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“It Was Never Good World Sence Minister Must Have Wyves”: Clerical Celibacy, Clerical Marriage, and Anticlericalism in Reformation England


Helen Parish is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Reading, UK.


The impact of the Reformation was felt strongly in the nature and character of the priesthood, and in the function and reputation of the priest. A shift in the understanding of the priesthood was one of the most tangible manifestations of doctrinal change, evident in the physical arrangement of the church, in the language of the liturgy, and in the relaxation of the discipline of celibacy, which had for centuries bound priests in the Latin tradition to a life of perpetual continence. Clerical celibacy, and accusations of clerical incontinence, featured prominently in evangelical criticisms of the Catholic church and priesthood, which made a good deal of polemical capital out of the perceived relationship of the priest and the efficacy of his sacred function. Citing St Paul, Protestant polemicists presented clerical marriage as the only, and appropriate remedy, for priestly immorality. But did the advent of a married priesthood create more problems than it solved? The polemical certainties that informed evangelical writing on sacerdotal celibacy did not guarantee the immediate acceptance of a married priesthood, and the vocabulary that had been used to denounce clergy who failed in their obligation to celibacy was all too readily turned against the married clergy. The anti-clerical lexicon, and its usage, remained remarkably static despite the substantial doctrinal and practical challenges posed to the traditional model of priesthood by the Protestant Reformation.