• Video
  • 10 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Video interview: Catholic bishop, Elizabeth Stuart

Updated Monday 16th April 2012

In this video Elizabeth Stuart, Bishop in the Liberal Catholic Church International, talks to the Open University's Graham Harvey about celibacy in religion 

Video

 

Text

 

Graham Harvey

What’s the role of celibacy within your practice and your tradition?

Dr Elizabeth Stuart

Well I think that celibates play a very important part in Christianity, because I think they serve to remind everybody that the end of desire is not another human being but God, and only God in the end can fulfil us completely.  And I think that individual celibates and groups of celibates in religious orders, or whatever, serve as reminders to the church and to the world of that fact.  I don’t think that people who are celibate are in any sense superior or inferior to people who are not, but I think it’s absolutely imperative that the church has such people to remind them that no human being can ultimately fulfil our desires and our nature, only God can.  In our right, in the liberal Catholic church, we celebrate the mass facing eastward, that’s the traditional position for a priest to celebrate the Eucharist.  This means that the priest has their back to the people, and I think that’s highly significant, that the priest’s gender is erased, it’s erased by the fact that they are facing away from the congregation, it’s erased by the vestments that a priest has to put on, I believe that at that most sacred point the priest, as it were, is clearly ungendered and for us the mass is a celebration of the great liturgy of heaven so it’s a realised eschatology, as we would say.  So it is an anticipation of the moment when we realise that there is no such thing as gender, and I think the priest represents that very clearly.

Graham Harvey

Why is celibacy important in that context?

Dr Elizabeth Stuart

Well I mean I, in my church, priests don’t have to be celibate, they can be married or in partnerships so it’s not a requirement of the priest, and I don’t think it should be because I think it’s a vocation in its own right, like marriage is and that a priestly vocation isn’t necessarily tied to a vocation to be celibate.  But as I've said before, I think it’s terribly important that within the Christian community there are people who do model a way of living that is focused entirely on God rather than on other human beings, just to keep reminding us that that is where everything is leading.

Graham Harvey

So actually this is a very simple but profound kind of combination of things that remove you from being ordinarily human and involved in all kinds of other bits of life, and demands a more single focus, if only in the ritual, but for some people throughout their lives, those who are taking a vow of celibacy?

Dr Elizabeth Stuart

Yes, I mean it’s an incredibly difficult life, even if you have a vocation to it, to effectively embrace loneliness for the sake of what you believe to be a greater love than any human being can give, that you may get glimpses of during your lifetime but you certainly won't get the whole of during your lifetime.  I think that is a profound witness but it’s not an easy witness at all.  But, and I also think it’s a witness about stepping, it involves stepping outside the roles of, the constructive roles of maleness and femaleness in our culture and being a different sort of creature really.  And again, I suppose that is about undermining the whole notion of gender, and particularly the ideas of complementarity and all that kind of thing, that men and women need each other in order to be complete and sort of or that human beings in order to be happy and fulfilled need to have sexual relations, heterosexual or gay or whatever.  People who are celibate raise question marks about all that, and I think that’s incredibly important.

Graham Harvey

Are there particular resources for dealing with the difficulties of celibacy within your tradition?

Dr Elizabeth Stuart

Well of course for most of its history, the Christian church idealised the celibate state, as it now I think, even in the Roman Catholic church idealises marriage.  It’s gone full circle in a way.  And in idealising either state, it’s put too much weight on either of them, it’s too much to bear.  So of course Christian tradition and history is full of celibates, right from the word go.  Originally Christians were encouraged to stay celibate as a witness that the Kingdom of God was about to come, and as an almost form of resistance against the Roman Empire, refusing to continue to populate the Roman Empire, it was a political statement as well as a theological statement.  And then throughout history the understanding of what celibacy stood for has changed, and undoubtedly for a great part of its history it was used as part of a rhetoric that was suspicious of sexuality and the body, yet ironically was using both of those things at the same time as it was trying to denigrate them both.  So there are plenty of examples and resources to do with celibacy in the Christian tradition, but you can see how it’s changed over the years.  The Roman Catholic church, which still requires its clergy to be celibate, I think is having to wrestle with some of the problems caused by that requirement at the moment, not least I think that even if you have a vocation to be celibate, in order to be faithful to that vocation I think it’s terribly important that you have support around you, and with the decline in the numbers of men being ordained we've gone from a situation where certainly in my childhood you would have a presbytery with three or four or five priests in and they would support each other in their vocation, now you have one man living alone and I think it’s very difficult to sustain a vocation to celibacy in that kind of isolation, and I think that many of the problems that the Roman Catholic church currently faces with this whole issue are about loneliness and isolation, and I'm not sure it’s faced up to that yet.  The greatest, one of the greatest dangers facing contemporary Christianity is that celibacy as a vocation will die out, religious orders are dying out, quite rightly there are questions being asked in the Roman Catholic church about compulsory celibacy, you know, it may well die out and I think that would be a great shame.

(10’06”)

 

 

What are your thoughts on the role celibacy and virginity play in religion? Vote in our poll and share your views

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Reith Lectures 2011: Reith Responses - Dissent As Vocation Creative commons image Icon lewishamdreamer under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license audio icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Reith Lectures 2011: Reith Responses - Dissent As Vocation

In response to the 2011 Reith Lectures, our experts explore the idea of dissent as a calling - and how far new technology has inspired and shaped the Arab Spring.

Audio
15 mins
Sacred spaces Creative commons image Icon By Todd Baker << technowannabe via Flickr under Creative Commons licence under Creative-Commons license video icon

History & The Arts 

Sacred spaces

Britain is full of sacred spaces: places of great spiritual significance. This video, from The Open University’s YouTube channel, explains more…

Video
5 mins
Can you resist zombification? Creative commons image Icon v1ctory_1s_m1ne licensed for reuse under CC BY-NC 2.0 under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Can you resist zombification?

Fan of 'The Walking Dead'? Take a look at the origins of the 'zombie'.

Article
The end is nigh... or is it? Creative commons image Icon Tim Green aka atoach under CC BY 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

The end is nigh... or is it?

The world was supposed to end on 21 December 2012. Here's why it didn't.

Article
Hajj 2015: Balancing pilgrimage with consumerism Creative commons image Icon Wasilli under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Hajj 2015: Balancing pilgrimage with consumerism

The accident at this year's Hajj is a reminder of the tensions between the devout and the consumerist being played out at the pilgrimage.

Article
Are you a Christian without a church? Take the survey Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team activity icon

History & The Arts 

Are you a Christian without a church? Take the survey

What does it mean to be a Christian without a church? What exactly do people mean nowadays when they describe themselves as Christian? Share your views, and learn about other people, in this anonymous survey.

Activity
Ramadan Mubarak! Creative commons image Icon By vetman [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Ramadan Mubarak!

27th May - 25th June marks the Muslim observance, Ramadan. Discover how this isn't just a time for abstaining but a time for celebration while showing devotion to Islam.

Article
article icon

History & The Arts 

Passover and Tibet

Particularly amongst non-Orthodox Jews, the practice of the Passover seder constantly changes to reflect new understandings of the traditional themes of bondage and liberation.

Article
Babies and Guns: Religion and the US Presidential Elections Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Babies and Guns: Religion and the US Presidential Elections

Melanie Wright explores the role of religious belief in American elections

Article