The celibacy expectation for their priests and monastics leaves many Roman Catholics perplexed when they hear of the married ministers of their Protestant and Anglican/Episcopalian neighbors. Sometimes this is seen as a question of whether a pastor is able to focus all of his attention on the work of the church without the distractions of family life – or, on the other hand, the ways that family service enriches his ability to understand and counsel the members of his congregation.
(Yes, I’m aware of the male pronoun there – we haven’t touched on the matter of the ordination of women in many of those Protestant and Anglican/Episcopal churches, contrary to Roman Catholic strictures.)
While the focus is usually on the pastors, the condition of their spouses is typically overlooked. Are they fully members of the congregation or are they somehow set apart? They’re definitely in a spotlight and held to a higher standard than the rest of those in the pews. In addition, many congregations assume the spouse – usually the wife – will function as an enthusiastic unpaid full-time employee of the church, either as an unofficial co-pastor, minister of music, choir director, secretary, or some other visible role. Whatever the ultimate definition, it’s a high-stress situation to fill. Not all marriages survive. As one former pastor told me, “My wife said she married me, not the church.” For him, to take another pastorate would have led to divorce.
To add insult to injury, they’re rarely accorded any open recognition of the duties they fulfill, much less given a place of honor. Their husbands are typically addressed as “Reverend,” for starters. As for the wives, though? Only Mrs.
In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox introduce a fascinating alternative. While the priesthood is reserved for males only, they are allowed to marry – if they do it before ordination. The last year of seminary, according to the story, is a time of intense courtship. (Otherwise, it’s celibacy.)
As for the wife? In Greek circles, she’s accorded the title presbytera in English, drawn from priest or elder. Among other Orthodox, similar titles from their native tongues.
Of course, now I’m wondering how it plays out in practice.