Marriage and the Clerical state

The discipline of the Church

From the earliest days of the Church’s existence, God has called both single and married men to His Sacred Ministry. We know from Scripture that Our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, visited the house of Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law [cf Mtt 8:14, Lk 4:38-39] and tradition suggests that others of the Apostles were also married. Similarly, of course, Our Lord also spoke Himself to those men who would “make of themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” [cf Mtt 19:12] and there exists an ancient tradition within the Church of men and women consecrating their lives to God in chastity and celibacy. Indeed, according to the consensus of doctrine enshrined within the Scriptures, all Christians are called to be chaste who are not married.

The first written mandate requiring priests to be chaste came in AD 304. Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all “bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics” were to “abstain completely from their wives and not to have children.” A short time later, in 325, the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine, rejected a ban on priests marrying requested by Spanish clerics.

In the Western tradition there were married men and single men but by the eleventh century, recorded at the Second Lateran Council held in 1139, a rule was approved forbidding priests to marry and that has remained the norm of the Roman Church. In the Eastern tradition married men have always been permitted ordination, however men have never been permitted to marry once ordained, and ordained clerics may not remarry if their wife dies.  Otherwise in the East, those men who are not married by the time of their ordination become tonsured monastics and thus celibates.

For much of the 5th century, the Church of the East allowed even bishops to marry, but in the early 6th century decided to ordain only celibate monks to episcopacy, while still allowing priests to marry after ordination. While some incorrectly believe all Orthodox bishops must be monks, in fact, according to church law, they simply may no longer be living with their wives if they are to be consecrated to the episcopacy. (The canons stipulate that they must also see to their wives’ maintenance, for example Canon 12 of the Quinisext Council.) Typically, the wife of such a man will take up the monastic life herself, though this also is not required. There are many Orthodox bishops currently serving who have never been tonsured (formally initiated) to monastic orders. There are also many who are tonsured monastics but have never formally lived the monastic life. Further, a number of bishops are widowers, but because clergy cannot remarry after ordination, such a man must remain celibate after the death of his wife.

The Orthodox Old Roman Catholic Communion, being both Orthodox and Catholic, possessing the unity in truth of the Apostolic faith, reflects the perennial tradition of the Church universal in the constitution and discipline of her clergy. As agreed by the holy Synod convoked in Brighton 2014, married men may be ordained to any minor or major order except the episcopate, which decision was confirmed by the holy Synod convoked in Chicago 2017 and that one may not marry after ordination as a subdeacon, subsequently enshrined in the Supplement to the Code of Canon Law 2017 [Cf Canon 33 §1 CIC 2017]. The Church enjoins this discipline and prudence in discernment regarding vocation to fulfil her primary role to proclaim the Gospel and to facilitate the sanctification and salvation of the souls committed to her care.

Vocation to holy Matrimony and holy Order

The Church understands the Sacraments of holy Matrimony and holy Order to be two distinct vocations though not necessarily mutually exclusive. When the Church teaches that marriage is a Christian vocation it is saying that the couple’s relationship is more than simply their choice to enter a union which is a social and legal institution. In addition to these things, marriage involves a call from God and a response from two people who promise to build, with the help of divine grace, a lifelong, intimate and sacramental partnership of love and life. Similarly the vocation to God’s service in the Sacred Ministry is not to fulfil simply a liturgical or pastoral role, but to dedicate oneself primarily and completely to the fulfilment of God’s love made manifest in His will, in service of complete dedication to the Church and the salvation of souls.

Men considering a vocation to the Sacred Ministry may also feel called or open to the vocation of holy Matrimony. As has been demonstrated historically, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However it is important to appreciate that both vocations deserve particular care and prudence. It is not just a matter of discipline as to whether both are possible and realisable, but of discernment, particularly if the vocation to holy Matrimony is discerned after that of ministry.

Within the Orthodox Old Roman Catholic Communion it is possible to realise both vocations i.e. to holy Matrimony and ministerial service. Men may be ordained to the Minor Orders i.e. Porter, Lector, Exorcist, Acolyte and at the same time discern a vocation to Sacred Ministry. However, the Supplement CIC 2017 states;

Canon 33 §2. However, the sacrament of holy Matrimony may only be confected by a candidate for major Orders while they are still a minor cleric; ordained Subdeacons, Deacons and Priests may not marry (cf 1917 CIC 132§1., 132§3 & Ap Canon XXVI8 Pedalion).

In order to ensure that a desire to realise a vocation to holy Matrimony is not considered in competition to realising a vocation to the Sacred Ministry, it is necessary for candidates to discern both vocations prudently and with the Church. Men discerning a vocation to holy Matrimony and permanency in one of the Minor Orders are free to marry prior to or after their minor Ordination. For those candidating for Sacred Ministry, the usual transitional progression through Minor Orders to the Major Orders is six months to a year for each order. Thus a man discerning vocation for the Sacred Ministry i.e. Major Orders may have up to four years to discern or realise his vocation to holy Matrimony. Whilst progression to the Major Orders may be delayed at the bishop’s discretion, candidates should not adopt an inappropriate attitude toward the possibility of holy Matrimony by hastily trying to realise that vocation or stall their Ordination.

Married men and vocation

Married men discerning a vocation to the clerical state and/or Major Orders, should appreciate that while their particular vocation and sense of calling may be felt personal to them, the Church in respecting the Sacrament of holy Matrimony, will expect their vocation to be supported morally and practically by their spouse. The Sacrament of holy Matrimony making of a man with his wife “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, Mark 10:8, Ephesians 5:31) means that they become a single “unit” i.e. there are no longer two entities (two individuals), but now there is one entity (a married couple).

In a Christian marriage emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, financially, and in every other way, a married couple are regarded as “one flesh”. Even as one part of the body cares for the other body parts (the stomach digests food for the body, the brain directs the body for the good of the whole, the hands work for the sake of the body, etc.), so each partner in the marriage is to care for the other. Each partner is no longer to see money earned as “my” money; but rather as “our” money. Ephesians 5:22-33 and Proverbs 31:10-31 give the application of this “oneness” to the role of the husband and to the wife, respectively. Physically, they become one flesh, and the result of that one flesh is found in the children that their union produces; these children now possess a special genetic makeup, specific to their union. Even in the sexual aspect of their relationship, a husband and wife are not to consider their bodies as their own but as belonging to their partner (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).

As nice as it may be for a man and a woman to live together meeting each other’s needs, God has a higher calling for the marriage. Even as they were to be serving Christ with their lives before marriage (Romans 12:1-2), now they are to serve Christ together as a unit and raise their children to serve God (1 Corinthians 7:29-34; Malachi 2:15; Ephesians 6:4). Priscilla and Aquila, in Acts 18, would be good examples of this. As a couple pursues serving Christ together, the joy which the Spirit gives will fill their marriage (Galatians 5:22-23). In the Garden of Eden, there were three present (Adam, Eve, and God), and there was joy. So, if God is central in a marriage today, there also will be joy. Without God, a true and full oneness is not possible.

Thus in discerning a vocation to ministry with married men, the Church will respect their unique individual vocation to serve God i.e. their sense of personal calling – and simultaneously interpret that calling within the context of their marriage, as well as for the Church. For this reason married men discerning a vocation within the Communion should appreciate that their spouse’s approval is required in addition to their own vocation, for ordination will have implications for both parties e.g. it is required that continence be observed for 24 hours before serving/offering the Divine Liturgy [Cf Canon 33 §5 CIC 2017]. The spouse of a candidate will be asked to confirm her agreement and willingness to support her husband’s candidacy for the clerical state and confirm her understanding of the implications for their spousal relationship, in writing. It would also normally be expected for a wife to be a practising Christian and member of the Church and for her to regard the discernment process as much a part of her own vocational discernment as her husband’s. Indeed, the couple “as one” should consider the whole vocational discernment as relating to them both, individually and together, even though only one of them will receive the particular grace of the Sacrament of holy Order, both will effectively be subject to the authority of the Ordinary as the expression of God’s will in directing the ministry of the Church.

It is perhaps also necessary for married men to appreciate too, that by virtue of the recognition of their responsibilities to the married state, it is the universal discipline of the Church and the polity of the Orthodox Old Roman Catholic Communion to only consecrate as bishops single men whether chaste, consecrated religious, avowed celibate or widowed [Canon 33 §1 & §3]. Though the historic discipline of jurisdictions within the Communion may have previously allowed for married bishops, those bishops who subsequently join the holy Synod and who exercise their episcopal Order as jurisdictional Ordinaries are required, with the written agreement and consent of their spouses, to observe absolute continence and live with their wive’s as “brother and sister in Christ”. Alternatively, such bishops may elect to become a “mitred archpriest” and exercise their priesthood under the same condition as other married priests, though they may at the discretion of their jurisdictional Ordinary employ their episcopal Order for the conferral of minor Orders and the Sacrament of Confirmation only at the Ordinary’s express direction.


A vocation to holy Matrimony and the clerical state or Sacred Ministry should be understood then as a dual calling, the two though often experienced separately by many, ought when received together, be regarded as complimentary. A married man should discern his vocation to ministry together with his wife, the two discerning together whether their marriage can serve God in this way i.e. without compromising the core values and obligations integral to both vocations. Similarly a single man discerning both vocations should be open to the realisation of both and if he finds his soul mate and life long partner, should only progress with the vocation to ministry with his wife’s agreement and support, discerning together God’s will for their life together.

A married cleric, whether in Minor or Major Orders, is bound without exception to the fulfilment of his obligations to the clerical state e.g. to obey his bishop, to recite the Prayer of the Church, to be “on- call” and available sacrificially to fulfil the needs pastorally and liturgically of those he has been called to serve at the bishop’s direction in the ministry he has been set. Similarly, his wife should understand, that in supporting and effectively sharing in her husband’s vocation, sacrifices too will be expected of her.  It is important then for both to discern properly and prudently together, recognising and realising that a vocation if truly from God, may only be realised through the collaborative efforts of them both in service of Him.

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