We can all agree that a priest who has an affair with a parishioner has committed abuse. But what about the priest who has an extramarital experience with someone not a parishioner? Is this ever okay?
Anglican Watch believes the answer is no.
The topic of clergy adultery is one we’ve covered previously. For instance, we have repeatedly raised a ruckus about The Rev. Dr. Tom Simmons. There, we were appalled that the Diocese of Virginia rewarded Simmons’ adultery with free counseling while doing nothing to care for others involved in the matter.
Moreover, Simmons’ alleged comment about the developing breasts of a teenager — to her father, no less — suggests this is a priest with boundary issues and an elevated likelihood of abusing children.
Why this isn’t setting off alarm bells across the diocese is beyond us, and if an incident of abuse occurs, we will pounce like a duck on a june bug.
This issue, boundaries, is at the heart of our opposition to all extramarital activity on the part of the clergy.
For the record, we don’t care who someone marries as long as it is monogamous, legal, and the person is of the age to consent. Nor do we care if someone is in a committed, long-term relationship but unmarried.
We do, however, believe that monogamy is vital. And we don’t buy into the notion of ethical non-monogamy. Call us old-fashioned or anything you want, but we aren’t buying it.
No matter how positive the dynamics are, one cannot form a spiritual union with someone with the occasional fling. Yes, the physical intimacy may be pleasant and the person attractive, but there’s far more to married life.
Anglican Watch also is deeply troubled by a related issue: the dumbing down of ordination vows.
Not long ago, being a priest meant a commitment to a life of service.
Far too often, the Episcopal Church now treats ordination as the contract of adhesion on the bottom of a job application: “If hired, I agree, blah, blah, blah.”
By treating ordination vows as just another job possibility among many, the Episcopal Church undercuts the role of the episcopacy at the heart of the denomination.
And true to form, the Episcopal Church far too often retains 100 percent of the clericalism, with none of the obligations associated with ordination. And narcissistic clergy don’t realize it’s not wearing funny clothes to work that engenders respect—it’s the dedication to a life of service and example.
In that regard, we object to dioceses that cheapen ordination vows by allowing clergy to get away with adultery and other major forms of misconduct. Simply put, aspirants who don’t wish to be held to a higher standard should shift their focus elsewhere.
Regarding obligation, Title IV asserts that clergy take vows that impose a higher standard of conduct. That begs the question: When it comes to marriage, what does that involve?
We submit that the answer is consistent with marriage vows: To be there for the other person, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
But clergy members shatter the bonds of trust with their congregation when they have an affair. They also:
- Breach the covenant they have with their family.
- Hurt spouses and significant others outside their family.
- Hurt whole communities.
- Set a dismal example for others.
That notion is consistent with the church as the Body of Christ and the idea that if one part is ill, the whole thing is sick.
In other words, having an affair is toxic, even when others can’t see the damage caused. And it causes hidden damage, even if the spouse never finds out about the breach of trust.
And when people do find out about an affair, their pain is deep, lasting, and enhanced by the fact the affair involved a priest—someone who by definition should be trustworthy.
That also makes an extramarital affair profoundly selfish. The priest who has an affair focuses first on her needs while ignoring those of her family and her faith community.
It also raises the questions: Why does this person outside my marriage look attractive to me? Why am I tempted to look outside my marriage? And why did I not maintain boundaries long ago?
In short, if an affair occurs, myriad boundary violations have existed long before things became physical. And adultery itself is living a lie and a boundary violation in every direction.
Particularly troubling are long-term or recurring affairs. While we disapprove of extramarital activity in all circumstances, we see a massive distinction between a one-and-done and an extended affair.
In cases of an extended affair, too often, we see clergy who want all the benefits of remaining with a breadwinner while avoiding the hard decisions.
That lack of courage is profoundly troubling. And staying with someone just for the money makes one little more than a person for hire–hardly an honorable situation.
We also see a related problem with long-term affairs: the underlying deceit. Whether it’s a priest telling his family he’s working late, going to the diocesan clergy conference, or any other excuse, long-term affairs invariably embroil the participant in a web of lies.
Additionally, it’s common to see clergy begin stealing to have an affair. For example, an unfaithful priest may spend parish funds on the clergy conference, knowing they won’t attend. But this is obtaining funds under false pretenses, and it’s theft.
Similarly, we have seen multiple examples of clergy using their discretionary account to pay for hotel rooms, meals away, etc. When this happens, it is embezzlement.
Or they may steal from a higher-earning spouse by telling them they need funds for extracurricular activities for the children or other bogus excuses. While unlikely to result in criminal prosecution, this too is theft.
We note as well that the priest’s extramarital partner, while by definition in this article not a parishioner, almost invariably has ties back into the parish. It’s just part and parcel of family systems, and the church is small enough that no one is more than two or three degrees of separation apart. That raises troubling questions about the underlying dynamics.
In other words, extramarital affairs implicate myriad related ethics issues.
Healthy priest, healthy parish
Over the years, as we’ve worked with more and more cases of abuse in the Episcopal Church, we’ve also come to see that like invariably attracts like. One cannot be an unhealthy priest and form a healthy parish. And it’s relatively rare for a healthy priest to stay at an unhealthy parish; these issues need to be resolved during an interim period.
Why? It’s because we become like those with whom we surround ourselves.
In the case of an unfaithful priest, the lies, deception and broken trust create patterns of relationships that are themselves unhealthy. And we cannot be in right relationship with God, each other, or ourselves when we do not know the truth.
To be clear, we used to think there were some exceptions to the notion that like attracts like. But over time, we’ve learned the hard way that toxic churches attract toxic clergy and vice versa. And some of the most toxic churches are some of the friendliest, so one needs to be able to scratch the surface in order to understand the underlying family system dynamics.
Whether it’s a one-night stand or an extended affair, there’s a common denominator in all extramarital affairs: Profound mental health issues and maladjustment are part of things.
Having the integrity to tell a spouse that a marriage is no longer viable takes courage. But a priest who doesn’t have even that level of courage is one maladjusted soul.
It also touches on respect for their spouse, their children (if any), and their integrity. What kind of adult ignores these issues? Or is so selfish that she wants to have it both ways?
It’s the old thing about not behaving in a way that you’d have a problem if details were on the front page of the New York Times. Or Anglican Watch.
Church members have a right to have clergy with the moral backbone to act with integrity in their marriages. Yes, we all make mistakes, but the unfaithful priest is unsuited to be clergy when the behavior is part of an ongoing pattern.