, MP. You are in a narrow rut of intention and sequential causation that bears no resemblance to how and why people act in certain ways. You also ignore both what the church has always taught, which is to stick it out in all circumstances, except in cases of extreme and demonstrable abuse.

    In any event, how either a moralist or a lawyer reconstructs intentions and motives after the fact is not what happens in real time. People think an act first emotionally. Reason does not dictate action, at least not in the straight line you imgagine. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-prize winner’s book on Thinking, Fast and Slow” is instructive. Doesn’t excuse misconduct, but one cannot begin to try to prevent it without having the least bit of understanding as to how and why it occurs.

    You are really funny, MP. It’s really all about sex with you, as well as the Other Side. What on earth do they teach you (or deprive you of) in seminary?

    Sex is sex. It can mean love, it can mean violence, it can mean commitment, it can mean mindless pleasure, it can mean grunting and groaning, it can mean making babies, it can mean neurons sparking all over. It does not mean anything in and of itself, only what we project onto it.

    Nevertheless, sexual infidelity, in or outside of a marital relationship, is almost always deeply hurtful, in part out of a visceral response that has to do with possessiveness and jealousy and a deep need for security and predictability. It can be so hurtful and traumatic that a relationship of any kind cannot continue (although cultural expectations sometimes require one — usually the woman — to look the other way or otherwise just learn to live with it).

    So, yes, it’s crappy when it occurs, with dreadful consequences all round. I’m no apologist for adultery. But I also know that there are much deeper fissures that occur in marriages, with or without sexual misconduct, and to talk about what is cowardly or courageous ways of dealing with them is hogwash. You have no way of knowing which path through or out of bad marriages has the most integrity and what formidable social, economic, and even physical safety issues may create huge obstacles to any kind of simple, straightfoward, or otherwise apparently rational solution — especially when children are involved.

    As a moralist and as a satirist, you need to approach things from a black and white perspective — all evil, all good. But if, as you may still fervently hope, you will someday return to parish ministry, then at some point you will have to give up some of your pontifical ways of thinking.

    As long as any of us hold to the ideals of equality within as well as among marriages, more attention and concern needs to be given to the many other kinds of infidelity that may precede sexual infidelity and to healing for everyone afterwards, including the poor bloke who can’t figure out how and why he jumped into bed with someone else and wakes up with no home, his paychecks on hold, and his children alien beings whom, if he is lucky, he can see for more than a few hours from time to time. Those guys (and gals) are all over the place, hurting deep inside and messing up the rest of the world even further, in the workplace, in the courthouse, in the neighborhood. Believe it or not, you don’t need to tell them they were wrong — what you need to do is teach them how to live with themselves, be honest with themselves, make amends to the extent they can, and be strong enough to tell others what it is like. Kind of like AA – why they do NOT have leaders or speakers who say that they have never drunk to excess, never had a problem with alcohol, and would dare tell those who have had their lives destroyed or nearly destroyed by it that it is bad for them and that they were wrong and stupid not to have stopped themselves before things got so bad. Believe me, preaching rarely saves anyone before a fall.

  20. All I have said is adultery is wrong. I keep emphasising that is a statement completely divorced from forgiveness, compassion and excuses, all of which I have kept pointing out are the proper Christian responses. So you are saying that in some cases adultery is okay. I don’t think arguing with that statement makes me a black and white person, I think it just makes me normal.

    I was divorced and I remarried. My first wife walked out of the marriage when we were both just 21 years old because her father had sexually abused her big time from when she was 4 till when she was 11 and the PTS kicked in making it impossible for her to be near a man. It broke my heart. Betrayal is wrong. Betraying people who are weaker than you is evil.

  21. I have not said that adultery is o.k. under any circumstances. I am saying that saying it is wrong is a rather pointless statement, at least in the way you have made it.

    Do you really think the people in your news story did not know it was wrong? Do you really believe that telling them or anyone else that is wrong will ever stop it from happening? Do you think anyone follows rules for the sake of rules?

    If you see a sexy young thing at the pub or walking down the street or whatever the scenario that would strike you as most tempting, is the Biblical commandment and/or fear of eternal damnation that stops you? Might it be, instead, that you love and respect your spouse, you know that it would hurt her deeply, and somewhere else running through your mind might be a bit of self-preservation, thinking something like, holy shit, she’d kill me, or if she didn’t do that she’d leave me, and no matter what happens I’m going to end up more miserable than even she’d be and for much longer?

    As for betrayal of someone weaker than oneself, I realize that some end up married or in relationships with people who are unusually weak, dependent, and/or broken, and yes, of course, betraying their trust is evil. But again, you’re making an argument that I am not. I am NOT saying that some betrayals are better or less egregious than others or that one needs a moral code with first, second, and third degree “betrayal” spelled out – for the sake of analysis or punishment. I have all along conceded that adultery is always wrong, and I would say the same with regard to betrayal (assuming that it is in the context I think we have both been discussing – a traitor to Hitler or Stalin, for example, might be a “good” betrayer, but there’s no need to go there).

    But one cannot simply pronounce that something is always wrong and expect that people will never do it. It’s not even a matter that some circumstances may create some degree of justification or at least mitigation of evil. I believe that adultery is absolutely wrong in all circumstances, and that fact that if I try hard and listen to someone’s story I can begin to understand it, does not change my views on the absolute nature of the standard.

    Maybe former Senator John Edwards would be a good example in that it would be hard to find anyone who would find his behavior excusable in any way or for any reason. But I’m not sure I have the energy to delve deeply into that situation. Let’s just say that I have as much compassion for him as for his late wife, Elizabeth, whom I heard many times in interviews and read some of her last books.

    The point, however, is not compassion or forgiveness per se. The point is that neither you nor I are any better than him because we have not done what he did. I suspect that the reasons why we have not done so are similar. All I know is that when I listen to and try to understand those that have, I realize that it was, for one reason or another, whether personal or circumstantial, harder for them to have stopped than it would be for me.

    I suspect, whether you can admit or not, the same is true for you, as well. That is not to say that none of us can ever be tempted, but at least when one reaches a certain age and/or has been blessed with relationships of trust and respect, the attraction of some hot sex (if that’s what it might be) seems rather paltry, although one might have to endure some strong physical inclinations otherwise.

    In any event, the problem with marriage is not illicit sex or a sudden loss in conviction of the need for absolute moral standards. It is an odd mix of confusion about roles and expectations, the obsession with the sexual nature of fidelity at the expense of other kinds, and overall a lack of love, patience, and mutual respect. Declaring war on “evil” will not help. Evil must be displaced with good, not simply put on a top ten list of things that are beyond the pale.

  22. I don’t ever break the speed limit either. I’ve never been stopped by the police. I know – I’m boring. I’m just one of those people who think about stuff like what would happen if I speeded and a kid walked out in front of my car.

    I may not be a better person than the speeding motorist. But I’m a better driver.

  23. Excellent analogy, MP. Moral rules are to avoid accidents; avoiding accidents is always good; having rules to follow may prevent some of the worst accidents; so moral rules are good, no matter why anyone follows them. Glad we cleared that up.

    I do not believe, however, that the merits of the rule (adultery is always wrong) or even rule-making was your original point. Your usual target is hypocrisy, especially as displayed by those with power, influence, and most especially by church officials. One’s imagination, helped along with some of the pertinent details, was supposed to lead your readers to consider who the biggest hypocrites in the story might have been.

    How artful or successful you were is not my concern. What is my concern is the suggestion that the heart of the problem with current immoral behavior, in both the culture at large and within the church, is the abandonment of time-honored moral codes due to a lack of conviction in the principles they represent and to a failure of will, both personally and institutionally, to enforce those standards. Although in most times and in most cultures, adultery, murder, and other egregious acts of treachery and betrayal, are universally condemned, nevertheless, every so often someone decides that it’s a good idea to shout it to the rooftops and campaign for and execute mass persecutions of both the innocent and the guilty, all in the name of the greater good and/or God. Meanwhile, in the background, the powers that be (who may have either started the campaign or have been quick to take charge of any persecution once it begins), make sure that transgressors with power and influence escape consequences, as well as punishment. In the end, nothing really changes (though an argument could be made that in a climate of persecution, some will be inclined to act even more recklessly, and most will do all that they can to acquire the kind of power and influence that will protect themselves, and their friends and families, so that they can enjoy the privilege of doing whatever they want, no matter who is harmed, just because they can).

    I think that use of the rhetoric of moral rectitude plays right into the hands of the persecutors and can serve to promote their schemes. While you may well see yourself as the defender of both the innocent and the powerless, defense of the former on moral grounds can easily get you co-opted into siding with the powerful who love nothing more than to distract everyone by focusing on immorality in the culture at large, even among kings and celebrities, as well as among bog standard folk, and keep everyone’s attention away from the fact that they are quietly and busily buying, stealing, and playing with as many levers of power they can accumulate.

    No doubt you will claim you don’t fundamentally disagree with any of this — just that you can fight the powerful AND campaign in favor of morality at the same time — and, in some ways, I wouldn’t disagree with that either, but rather when and how — and we could keep going in circles about all of that.

    I did, however, have a second major point or theme, which was that sexual abuse and misconduct among the clergy, and the extraordinary efforts by both the hierarchy and some laity to cover it up, is not caused primarily by a lack of understanding about the wrongness of the behavior. It is the result of the god-man notion of the priesthood, which is responsible for so much insane behavior and relational dynamics within the church, and, I think, why many people today want nothing to do with the institution.

    But no time for that now. Maybe more later, maybe not.

  24. No. You are right about my hatred of hypocrisy, but this post is about God’s commandment that we should not commit adultery. I personally believe that Christ was down on divorce to protect women from being discarded by their husbands just because they wanted to sleep with another woman. At the time women were treated as property by men that men could do with as they wished. Nowadays, in our more sexually egalitarian times, I think Christ would address both men and women, calling on them never to treat each other as property, as an inconvenience that can be got rid of so that they can have fun elsewhere, or just because they have bored.

    Of course, this ties in with my commitment to fighting against hypocrisy within the church. I cannot call on the powerful of the church not to betray the weak if I myself do not follow God’s command not to betray people. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that I willfully fight against the temptation to do so. If I, as a spokesperson against the abuse of others, abuse others, then I not only invalidate (or, at the least, greatly damage) my own work but also the work of all those with whom I am connected.

    But, as you say, we are all capable of sin. Shit happens. When it does a person of integrity should be honest about their sin in front of God and people. Making excuses, no matter how good those excuses may be, does not lead to forgiveness but to further damage. Being honest with God, other people and yourself leads to forgiveness and minimises the damage your mistake will make to the work of others.

  25. It is true that if you have committed the same sins as those you accuse of being hypocrites and have failed to be honest about them in front of God and others, then you have no grounds whatsoever to point out others’ sins and hypocrisy. But to assert that one has such honesty and integrity does not make a sound argument against sin and hypocrisy — it only asserts a lack of disability or grounds for being disqualified from making any such argument. To point to one’s own integrity is to compare one to those without it, to imply one’s superiority, to lay claim to moral authority of one’s own, and to risk crossing the line into one’s own, or inciting others’, anger and resentment over the fact that the hypocrites have not come clean and have gotten away with something.

    I am increasingly convinced that the greatest evil is the lust for and exercise of power. Anyone who tries to knock others off their pedestals, to take away their power, and reduce them to shame and vulnerability, all for the sake of righteousness, risks falling into the same trap that holds those they are attacking. When Jesus went out into the wilderness and met Satan, he was tempted with and rejected the power to conquer all in that way; and the popular view of Judas is that he betrayed Jesus for failing to not only stand up to the power of the Roman Empire but to fight to bring it down.

    I don’t think any of us can easily know when and how we should stand up and fight for others, and when we should forswear power, even when we think we can use it to fight evil, save the innocent, and protect the defenseless. But I think we all must resist falling back on simple ways of seeing and knowing, ourselves, our neighbors, strangers, and God.

    The way you speak about virtue, sin, and “excuses” continues to strike me as reflective of that kind of simplemindedness (though, to be fair, perhaps single-mindedness is more accurate). Your idea of excuses is akin to the way conservatives look at the world, that others are always trying to get away with something. To view anything within context or with complexity is viewed as weak and immoral, a serious threat to the foundations of society and the hopes of anyone’s salvation.

    Let me try to explain better why, first from a personal perspective, and then from a larger one.

  26. Let me try to explain better why, first from a personal perspective, and then from a larger one. With regard to marriage, divorce, and adultery, I find it painful and almost ludicrous for you to say that well, if the marriage does not work, just end it, NOT because I think that adultery is ever an acceptable way out (or ever can really be a way out of the deeper troubles at all), but because I know full well that the reasons why I (or you) do not and have not gone down that path have little or nothing to do with our greater strength of character. It has more to do with chance and circumstance (yes, being boring, and, at least in my case, most of the time being too depressed and anxious and frightened to look for any way out, good or bad, reasoned or reckless).

    And I know this full well because of the people I have met who have, in fact, gone down the other path and have not, as I have done twice, done the “right” thing, initiated and completed a divorce, with nothing better to look forward to, with little motivation other than knowing that someone had to end an impossible situation, and no help from anyone but occasionally a therapist, while family and friends pretty much deserted me. Those who took a different path risked all and, in various respects, lost all — their families, their homes, sometimes their jobs, and with all, their sense of dignity and self-respect. Yet they still have had to pick themselves up and keep walking and do their best to love and support their children, even at great distances, and still get up every morning and try to face themselves in the mirror.

    For you understanding why someone else has cracked, caved in, fallen into sin, involves making “excuses.” Instead I see it as listening to others’ stories, seeing their struggles from the perspective of their circumstances, not mine, caring about their pain, and hoping that they can get to the point where it is no longer disabling or requiring addictions or other kinds of distractions to live with it. When you speak so cavalierly of your own moral rectitude, of your success in not giving in to something that you know very well would destroy you, not just spare others, it makes me want to cry if not scream and wish you could know some of what I know about those not as strong as you claim to be and how it might make you see yourself and others quite differently.

  27. But there is yet another aspect to this, which has been swirling around in my mind for several weeks now. That is how God sometimes is most visible among those who live in circumstances that seem to be the most God forsaken to those on the outside. Ordinarily this is among those in extreme poverty, and those who try to help those in such circumstances often report that they learn and receive so much more from the people in those circumstances than they are able to give in return. There is, of course, the danger of romanticizing this and avoiding seeing those in need in our own backyards, who for one reason or another may seem much less sympathetic, likable, or even approachable.

    But something got to me when I heard the author Luis Alberto Urrea speak on Bill Moyers several weeks ago and found some other interviews he’s given online. His personal story (http://billmoyers.com/2012/05/04/moyers-moment-2012-luis-alberto-urrea-reads-from-ghost-sickness) as well as the longer interviews (http://billmoyers.com/2012/05/04/moyers-moment-2012-luis-alberto-urrea-reads-from-ghost-sickness/ and http://youtu.be/Ejxw-oRHjQQ Writers Symposium by the Sea interview), talks about how he went from the horrific tragedy of his father’s death to doing mission work among the garbage pickers in the Tijuana garbage dump, and what he saw and felt, both when he was there and when he began to write the stories when he left (though has returned from time to time). Something about it triggered my thinking about what it is to be, by all outward appearances, God forsaken, and how in very different circumstances in which those who are entirely innocent, partly innocent by virtue of mental or emotional conditions, or wholly broken by their own poor choices, as well as addictions, God nevertheless may break through somehow — thinking of the Tijuana garbage dump, the movie The Soloist, as well as all the people I have known or been acquainted with in various circumstances.

    It made me think of Jesus going to the poor, the needy, the sick, and some of the most notorious sinners. Yes, he went to them because they were most in need of help and unlikely to get it from anyone else, but he also knew that they were most open to seeing and knowing him in ways that others generally were not. And suddenly I remembered the several years I spent in Al-Anon and AA meetings, trying to cope with my first (and second) husband’s addiction, and all the diverse people I met there.

  28. In each town it seemed that there was always a least one AA member who had been struggling for years with drinking and never quite was able to kick it for long, as well as a number of new members who were honestly seeking and trying to change but would show up at a meeting, if not drunk, having recently had something to drink.

    One old-time member particularly came to mind, someone whom people had been deeply affected by for many years, been through his good times and bad, and known for his good heart and his hardscrabble wisdom. He had recently fallen off again, as he was prone to do, and sometimes was found roaming the streets, and people would take care of them the best they could, but inevitably, after one bitter winter Wisconsin weekend, he died on the street. People cried and mourned and no one thought to blame him for failing to take proper care of himself — they just remembered and cherished the best in him and were pained at the thought of his suffering at the end.

    I have been touched by the lives of others who have been broken as a result of their own actions and carelessness, as well as their inability to deal with and recover from shame and loss of self-worth as a result. I saw that in my first husband’s eyes when I last saw him, a week or two before he died, when I asked him what I could do for him and he said, “Just pray for me,” and smiled, in what I can only describe as a frenzied peace, at a time when we knew something was seriously wrong but had no idea that he was in any danger of dying soon.

    I have seen and known it in others, as well, whose stories I cannot tell but have affected me deeply. And while you, MP, may feel called to speak up for the innocent and powerless, I feel called to speak up for those who sin but have gone lost in shame and powerlessness, which may have begun with their own actions but have, in part, been perpetrated by those who take moral stands such as you have expressed here. The worst kinds of dishonesty includes not just our own failures to own up to our mistakes, but also our claims that we have stopped making them or avoided making them because of our own efforts, which, because they are successful, clearly means that our efforts were greater and superior to those of others who have failed.

    It remains for all of us to recognize our own powerlessness, no matter how great our efforts, and that we are not entitled to any benefits or praise simply because we see others exercising and abusing others in ways that we have not done and would never do. We can and should help those who are abused and we can do our best not to abuse others, but we should live our successes, know whom to thank for them, and not go public with the assertions that we have succeeded where others have failed. We should go among sinners and seek them out, not put them in the stocks and throw tomatoes at them, let alone stone them to death. Maybe if we do more of that, listen to their stories, do our best to understand them, we might do more to free ourselves and them from the bonds of sin than any moralizing will ever do.

    But that’s just my view of it.

  29. I never used myself as an example of anything in my post. It was others who made it personal. All I’m saying is that adultery is wrong. If I did it, I would be in the wrong. I know I would never do it but I am always scared that I will lose control and hit somebody. So far, in fifty three years, I have controlled myself. This does not make me a super human it makes me a normal human (certainly normal among the people I hang around with). Saying no is perfectly possible and quite easy when you have made it part of your life, part of who you are. Telling people that adultery is not always wrong will lead to people not bothering to take control of their appetites.

    I am fully aware of the complexities of life. There would, of course, be far less complexities if partners didn’t cheat on each other.

  30. I never said that adultery is not always wrong.

    If you view adultery as simply a matter of controlling one’s appetites, than you are not fully aware of the complexities of sex or of life. Neither marriage nor marital infidelity is all about sex. Period. Consequently, to strengthen marriage and to avoid infidelity requires something more than and/or something quite different than appetite control. Gosh, even Roman Catholic nuns understand and teach that.

  31. All I’ve said is that adultery is wrong.

    During the whole of this conversation I haven’t had the foggiest idea what you are arguing about, Klady. I thought perhaps you were saying that adultery is sometimes not wrong. But if you are not saying that, why are you arguing with my statement that adultery is wrong. I haven’t called for punishment, the withholding of forgiveness or said that we shouldn’t try and understand the reasons behind adultery. I have just said that adultery is wrong.

    So, what exactly is your point? And, as you agree that you are not arguing with my statement, can’t you make your point as an add on rather than as a contradiction of something that you don’t actually want to contradict?

  32. I’m trying to follow your explanations for the purpose of your post, as well as some commentary along the way, much of which I find disturbing for the reasons I’ve given at length.

    First, you claim that all you wanted to say was that adultery is wrong and is clearly and emphatically so, as evident in both the Old and New Testaments. You felt compelled to speak out about it when you ran across the news item, not out of bitterness or even some understandable schadenfreude, but because this is a core belief of yours.

    Fine. And you live by it. Good. So what? Seems to me that if you really cared about those who have been and may be harmed by it, rather than simply extolling your own virtue and self-restraint, you would realize that MP’s news alert that adultery is a grave sin is of little help to anyone and arguably of no help at all.

    Assuming that, as you say, the purpose of your posting is to proclaim the wrongfulness of adultery, rather than the wrongfulness of your being denied employment, your rationale for doing so is unclear. There is, in fact, no one who would argue with you that adultery is wrong. I’m even willing to bet that none of those directly involved or any those who may suspected or known about the affair before it became public news, believed that it was anything but wrong. So I, for one, have no idea why you feel compelled to say anything about it at all, if it is not to point out that he did it and you did not and would not.

    In short, it makes no sense to me. Here the rules are clear, the people involved no doubt knew them better than most — the man a priest, and woman who ran some kind of counseling service — the affair was revealed, and a price will be paid. So why is your judgment needed, as well?

    I really would not have cared so much if it really was just schadenfreude – a sin, as well, but probably a venial one under the circumstances. What disturbs me is that if you are being entirely honest, then you truly believe that a priest and/or a Christian is different from all other humans and simply cannot and will not ever violate a commandment no matter what and that you are living proof that this is so. Such views, in my opinion, are horrifically devoid of understanding of human nature, what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a priest or anyone else in the service of the church. More important, they miss the opportunity to say and do something meaningful about marital infidelity and other problems that lead to break-ups. Finally, they are just more grist for the dysfunctional mill that is church culture that demands that priests be super-human and fails to recognize that such demands may greatly increase the chances of irrational and harmful behavior and walls of secrecy and denial.

    I leave you to having the last word, as always.

  33. A Christian has more reason not to do evil than an atheist because a Christian has been told by God not to commit evil, whilst an atheist decides what is evil and what evil not to do themselves. A Christian is also in a community of believers and when they do something that is evil their action reflects on all other Christians and makes it more difficult for the good news of Jesus Christ to be heard and taken seriously. In this particular case, I have a strong suspicion that this incident is going to reflect very badly on those of us who have been campaigning for women to be ordained as bishops in the UK among other things. I rarely do naughty vicar stories (unless they are funny or the vicar concerned is well known for preaching against being naughty).

  34. What disturbs me is that if you are being entirely honest, then you truly believe that a priest and/or a Christian is different from all other humans and simply cannot and will not ever violate a commandment no matter what and that you are living proof that this is so.

    No, I have never said that in my life. But I do believe that a Christian should avoid doing the stuff they are not supposed to do. I will never commit adultery (for personal reasons that I am not going to go into) but I can see myself being violent towards another person which is just as sinful. To be honest I am going to carry on believing that being violent is not something that I should do as a Christian. It helps me to keep up my spotless record of never having hit anybody.

    Klady, I have not done my usual thing of responding to insults with insults because you are a friend and I’ve obviously touched a raw nerve. But I honestly believe that you are getting upset with me about something I haven’t said.

  35. What you’ve written in the next to the last post helps clear things up for me. Thank you.

    You say, “A Christian is also in a community of believers and when they do something that is evil their action reflects on all other Christians and makes it more difficult for the good news of Jesus Christ to be heard and taken seriously.”

    I appreciate there is some truth to how people within and without the church may perceive the situation, but I think it is terribly wrong of them to think of that way. I think the primary role of the church is to help the broken become whole, rather than to keep the whole from becoming broken. I think the measure of a Christian community is not the kind of marks it gets for strict adherence to moral codes but rather the depth of its compassion and understanding and action in dealing with those within and without in times of adversity.

    I also do not think that a faith community should be defined or see itself defined by its leaders — at least not to the extent that it cannot see that the priest and his or her family is not the church. Of course a priest who commits adultery, especially with someone associated with the church, is going to disrupt and thereby have a huge negative impact on its operations because, if nothing else, the priest will have to leave abruptly and probably his family as well. But a decent faith community, both locally and as represented by the hierarchy, will not view the incident as primarily some terrible public relations nightmare or blight upon the character of the community itself but will put aside their own needs and concern themselves with the human tragedy within their midst. Believe it or not, I’ve seen that happen, at least locally, while in the meantime the hierarchy spins its wheels and wants to go full tilt into damage control.

    In my experience, when it comes to things like marital strife and infidelity, there is very little difference between what happens among people who are members of faith communities and those who are not, let alone between those of different or no religious beliefs. In fact, I’d say that the agnostics and atheists I have known in my life have been far better moral examples than just about anyone else (though admittedly this may be skewed by the fact that those I’ve known are generally secular humanists who think and act more intentionally than the average person in the pew).

    I don’t think Christianity has ever succeeded in demonstrating that its adherents live more morally upright lives than others, and while I would never want to abandon Christian moral values or suggest they are merely optional, I do not think that is at the heart of the Gospel. It’s not that the Great Commandments wipe out the old ones, but rather that they transcend them, and in the real world of flawed and therefore sinful human beings, how we respond to sin after the fact is almost more important than what we preach about beforehand.

    But I take it that we disagree on this. So be it.

  36. We don’t disagree on anything after the fact, as far as I can see. I appear to put more emphasis on Christians avoiding hurting other people than you do. This, not the letting down of the communion, is my main concern because it is my definition of sin. The letting down of the community bit is the reason I posted on this story when normally I don’t do naughty vicar stories. Christians are 100% the same as everyone else but I do think we have an extra reason to try and live good lives.