This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 32 states:
XXXII. Of the Marriage of Priests
Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.
This is another Article that feels like common sense to Anglicans and other Protestants today – why on earth would the clergy be forbidden from marrying? The Roman Church today still requires celibacy of their priests and bishops (married men may be ordained to the diaconate), but they seemingly stand alone in this practice. But in actual fact the Eastern Orthodox Church also has a particular set of rules concerning the marriage of clergy, dating back to the Early Church in which various councils set down the basic rule: married men may be ordained to any clerical office (bishop, priest, or deacon), but no ordained person may get married. Men enter the clergy as they are, and remain as they are. If his wife dies, he may not remarry, though pastoral provisions do exist for clergymen with young children to remarry that their children may again benefit from having a mother.
The Roman Catholic practice of total celibacy for all clergy but the deacons is a heightening of the ancient rule. There was a great deal of trouble in the early middle ages surrounding nepotism (passing an office on to one’s child) and simony (selling church offices to the highest bidder), and ruling that all clergymen had to be celibate, like monks, was a major weapon against such corruptions. By the time of the Reformation, clerical celibacy had become virtually universal in the West.
The Reformers, all, were opposed to this restriction. But instead of returning to the Early Church’s rule (that a clergyman remains as he is, single or married), they returned to a more permissive stance, as reflected here in Article 32. Priests and Bishops, ever since, have been permitted to marry “as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”
This wording indicates that some clergymen are better off living singly, and others married, according to the gifts of grace at work in them. After all, the examples of the life-long celibacy of Jesus and Paul, in addition to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 about the celibate life, provide a thoughtful balance to his requirements for the clergy in 1 Timothy 3 – that a bishop should be a husband of one wife. Some Protestants have asserted this means that all pastors must be married, but this requirement has historically been understood to be a prohibition against divorced and remarried men from being pastors, as well as against polygamy. Thus Article 32 leaves the option open: our clergymen may be married or single, as best suits their calling.