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The Reformation and clergy marriage

Bernard Reymond

Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

At the end of 2018, several Catholic associations in German-speaking Switzerland asked the Vatican to stop imposing the vow of celibacy on secular priests. Seemingly, the current pope will not give the shadow of a positive outcome to this request. However, this approach, although doomed to failure, is an opportunity to recall what happened in this area at the time of the Reformation.

The main demand of priests committed to the claims of the Reformation was not so much the right to cohabit as the right to marry. At the end of the Middle Ages, cohabitation by secular priests was widely accepted, if not in law at least in practice. The popes themselves benefited from this tolerance. As a parish priest in Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli did not ask to be able to live with a woman but to be able to marry her in due form, so that she could enjoy all the respect due to a legitimate wife. That was easily granted to him the moment the Reformation of the Church became a reality.

Heinrich Bullinger, also a priest, Zwingli’s right-hand man and his successor at the head of the Church in Zurich, was in addition the son of priest (as was, for example, Erasmus, among many others). Once committed to the Reformation, he set out to marry Anna Adlischwyler who had just left a convent of Dominican sisters. Bound by her vows of celibacy and chastity, she had scruples about breaking them. Bullinger then wrote her a long letter explaining that, if she had no inclination for him, he would understand her and not insist. But he would not accept her refusing him because of vows whose existence nothing justified. Anna Adlischwyler quickly surrendered to his arguments and the marriage was able take place, as did that of Heinrich Bullinger’s own parents, with all due honour.

The marriages of Zwingli and Bullinger were two instances among hundreds, if not thousands, at the time of the Reformation. Not being priests, Calvin, Farel and Viret are not among that number, but the people of Strasbourg cannot forget the names of Martin Bucer and Mathieu Zell, nor those of their wives.

Within the area of Western Christendom, whether Lutheran, Reformed or Anglican, pastors’ households quickly became and still are a particularly marked social phenomenon: in Germany, in the Scandinavian countries, in the United Kingdom, in part of Hungary, in the Protestant cantons of Switzerland and even in France, it is no longer possible to count the children of pastors who have distinguished themselves in the arts, sciences, literature, politics, economics, social action, medicine , international relations, education, architecture, music, crafts… and even as pastors. An important contribution to the future of Europe!


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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