Celibacy for Mission

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.

(1 Corinthians 7:32-34)

Today was the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated around 600 AD after leading a team of 40 missionaries, priests and monks who preached in the kingdom of Kent. Because of Augustine’s efforts, the people of England became and remained for over a thousand years a Christianised people.

By this I do not mean to suggest that the United Kingdom is a Christian nation, merely that the story of God and the worship of him was widely accepted and embraced on England’s shores. The Church became a community institution which in various times collected and distributed taxes, mediated property, ran schools and facilitated local and regional political dialogue.

Gregory’s mission to Kent seems to have been a roaring success.

Augustine and his companions were called out of the Monastery for their mission. I believe this single fact is key to the success of Christianity’s spread not only in England but in many other tribes and peoples.

English history is full of dynasties and tribes who come and rule for a time and then fade away or fall out of favour and are overthrown. The Church experiences its own turmoil in England but is not overthrown or rejected like the Normans or Stuarts or whoever else. The reason for this to me is clear.

The Church did not rely on the success of any one dynasty or family, tribe or culture for its mission. Because it grew through conversion, it could have a life among the people, in the villages, towns and cities, which existed independently of families or bloodlines.

The monastics and the chaste religious live in their very bodies the reality that the Church exists by faith not by family. They show that they have nothing to gain through their preaching, that they are not attempting to establish a name or accumulate wealth. They can go anywhere in the world and give their lives away, as the 40 did who left Rome for England.

Perhaps it is because this is such a difficult burden to comprehend, the idea of giving up not only one’s future but also the potential good of that future, that Protestants who are divorced from those grand, old and transcendent Church traditions have not upheld the uniqueness of not only single clergy but other alternative forms of human community.

I submit that something has been profoundly lost with the forgetting of this ancient path to which some have been called. Protestants mistake the Monastic call for that of an attempt to earn God’s favour or an oppressive regime of submission to corrupt institutions. Can it be that those who are lifelong singles could be received today as the frontrunners in the Church and heralds of the Gospel as they have been in the past? What would have to change for that to be a reality?

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