A Celibacy Rite for Single Adults by Ann Dumolt

Deacon E. Ann Dumolt, graduates next Spring from the joint Bloy House-CST M.Div. program to become a licensed chaplain.  She is the parish deacon at St. Luke’s, Monrovia and works for the California Department of Social Services.

The Rev. Ann Dumolt

Deacon E. Ann Dumolt, graduates next Spring from the joint Bloy House-CST M.Div. program to become a licensed chaplain.  She is the parish deacon at St. Luke’s, Monrovia and works for the California Department of Social Services.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, there was always an understanding that when one matured into adulthood, one either married or entered into a religious vocation.  Being a woman, my prospects were further limited to marriage or the religious life—ordination not being open to women.  But what if I did not choose either?  Why could I not choose to serve God as a single person?  And why could I not formerly “seal the deal” so to speak, by professing a way of life that would include celibacy and take my place in the Christian community as a single adult “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [I might] be; and, according to the gifts given [me], carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [my] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church?”[1]

I am still a single adult and have chosen not to marry, opting instead to remain celibate—reasons for which I will address later.  But I would like to formally profess a vow of celibacy.  Why would this matter at all?  Jean Sheridan, in her book, The Unwilling Celibates[2] sums it up this way:  “[Lifestyle] strongly affects the way in which one is perceived by the church….”  Whether intentional or not, the church tends to disenfranchise the single adult, i.e., a singles ministry tends to be a social gathering with the goal of pairing for marriage.  The Church does not know what to do with those who are divorced, widowed, and the never married that are outside the bonds of marriage. And how to address those who may be sexually active in an illegitimate way?[3]  There is a need to raise the awareness of what the single adult has to offer the Church and how the Church can affirm and support single adults in its congregations.  There is no sacrament for single adults as there is for marriage and ordination.  But something could be created that is similar to that which is carried out in religious orders:  A rite that affirms the ministry of single adults which includes a vow of celibacy.

What is celibacy?  The general idea of celibacy is that it is a “state of nonmarriage in tandem with a state of sexual abstinence.”[4]  It is not a practice endemic of the Christian faith (specifically Roman Catholic clergy) as it is found in many cultures and other world religions.  The practice of celibacy contributes to the creation of status and role in one’s identity and community as well as representing “a negotiation regarding social values and cultural attitudes.”[5] For example, Mazatec ritual specialists and healers in Mexico refrain from sexual activity in order to be clean (purity in the sense that one is not “polluted” by bodily fluids such as semen or menstrual blood) to perform their ritual duties.  But permanent abstinence is viewed as a “highly extraordinary type of behavior”[6] indicating that such a person possesses “charismatic qualities and a source of valuable ecstatic abilities.”[7]  Such abilities would be found in “shamanic figures and other specialists whose services are deemed critical to the well-being of others.”[8]

The term “celibacy” comes from the Latin, caelebs, meaning alone or single.[9]  But the term creates confusion according to Sobo and Bell[10]:

  • To define celibacy as one who is “unmarried” is to take for granted that the unmarried do not engage in sexual activity or that the married may undertake celibacy.
  • Celibacy is usually referred to in terms of heterosexual activities. The stigma in Western societies attached to homosexual relations makes it difficult to conceive a celibate homosexual—such an individual will be perceived as heterosexual.[11]

Annamarie Kidder adds fuel to the fire in the confusion over celibacy by adding that celibacy cannot be confused with the term “chastity.”[12]  She states this in the context of Protestant Christianity not being able to admit that there is a practice of celibacy within its faith tradition.  But since Roman Catholics have by and large claimed celibacy, Protestants will call celibacy the practice of being “chaste.” But the word chastity is usually used to indicate “the absence of sexual activity…or a state free from sexual sin.  This places on the single person the double negative of not being married and not sinning sexually—hardly an incentive to develop a healthy spiritual attitude that honestly grapples with one’s sexuality.”[13] Sandra M. Schneiders would agree on the first point with Sobo and Bell and adds that celibacy or consecrated celibacy needs to convey that the individual “gives totally of the self, to unreservedly, and perpetually to Jesus Christ to the exclusion of all other primary life commitments.”[14]

The practice of celibacy can be threatening and not a welcomed practice in patriarchal religions such as Judaism or Islam, or in cultures such as ancient Greece and Rome.  At stake was the passing of one’s name from father to son as well as the passing on of wealth and property.[15]  Judaism did allow for exceptions[16]:  a temporary practice of chastity during a woman’s menstrual cycle; prophets practiced celibacy as a result of their direct contact with God; and there were groups who sought to reject materialism and sensual pleasure in order to study divine wisdom such as the Essenes.  In Islam, there is “express disapproval of restricting sexual activity permanently for religious ends and, on occasion, [enjoining] sexual relations between men and women in legitimate relationships is a religious obligation.”[17]

In the Eastern religions, “attitudes about celibacy are presented from a male perspective”[18]  and even more so in Buddhism.  In Hinduism, celibacy has evolved from a permanent to temporary commitment throughout the stages of life:  Ascetic values “were incorporated into the stages of life and also relegated to later in life after a person had been able to meet societal obligations.”[19] In both Jainism and Buddhism, celibacy is an ascetic discipline and sexual intercourse is viewed negatively.  Buddhism, for example, views sexual relationships as “entailed social and family responsibilities and functional obstacles to mental concentration.” [20]  Kim Gutshow illustrates this in a story about Buddhist nuns and how their path to practicing celibacy is challenged in Zangskar, Northwest India:  “For nuns, celibacy and renunciation are resistance to social and family responsibility.  It is a struggle for release from those responsibilities rather than liberation. In Zangskar as elsewhere in the Tibetan realm, nuns are domesticated by the social rule that places them in subservience to both families and monks.”[21]  The nuns are still expected to care for sick parents or relatives and to labor in the fields to sustain the economy of the village and the monks who spend their time in meditation. So while the nuns may forsake husbands and children, they are still bound to be daughters and nurses.  To add insult to injury, it is the monks who determine which woman may enter the life of celibacy.

Among the African nations and Native Americans, celibacy is not generally practiced except by those who function in religious roles and here celibacy is not a life commitment.  Sexuality for both groups is seen as a creative power, that is, sexual activity is to be enjoyed and children celebrated.[22]

Even within Christianity, the practice of celibacy as a vow has a mixed perception.  Those denominations leaning towards a more Catholic tradition (Anglo or Roman Catholic and Orthodox) have no problems with perpetual celibacy.  However, it is only since Vatican II (Roman Catholic Church) that there has been a realization that in preparation for life long vows of celibacy, obedience, and poverty, discernment on one’s sexuality in regards to celibacy was not adequately addressed as well as the other two vows.  Addressing this in religious orders, Sandra M. Schneiders observed, “Celibacy was ‘part and package’ of entering the Religious Life and many did not awaken to their own sexuality and the radicality of their choice until their mid-thirties or even later.”[23]  The result was the departure of many from the religious life who realized they were “strongly called to marriage or other sexual relationship or at least to the exploration and experimentation that had not occurred before [entering the religious life].”[24]

In regards to those leaning more to a Protestant tradition, during the Reformation, Martin Luther did not believe that celibacy should be legislated and he objected to the Roman Catholic Church’s position that celibacy was superior to marriage. He found it “abhorrent that a celibate person attained a higher stage of perfection than the average person as this was to deny Christ’s death on the cross for our redemption.”[25] Such was Luther’s influence that generally Protestants prescribe celibacy as the preferred state for the single adult until such time as one marries but not as a lifelong vow.

Regardless of the spectrum among Christians, religious or consecrated celibacy in Christianity differs from that as practiced in other religions.   Only Christians interpret their practice of life long celibacy “as the establishment of a particular kind of relationship with a Person, namely Jesus….Christians understand their commitment to Jesus as intrinsically perpetual, just as marriage to an earthly spouse is perpetual.”[26]

The early Church (in the person of Paul) supported and encouraged celibacy as it anticipated Christ’s imminent return.  Jesus did not command that his disciples practice celibacy as a state of life.  He knew that lifelong celibacy was not for everyone but only a few:  “For there are eunuchs, who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can (Matthew 19:12, NRSV).”   The apostle Paul likewise acknowledged that the practice of celibacy was not for everyone:  “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind, another a different kind (1Corinthians 7:7, NRSV).”  At the same time, he did not condemn those who preferred to marry.  However, in his effort to encourage celibacy, Paul cited three reasons to remain unmarried at the time of a one’s call to follow Christ[27]:

  1. He wanted to spare the individual the distress of marriage—distress such as caring for a spouse especially in time of illness.  If one is not married, one is only concerned in caring for him- or herself.
  2. The married person becomes occupied with the affairs of the world and pleasing his or her spouse.  Not being married allows for devotion to the Lord.
  3. Paul is concerned that the unmarried spend time in devotion to the Lord as the “appointed time grows short (I Corinthians 7: 29, NRSV)”—inferring the imminent return of Christ.

When it was apparent that Christ’s return was not as imminent as once believed, the early Church Fathers justified celibacy on the basis of Paul’s second reason:  Not being married allowed the single adult to devote time to God whether in prayer or service to the poor and needy.  They recognized that celibacy was a gift or Charism.  It was not that the body or sexual activity was evil; rather body and soul were integrated:  The body was a temple “allowing the soul to give birth to the ‘first fruits’ offered in service to God (Origen).”[28]  The Church Fathers also recognized that the practice of celibacy could not be the only practice—other virtues needed to accompany it:  “For it would be ridiculous to keep the organs of generation pure, but not the tongue; or to preserve the tongue, but neither the eyesight, the ears, nor the hands; or lastly to preserve these pure, but not the mind, defiling it with pride and anger (Methodius).”[29]  Lastly, the practice of celibacy was not to be thought of as superior to marriage “but the married are cautioned to remember that all virtue is found in moderation, and that any declension to either side is a vice (Gregory of Nyssa).”[30]

As the Church grew and changed—becoming embroiled in how it defined itself in the world and being influenced by other cultures as it spread the Gospel, celibacy soon became an idol of the medieval age.  This was among the many criticisms that the reformers of the Church addressed. Celibacy had become the state of holiness and marriage a state of sin.  Luther may have called Rome on this but celibacy seems to have divided the Church into two camps:  Catholics still extolling the virtues of celibacy over marriage (although in light of the recent clergy sex scandals that may be changing) while Protestants extol marriage (between a man and a woman with some realizing a need to recognize the monogamous relationships of same sex unions). Celibacy came into reexamination by Vatican II after five centuries of practice which encouraged re-examining preparation for the vow of celibacy in light of the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and feminism.

From Schneiders and Sheridan as well as speaking with two acquaintances that are in religious orders (one a woman and the other a man), the vow of celibacy is coupled with the vows of obedience and poverty, i.e., a discipline addressing one part of the body, needs to address all parts (cf. I Corinthians 12:14-26, Paul’s analogy of the body and spiritual gifts).  Schneiders writes from the perspective of a religious (nun) but Sheridan speaks from the perspective of a lay person.  Regardless of their perspectives, there is a time of preparation involved in committing oneself to lifelong vows—several years at a minimum.  The preparation whether lay or religious involves self-reflection especially in learning to live in silence—one learns to be comfortable with the good, the bad, and the ugly within oneself; the study of scripture and spiritual resources as examples of modeling the Christian faith; dealing with the other in terms of social location, ability, and acceptance for who the other is in order to cultivate a sense of hospitality; prayer; being in community with those who, like you, seek to serve God as a single adult[31]; and developing a Rule of life to maintain one’s focus on service to God and accountability with community.  This time of preparation is under the guidance of a mentor and with what Sheridan calls an “intentional community” which is committed to mutuality in relationships; critical awareness of and active engagement in cultural, political, and economic issues of their society; cultivating and sustaining connections with others in sustaining ministry; and faithfully participating in prayer and worship.[32]

When the period of preparation reaches a time that the individual, the mentor, and the community can agree that the single adult is ready, a rite of professing vows takes place.  It can be as formal as the rite outlined in the Book of Occasional Services (BOS).[33]  Though its use is in tandem to the various stages of vows within a religious order:  The novitiate (admission to the order within the context of the Daily Office);  Temporary or annual vows (involves the acceptance of the obligation to recite an approved form of the Daily Office—the rite taking place after the Prayers of the People and before the Peace within the celebration of Holy Eucharist); or Profession of final (life) vows (festal celebration of Holy Eucharist with additional symbols of dedication).  This rite can be tailored to the profession of vows for the single adult.  The BOS rite may be carried out within the Daily Office or the celebration of Holy Eucharist.  It includes, a request by the person to profess vows, sermon or homily addressing the person, an examination by the bishop concerning the commitment and the person’s desire to make these vows, prayer and blessing, and presentation of a symbol of this commitment.   Suggestions for Psalms and selected Scripture readings are provided as are prayers for the person professing vows.

Sheridan’s rite is less formal and does not involve clergy.[34] Her rite involves the single adult’s mentor, spiritual director (who may be one and the same person) and the intentional community.  Music may be involved and a Scripture passage is chosen by the single adult followed by an explanation of why the passage was chosen. The single adult then declares the intention to take up the vows of celibacy, obedience, and poverty explaining what each of these means to him or her and how it will be expressed.[35]  The declaration is written and after the single adult shares it, the intentional community signs it indicating support of this person’s life commitment.  The group then blesses the oil to be used in anointing the single adult.  After the anointing, the newly professed anoints the members of the community (Sheridan does not explain why this is done or it was not clear to me why this was done).  The rite is closed with a song and then there is a celebration “with food and drink.”[36]

For myself, I envision this rite as within the context of the Order of Holy Cross (OHC) community which uses the rite found in the BOS.  For my readings I would choose Isaiah 6:1-8 (Here I am, Lord; send me); Psalm 62 (For God alone my soul in silence waits); I Corinthians 12:12-31 (the body and its members),  and definitely John 15:1-8 (I am the Vine, you are the branches) as the Gospel.  The first two readings and the psalm are not listed in the BOS but they attest to my relationship with God as does the Gospel reading.

I have been an Associate with OHC since June 24, 2004.  I need to have a conversation with the Prior who was my mentor as I prepared to become an Associate (he was the Director of the Associates at the time).  I would probably speak with the archdeacon and if instructed to do so, with the bishop—at least inform them of my intentions.

As I went through the process of being ordained to the vocational diaconate, I realized that just working my day job, being active in pastoral care at church as well as volunteering as a chaplain at a local hospital, and looking after my Mom –my life was very busy!  But I enjoyed the advantage of being a single adult:  I was free to answer a pastoral call without having to ask permission from a spouse or significant other.  Once I was ordained, my life could not be any busier. I still work my day job with the California Department of Social Services, work at a parish sometimes evenings and definitely weekends involved in pastoral care and outreach ministry, still look after my Mom, and I am preparing to become a licensed chaplain.  But I did not and still do not feel I was or am  “unfulfilled” being single.  In fact, I feel a closeness in my relationship with God—so much so that I wish I could enter the religious life.  Being a vocational deacon working in a lay job while serving in parish ministry:  If there is anything “missing” it is being able to formally profess vows of celibacy tied to those of poverty and obedience.

I know there would be a time of preparation. But when the time arrives, I would like to profess my vows with the OHC community and include the archdeacon, bishop, close friends, and seminary professors who have known of my desire to carry this through.  It would take place within the context of Holy Eucharist and as a symbol of dedication, a ring (I wear one now but it could finally be blessed).  At the conclusion of the rite:   most definitely there would be a celebration “with food and drink.”


[1]____, “The Ministry,” Book of Common Prayer, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1979), p. 855.

[2] Jean Sheridan, “Introduction,” Unwilling Celibates: A Spirituality for Single Adults, (Twenty-Third Publications Bayard, CT, 2000), p. 3.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4]Annamarie S. Kidder, “Celibacy, Sexuality, and Wholeness,” Women, Celibacy, and the Church of the: Toward a Theology of the Single Life, (The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2003), p.9.

[5] Carl Olson, Editor, “Celibacy and the Human Body: An Introduction,” Celibacy and Religious Traditions, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008), p. 6.

[6] Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell, “Celibacy in Cross-Cultural Prospective: An Overview,” Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, (The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2001), pp. 9-11.

[7] Ibid, p.10.

[8] Ibid, p.11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, pp. 11-12.

[11] In the presentation of this paper, it was pointed out by our Liturgics professor, Dr. Sylvia Sweeney, that this perception might be changing even at the time Sobo and Bell wrote their book.

[12] Annemarie S. Kidder, “Celibacy, Sexuality, and Wholeness” Women, Celibacy, and the Church: Towards a Theology of the Single Life, (The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2003), pp.10-11.

[13] Ibid, p. 12.

[14] Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., “Celibacy as Charism,” Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life, (Paulist Press, New York, 2001), p.124.

[15] Carl Olson, Editor, “Celibacy and the Human Body: An Introduction,” Celibacy and Religious Traditions, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008), p. 9.

[16] Ibid, p. 10.

[17] Shahzad Bashir, “Islamic Tradition and Celibacy,” Celibacy and Religious Traditions, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008), p. 133.

[18] Carl Olson, “Celibacy and the Human Body: An Introduction,” Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Edited by Carl Olson, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008), p. 15.

[19] Ibid, p. 14.

[20] Ibid, p. 15.

[21] Paraphrased from Kim Gutchow “Celibacy in Cross-Cultural Prospective: An Overview,” Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, (The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2001), pp. 9-11.

[22] Carl Olson, “Celibacy and the Human Body: An Introduction,” Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Edited by Carl Olson, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008), pp. 17-18.

[23] Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., “Celibacy as Charism,” Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life, (Paulist Press, New York, 2001), p. 133.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Carl Olson, “Celibacy and the Human Body: An Introduction,” Celibacy and Religious Traditions, Edited by Carl Olson, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008), pp. 12-13.

[26] Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., “Celibacy as Charism,” Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life, (Paulist Press, New York, 2001), p. 142.

[27] Annemarie S. Kidder, “Celibacy and the Bible,” Women, Celibacy, and the Church: Towards a Theology of the Single Life, (The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2003), pp.47-48.

[28] Annemarie S. Kidder, “The Church Fathers,” Women, Celibacy, and the Church: Towards a Theology of the Single Life, (The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2003), p. 116.

[29] Ibid, p. 120.

[30] Ibid, p. 124.

[31] Here, I return to Sheridan’s definition of a single adult:  never married, divorced, widowed.

[32] Jean Sheridan, “Participation in Intentional Community,” The Unwilling Celibates: A Spirituality for Single Adults, (Twenty-Third Publications Bayard, CT, 2000), p. 108, paraphrased.

[33] Church Pension Fund (Kindle Edition), “Setting Apart for a Special Vocation,” The Book of Occasional Services, (Church Publishing, New York, 2004), Location 4446 beginning with the title and starting at the paragraph that states, “Individual Christians, in response to God’s call…”

[34]  Jean Sheridan, “New Rituals,” The Unwilling Celibates: A Spirituality for Single Adults, (Twenty-Third Publications Bayard, CT, 2000), pp.207-211.

[35] The intentional community does not live together so there is no common property.  Obedience is to one’s Rule which may be keeping the Sabbath, using food respectfully, and being involved in the promoting of ecology. Poverty is living within one’s means, advocating for equitable distribution of food and a living wage.

[36] Jean Sheridan, “New Rituals,” The Unwilling Celibates: A Spirituality for Single Adults, (Twenty-Third Publications Bayard, CT, 2000), p. 211.

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