Being the son of a very fine clergyman you would expect me to have little in favour to say of enforced clerical celibacy. It would have denied me existence.
Nine of the very best, most hard working and regular attenders of church in my parish are the sons or daughters of clergymen. Four of them, my own children, are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of clergy, for my mother's father was a great big cheese and dried-seaweed addicted Ulsterman and clergyman. Such a concentration of useful clerical offspring in one parish surely provides the best argument against the enforced celibacy of parish clergy that there is. Though it is not the wittiest comment on the subject. That comes, as you might expect, from a Frenchman who is quoted as saying, in Arthur Calder Marshall's biography of the attractively crack-pot Father Ignatius of Llanthony, that "Of all sexual aberrations I find celibacy the hardest to comprehend".
Being brought up in a rectory or mission-station's residence, I consider to have been one of God's greatest blessings. It provided me with the most stimulating, invigorating, and healthy of environments that a child could possibly have.
In a rectory the phone is always going. Interesting and varied people are always calling: beggars, old lags, the distressed, the elated, rich, poor, all sorts and conditions of men and women. The lounge is regularly filled with uproarious clergymen. The old adage that the clergy are like manure, fine and useful when spread thinly, but altogether in a heap, stinking and offensive, is in my experience a base canard. A house full of clergy rocks with laughter, thrills with what must be the most esoteric of all gossip.
A rectory child has access to his father's study and work place. My youngest daughter, when very little, adored my study, she loved emptying out the fascinating top left hand draw of my desk, full of paperclips, glue sticks, bull-dog clips, string, pens, discarded watches, wrecked dog collars and dog collar studs and so on. When denied access she would lie on her back outside and drum on the door with her feet. She provided a wonderful example to those arranging weddings of what they were letting themselves in for.
The rectory child has ready access to so many interesting thing. Organs to fiddle on, church towers to climb, church bells to ring, candle ends to collect and melt down, illicit sips of communion wine and melt-in-the-mouth wafers to pinch. There are vestries to hide in, choirs to join. In many parishes there are tombstones to decipher, hide behind and be frightened of in the dark. There are halls to play badminton in, church grounds to defend against invasion by other children, youth groups to join and always odd and interesting jobs to be done with dad. My father made a set of oak altar rails for the little church on Tristan da Cunha, I helped to sand them down.
At school to be a clergyman's son meant that even your swearing carried more weight than anyone else's, and of course it was always just that little bit more satisfyingly easy to shock people. My wife and I decided to teach our children to express profound feeling verbally in a way that allowed them the satisfaction of swearing without actually swearing. We reinterpreted exotic sounding but harmless words to replace swear words. One was "Paganini", a word which, if said with venom, sounds easily as evil as a Paganini cadenza and even worse than the very worst of swear words. If spuriously translated into English as "Page Nine" it proves to be a comment sufficient to raise eyebrows, harmless but enigmatic! One of our sons said the word "Paganini" so effectively at school once that the object of his wrath was overwhelmed enough to inform teacher who punished our son for vile vocabulary.
I have four children of my own. They are invaluable to me as a parish priest. Not only because they are a refreshing doorway out of piety, make-believe and hypocrisy into reality and sanity, into the lives of ordinary men and women, but in many other ways as well. I have two boys, aged sixteen and seventeen, and two girls aged nine and eleven. This has proved a most fortuitous spacing. They provide at present a window for me into both secondary and primary school. I have been able to build a senior youth group around the boys and a junior one around the girls. They have helped me to collect such a gaggle and giggle of servers that on first Sunday's of the month it is sometimes difficult to move in the sanctuary without knocking down an acolyte or his candle or both. As someone once asked, "Why do you have so many children holding candles in the sanctuary?" The answer: "It's not the children who hold the candles, it is the candles who hold the children." When having trouble with local vandalising yobbos my boys provide me with inside information and advice. They have learned to answer the phone, entertain a regular intellectually disabled visitor and many other strange and less than strange parishioners. They are normal enough to enable me thoroughly to identify with the worries of parents in the parish generally and abnormal enough for me to be thoroughly proud of them. They sing in the choir, criticise not at all unintelligently my sermons and provide sermon illustrations and subject matter galore.
So invaluable are my children to my parsonic vocation that I plan another pair. This, however, is something, fortunately, that my wife refuses to countenance.
Andrew Neaum 1995