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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 

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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”)

 

 

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