Embracing Celibacy, Chastity, and Virginity
By Rev. John R. Mabry, PhD

Our co-pastor, Fr. Richard, loves to confound newcomers to our parish by insisting, “I am a celibate priest!” Since Richard’s wife has just been introduced to them, they are understandably confused. Richard, an impish Englishman delights as much in their confusion as he does in his explanation. “In our parish, we honor celibacy, chastity, and virginity…” he begins, and those of us who have been there for years can pretty much mouth the words along with him from there.

Celibacy, chastity, and virginity are not exactly popular subjects in mainline churches, but then, ours is far from your typical mainline church. We are Congregationalist (NACCC, not UCC), and choose to call only pastors ordained in the apostolic succession. We worship in a high Anglican fashion (we use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer adapted for inclusive language—lots of “thees” and “thous” but few “Lords”) and dogs are welcome at all services, and may take communion along with human parishioners if they so desire.

But it is our trumpeting of celibacy, chastity, and virginity that mark us as truly unusual. It was Richard’s idea, and I used to think he was nuts. Now I just think he’s freakin’ brilliant. Richard’s genius was to recast celibacy, chastity, and virginity from the realm of sexuality into the realm of politics—specifically congregational polity.

The priests in our parish are celibate because we have no administrative power or responsibilities whatsoever. We make no decisions, we handle no money, we oversee no accounting or, really, anything else. We preach, teach, lead liturgy, visit the sick, and absolutely nothing else. We are completely celibate as regards to power in the parish.

The parishioners run the parish entirely on their own, and when they meet to decide on a matter, clergy have voice but no vote (we share this distinction with canine parishioners and humans under the age of thirteen). Of course our opinions carry some weight, but when the time to vote comes, we sit on our hands, and honor the discernment of the wise people of God who call us to serve them.

It is also our responsibility to remind parishioners to be chaste in regards to their own power. All human parishioners over thirteen years of age have one vote, and therefore share equal power. Parishioners are chaste when they do not try to dominate others, insist they get their way, or otherwise force their will upon the community.

Ideally, our parish makes all decisions by consensus. We remain chaste by not moving forward on a matter if everyone does not agree, or those who dissent do not give their permission. If we must resort to democracy, we consider ourselves to have failed. All major decisions are made in a quarterly parish meeting, while the nitty-gritty details of running the church are handled at a monthly meeting of the trustees, an elected board. All meetings are open to all parishioners, and any decision of the trustees can be brought before the quarterly parish meeting for review by any parishioner.

You might think we move slowly, but that is not the case. I have rarely experienced a congregation that is more loving of one another, more in sync, or that moves with such speed. It is nothing short of miraculous, and I think it is largely due to the fact that everyone feels like his or her virginity is honored.

In our parish, virginity is understood as owning one’s own power. Every person is a virgin, and does not hand their power over to another. Every parishioner feels empowered politically, has authority to exercise his or her ministry with the support of the community, and has a real sense of ownership of the parish.

To extend the metaphor further, any incident of forcing one’s power upon another—or upon the community at large—compromises peoples’ virginity, and can only be described as political rape. In my opinion and experience, political rape is the norm, not the exception in spiritual communities. It is shocking to say so, yet many of our parishioners have been wounded by abuses of power in other communities, and are relieved to find safe haven in our polity. By calling political rape what it is, we reveal it’s wrongness, and can embrace another way of being together.

So long as the clergy are celibate and the people are chaste, no abuse of power mars the life of the parish. I have served this parish for thirteen years, and we have never had a single serious incident of the misuse of power, either by clergy or by parishioners. We may be an eccentric and eclectic bunch, but we are nothing if not a harmonious church family, and we all feel privileged to be together. It is a safe place to be, and we are all grateful for it.

Our parish sits only five blocks from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and a few weeks ago our ministerial intern brought her cohort to visit our historic arts-and-crafts-style building, and to spend an hour interviewing me as one of the pastors. They were incredulous as I described our policy of celibacy, chastity, and virginity. One of them protested forcefully, “But what about your pastoral authority?”

I must admit my response was not terribly pastoral—I laughed out loud. “What authority?” I said. “I have no pastoral authority whatsoever. I don’t tell anyone what to do or what to believe, nor do I make any decisions. I have lots of pastoral responsibility, however. I am responsible for visiting sick parishioners, for delivering thoughtful and inspiring sermons, and for reminding people to be kind to one another and chaste in their use of power. But authority? Oh, no. I have none.” I am, after all, a celibate priest.

The Rev. John R. Mabry, PhD is co-pastor of Grace North Church in Berkeley, CA (www.gracenorthchurch.org). He teaches World Religions, Interfaith Theology, and Spiritual Direction at the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith Ministry and is adjunct faculty at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. His books Faith Styles: Ways People Believe and Noticing the Divine: An Introduction to Interfaith Spiritual Guidance are due out from Morehouse Publishing this winter. Visit his web site at www.apocryphile.org/jrm/