Founded in Britain in the 1970s, the Movement for a Married Clergy is closing down its work on Easter Sunday and handing over the reins to a new synodal group, explains its secretary.

I return this Easter to an issue that refuses to hide its face, the continuing fall in the number of priests serving our parishes. We should be considering this question as a matter of some urgency if we are to maintain our present diocesan structures at anywhere near their present level, let alone seek to become a missionary Church.

A number of factors might be considered that have given rise to our present predicament. The age profile of serving priests continues to rise. Parishes with more than one priest are rare so the return alone to an empty house is uninviting. Above all, the question of a compulsorily celibate clergy remains with us. How often do our bishops face the unenviable task of replacing a priest who, through age or infirmity, can no longer continue with his duties? Or a younger man who has fallen in love and is unable to sustain his vocation?

Two bishops, one an advisor to the pope, call for married priests
A contributor to the working document for the Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon Region made his case for the priestly ordination of married men in the region. "I'm saying this with great sincerity - there is no other option," Bishop Erwin Kräutler, the retired head of the Xingu prelature in Amazonian Brazil, said recently. The availability of the Eucharist is of far greater importance than the marital status of the priest.

But what is the bishop to do? Amalgamate parishes is one option, but this often only serves to double the charge of an already aged priest or leave the parishioners to fend for themselves with the occasional help from priests in surrounding parishes?

Harriet Sherwood, writing recently in the Guardian, reported on the challenge by Archbishop Scicluna to the present discipline: “Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who is based in the Vatican's doctrinal office and is an advisor to Pope Francis, said: ‘If it were up to me, I would revise the requirement that priests have to be celibate. Experience has shown me that this is something we need to seriously think about.'"

Sherwood noted that the archbishop had admitted in an interview with the Times of Malta last January that “the Church has lost many great priests because they chose marriage". He said there was "a place for celibacy but the Church also had to take into consideration that priests sometimes fall in love were forced to choose between marriage and their priestly vocation…..”

The ageing Movement for Married Clergy and its future
One man, two vocations is perfectly possible if everyone concerned is aware of what is involved. It was with these thoughts in mind that a small group in the 1970s set about the establishment of the Movement for Married Clergy (MMaC), whose aim was to raise the profile of this question and so separate a vocation to celibacy from a vocation to the priesthood. Over the last 50 years, that has been our objective. Now has come the time to re-appraise the position.

Our membership is an ageing one, largely because the argument is already won. For the majority of younger Catholics, there is no case to answer. We have been down the route of writing to our bishops, only to be, in most cases, ignored. We have kept the issue alive in the "Letters" columns of the national press. We have become of the "go to" points for journalists looking for factual material on current issues. We have built a large database of articles, letters and a website which is a valuable resource.

So it is time for a change. We cannot continue re-inventing the wheel. The current committee of MMaC, after consultation with membership, has decided that we will cease to function as an independent organization from this Easter, 2024. This decision was not reached lightly but only after much thought and discussion. Illness and age has led to the loss of three committee members lately. Without that core direction, we face an unsustainable future as an organization. We needed a new home to reinvigorate our goal.

Keeping alive discussions for a flourishing Church
After much thought and discussion, we have decided to lend our voice to the cause of Root & Branch, a grassroots community for reform, working for a safe, just and inclusive Roman Catholic Church. Our aim must be creating a Christian community, centered on a thriving parish Eucharist. Our voice must be that of the risen Christ. That, at this stage of the journey, MMaC has decided to make this move should not be seen as a failure of intention, rather as a continuation, a new direction, a global direction. As individuals, we haven’t gone away. Many and varied voices can be heard and are welcome within the forum of Root & Branch.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales is well placed to plead the cause of acceptance of a married priesthood, given our experience of accepting former Anglican clerics into full communion. Many Catholic parishes are familiar with married priests and have welcomed them into their communities. Maybe the next step is to urge parish discussion of the immediate and long-term future of priesthood for the sake of the people. Moreover, it is apparent from synodal reporting that the issue of celibacy was not dealt with adequately during the recent gathering in Rome.

A thanks to those members who have served on MMaC’s national committee over the years and those who have loyally paid a yearly subscription that has covered our ongoing activities. It is now time to support the Root &Branch community and help keep alive discussions about issues vital to a flourishing Christian mission in the Third Millennium.

Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International. Married, with three grown up children and eight grandchildren, he is the secretary of the Movement for Married Clergy.