The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Prodigal priest

The Prodigal Son, by He Qi

We assume that prodigal priests are those who have run off the rails, who have misbehaved sexually, and most of the time, that’s true. A friend tells me that of all the cases of deposition he dealt with during his years as a diocesan official, the overwhelming majority were for sexual misconduct with women and boys. (Oddly, he said, the few cases of financial misconduct were those that provoked the most hostility from congregations.) So it’s not unfair to assume that when one meets “a former priest,” one is meeting an ordained man who is no longer in the ministry because he sexually abused women or boys. Very few church people I’ve met over the years have asked, “Why did you leave the ministry?” I suspect it’s because they think they know — and in my case, they’re right. In most cases, they would be right.

If it’s true that most deposed clergy don’t hang around the church after the fact — and that’s something I don’t really know — is it any wonder? Prodigal priests are those who have squandered their inheritance, their vocation to ordained ministry, by sexually abusing women or boys. (I do believe it’s sexual abuse, by definition, for an ordained minister to use his position to have sexual relations with people in his charge.) There is something of the profligate in ordained ministers who find illegitimate sexual partners among those committed to their pastoral care. Something of the one who would leave home, pockets full of his father’s money to spend on wine, women and song. In view of the usually correct private assumptions church people have about former priests, why would any deposed priest feel comfortable in the household of faith? Hester Prynne wore her scarlet letter without blinking, but she was stronger than most and fiction besides. There is an invisible scarlet letter on the breast of almost every deposed priest, and the letter glows brightly, at least within the inner eye of he who wears it.

I assume that deposed clergy flee the church, at least at first, because that’s what I did. It took several years, because even though I felt accepted or at least tolerated in my new surroundings, something within me drove me away more than anything external. Shame? Guilt? Yes. And anger, a deep-seated resentment that life had not turned out well, that I’d abandoned my family and my vocation in the same dire moment for no good reason. I actually believed I was in love with someone else and that we would be happy together once we’d divorced our spouses and regrouped our families elsewhere in the country. It sounds pathetic now. We did divorce our spouses but did not marry. There seems to have been some providence in that, though I didn’t think so at the time. I felt robbed of everything, even though I had instigated the loss, and it pissed me off. Royally.

Prodigal, first in spirit and then in fact. I went to a far country by leaving the Episcopal Church for a number of years, hoping that there was no God and then resenting that, too, because I’d spent much of my life studying theology and practicing Christian prayer. I had remarried by then, someone I’d met where I worked, and we attended no church. That would continue for at least eight years. The details are a little hazy now, though I probably could dig out some documents somewhere to pinpoint our leaving the congregation where we had been married. The point is not when but that we did.

This entry has gotten too autobiographical, but then, this subject goes quickly to that level, and I’ll bet that’s true for deposed clergy generally. It is about coming to terms with our stories, which continue — or so I suspect — without happy endings, despite whatever great or small moments of happiness we may have after deposition.

Prodigal priests are still priests and will be forever, whatever that means. I’ve found it means everything to me, but I’ve also found no way back into ordained ministry. The diocese from which I was deposed has declined to hear my case for remission of sentence (that’s the technical language of the canons). It reminds me that, though the father greets the returning prodigal with a ring, a robe and the fatted calf, the returning son is still without a share in the father’s estate. He’s lost it forever — but at least he’s alive, and the father’s love, more valuable than any estate, is a living and active word. What more could one want? Probably more.

We don’t know how the parable played out. The curtain falls after the father’s conversation with the older son, the good one who, apparently, had served his father well, earned his respect and would one day rule the roost. (One can only imagine the younger son’s fate after the father’s death.) How did it go for the prodigal son, living in his father’s house as one who had squandered his inheritance? The ring, the robe, the party — then what? Not full restoration. No remission of sentence. I suspect the prodigal felt himself a stranger on familiar ground. Shame. Guilt. Anger. A scarlet letter on his breast. Found, having come to himself, he is nonetheless diminished, unable to fulfill his role in the family. He fouled his bed. Let him lie in it.

May 30, 2005


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