The truth is, my sin was not very original
Peter Mullen (right) was an unhappily married parson in charge of two Yorkshire parishes. Then he met another woman, with whom he fell in love. Did what followed make him any less of a priest?
Wednesday 25 September 1996
I was an established country parson of many years with two delightful parishes near the site of the Battle of Marston Moor. I was also unhappily married, bearing the unhappiness not exactly stoically and without much equanimity, when I fell devastatingly in love. In the years that preceded this cataclysm, I had been miserable to the point of clinical depression, for which I had received treatment. Nothing helped. From time to time I would rally and try to make the best of it, but sooner or later I would sink back into the despond. Work, routine, thinking about other people - all these things helped, but they were not a cure. It wasn't my wife's fault. We had married young and before the understanding of psychological incompatibility dawned.
There are a dozen arguments about strength of character which say that I should not have felt as I did, and a dozen more to add that at any rate I should not have given in to mere feelings. Where was discipline, prayer and vocation? I was a pathetic figure, giving help and advice to scores of couples whose relationships were on the rocks while I myself was floundering. Texts loomed mockingly in the imagination: "Physician heal thyself," and even "He saved others; himself he cannot save". How few people know what it feels like to stand at the lectern and read out such verses, cheeks burning and throat dry, almost choking over the words.
I had begun to think that my life would drag out to its close, always under a cloud, emotionally meaningless, just one damned thing after another.
Falling in love was like seeing in colour for the first time. It was in the true meaning of the word, fantastic - like the sensational dynamics of a Mahler symphony - such a thing as dreams are made on. But it was also profoundly invigorating in all practical ways. I was certainly committing mortal sin, but my spiritual and pastoral work was the best it had been. I discovered a talent for empathy which I never knew I possessed, and the doctrines of the faith meant more and more to me while I was in the very business of contravening their moral aspects.
Auden once said that the short proof of determinism is that whereas I firmly believe my own actions to be free, I am never surprised by what my friends do. It raises the question of just how much control anyone has when he is in the maelstrom of a love affair. Freud said love is a neurosis, but it was Jung, writing about being in the vice-like embrace of the Anima, who most accurately described my condition. I was enchanted as any prince in the old fairy-tales, and truly I felt right royal. We speak of falling in love as well as of the fall of man, and certainly the two falls are psychologically similar.
Strangely, perhaps, I was not ashamed. With a kind of perverse innocence I did not try to hide my feelings, or even the relationship itself. I was proud of my new state of being and I flaunted my exhilaration. The organisers of a conference at the University of St Andrews asked me to give some lectures - so I took my girlfriend with me. We walked arm-in- arm by the sea at Crail where John Knox came ashore to preach Calvinism and renunciation. I laughed and joked about "the good news of our damnation".
Many of my parishioners knew what was going on and most of them treated me with a sort of amused tolerance. A few of the very righteous ones bombarded the bishop and the archbishop with letters of complaint, but they were not typical. One or two close friends told me I was being a fool and risking everything. I laughed again, because I had known just how empty "everything" had been without love. One friend in the parish made a wonderfully generous suggestion of a highly impractical nature: "We could declare UDI from the General Synod and carry on by ourselves!" It sounded ludicrous at the time, but something very much like this has been attempted by a dismissed vicar and some of his parishioners in the diocese of Norwich.
All I knew was that I was really alive for the first time in ages. I was also sacked - well, I jumped before I was pushed, and the official statement mentioned resignation. Odd, because for the first time in years I felt anything but resigned. I felt reconciled. No blame for my treatment should attach to the church hierarchy: you can't have fallen vicars preaching lifelong fidelity. And when the Ten Commandments - one's ecclesiastical stock-in-trade, as it were - specifically prohibit adulterous liaisons, it is clearly not right for the parson to be an open and notorious evil liver. By the way, journalists please note: it's "unfrocked", not "defrocked".
But since my resignation, I have had time for reflection, and certain puzzling conjectures have occurred. First, fornication is sinful all right, and no two ways about it. But it comes in a list of sins mentioned by St Paul where it is not reckoned to be any worse than many of the others: "Backbiting, Pride, Envy, Uncharitableness, Party-strife, Bitterness ..." Why single out fornication and adultery for special denunciation, then? But when did you last hear of anyone thrown out of the Mothers' Union for backbiting, or ejected from the General Synod for party-strife?
Second, there are plenty of clergymen in the Church of England who commit fornication every day with their lovers, yet they continue to hold office. Good luck to them. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. And I don't mind what they do so long as it doesn't frighten the horses. But I wonder why some ecclesiastical adulterers are winked at by the authorities while others incur the whole righteous wrath of the institution. There are many gay clergymen who are known to be not only living in sin, but doing so with gusto - and not merely with a single partner. Is that all right, then? Does political correctness - not offending the gay lobby - cover a multitude of sins? I also know of one bishop who keeps a mistress, and, far more shocking in my view, another bishop who ditched his long- time mistress on the eve of his consecration. Was this a genuine repentance, or for the saving of episcopal appearances?
Then there is the question of moral authority itself and the related question of how such authority can be retained when it becomes severely out of congruence with the mores of the age. Celibacy or lifelong fidelity remains the moral choice offered by the Church. But what is the status of this stricture when barely anyone accepts its authority? And I don't think it is analogous to saying: "All right, so we have a lot of burglaries these days - let's legalise theft!"
The law is made for the good of humankind, not humankind for the law. Clearly, it is impossible to build a society on the principle that stealing is perfectly permissible. The whole edifice would collapse into anarchy and violence. But it happens that over the centuries a great variety of systems of sexual ethics have prevailed at one time or another, and certainly societies have survived, even thrived, on many different ways of arranging these matters. Is there something particularly unalterable about sexual mores that does not apply to other areas of Christian morality - such as the relaxation of the prohibition on usury, for example? Or modifications of the medieval teaching about the just war? Or the gay liberationists' reversal of the doctrine of St Paul? And, to be specific, the Church thrived without the rule of priestly celibacy for the first thousand years of its existence, so why is celibacy such an exaggerated and mandatory virtue today?
Recent pronouncements by the Roman Catholic hierarchy about the Bishop of Argyll are wild over-reactions to what is, after all, just another example of some not very original sinning. I mean, if we start to describe a moonstruck clergyman as "Betrayer" and "Judas", what words are left to us when we have to describe real wickedness in places such as Rwanda and Liberia? The cleaning lady at the beginning of George Bernanos' wonderful novel The Diary of a Country Priest had a better sense of perspective when she said that the Church has to be able to contain a bit of dirt.
The most fascinating aspect of all this is the psychological and spiritual. In Four Quartets, TS Eliot quotes Mother Julian's saying: "Sin is behovely, but all shall be well." St Paul himself says that the more sin there is, the more grace abounds. These are mysterious sayings, but I think that I have personally felt some of their spiritual weight and power. To put it bluntly: I was a better priest after I fell in love and became a clergyman behaving badly.
What gives Christianity its emotional and aesthetic driving force is the exaggerated sense of paradox and irony which is at its very centre. So ironical is the Christian faith that it takes for its emblem a cross. It offers the double bluff of paradox in all its teaching: he who would save his life must lose it; the last shall be first; the dead shall live. And sinners are saved before the righteous. As Blake said:
If moral virtue was Christianity,
Christ's pretensions were all vanity.
And if the wages of sin are death, then, through the mystical Christ, they are the wages of life as well. These are deep waters. That good comes out of pain and wrong is near the heart of Christianity. There is that other quote from Eliot: "The wounded surgeon plies the steel."
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