On Being An Independent Catholic Priest

“I am very curious to know more about your being a Catholic priest. It is so brilliant that you are. How does that work then? How did you become one? Were you raised a Catholic? Why did you choose to become one?” Anna.

The Short Answer:

How does that work? In a kind of mystic-without-a-monastery or Wandering Jew kind of way. And through gifts of Grace and earning money by doing what my mother would call ‘getting a proper job.’

Why did you become one? Because they asked me.

Were you raised a Catholic? Hell no!

Why did you choose to become one? Because standing outside the fence yelling ‘You’re doing it all wrong!’ is far less effective than standing inside it, wearing the Collar of Anubis and saying ‘It may take a while but I think we can fix this.’

The Long Answer:

All my childhood I went obediently to church with my family and, being at a Church of England school, with my classmates. It was simply what one did. Back then (in the Stone Age) it was a much more closed-in world where we were taught that Christianity was it and everybody else was a heathen. I never even thought about it.

And yet, when I was nine, standing in a pew and apathetically singing the Magnificat at Edgbaston Old Church—“my soul doth magnify the Lord”—a Beingness of colour so vibrant you could taste it enfolded itself in and around me in a warmth so cold I could hear it. It wrote four words in fire in my soul: “You will do this.”

Do what exactly? I had no idea and, once normality had re-established itself, frankly, I didn’t want to know.

I never mentioned it to anyone mainly because, at that middle class, middle England school, a long time before the New Age obsession with angels, pronouncing that an Archangelic Being had enfolded you in its wings in church was a sure way to find both your head and your homework down the lavatory. I would never have mentioned it to my parents who would have punished me for arrogance.

Time passed and I mostly forgot it. Just in case it had anything to do with virginity I disposed of mine rather judiciously as soon as was practical and stopped going to church. I still put “Church of England” on relevant forms and got on with life as a journalist and would-be trollop (failed).

In my 32nd year I met my first husband, Henry Barley, while filming a documentary for ITV in China. Because of “stuff” in his family, we decided to get married in the Seychelles. Two weeks before we were due to leave I discovered that the word “minister” for a beach wedding meant “registrar” and something within me rebelled. I wanted to be married in the sight of God. This wasn’t about the big posh wedding because it would be just Henry, me and two witnesses we didn’t even know. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about.

I didn’t have a church so I was aware of appearing to be a complete hypocrite and it seemed to be impossible. Being an atheist, Henry didn’t give a damn but he was concerned that I was upset.

I prayed. And on the Sunday before we were due to leave, as I waved Henry off on his way home in London, I heard the bells of St. Peter’s Church, Harborne, Birmingham, ringing for Evensong.

Something made me go. And halfway through the service, Rev. Michael Counsell said, “And prayers for our sister church, St Paul’s, Mahé, Seychelles.”

You’ve got to hand it to Rev. Michael. When he was buttonholed by a wild-eyed stranger ranting on about a wedding and a miracle after the service, he didn’t blink an eyelid but invited me round for tea. And when he heard my story he gave me the phone number of his old school-friend, French Chang-Him … who turned out to be the Archbishop of the Indian Ocean.

Whom I telephoned.

And who listened kindly to this total stranger and said (I’m paraphrasing a little) “If, when I’ve met you both, I decide you’re not totally bonkers, I’ll marry you.”

I did ask Michael later whether he always did prayers for the Seychelles church and he said, “No, never. It just came into my head to do so.”

Henry and I turned out not to be totally bonkers and were married in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mahé.

One year and sixteen days later, Henry died.

As I sat by his hospital bed the night before his death, the RC hospital chaplain came round and asked what our faith was. I said I was C of E and Henry was an atheist and he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry my dear. If he doesn’t believe in our Lord, Jesus Christ, your husband can’t go to heaven.”

Back then (in the Bronze Age), there weren’t so many options on a funeral for a widow from a C of E family. I asked the vicar not to say the “I am the resurrection and the life…” bit as we went in to the crematorium but he said, “That’s what’s in the funeral service.”

So I walked up the aisle after my young husband’s coffin, hearing him damned to hell.

And I threw that mean bastard Jesus and everything he stood for right out of the door.

But every time I looked out of my lonely bedroom window during the nights when I couldn’t sleep there was always a lamp lit in a terraced house whose garden joined the end of mine. There was something offering hope.

I took up alternative medicine, healing, chakras, Buddhist tendencies etc. which was all very helpful but, ultimately, I was hiding the problem in the corner and covering it with a pink cloth and a lighted candle. I had a problem with the God of Christianity and his boy, not with the Universe, Source, Spirit or whatever other euphemism I chose to call it.

Then I met and married Jonathon, a Jewish man. At the time were both at the furthest end of the rope from our respective religions and it was through my teacher of healing that the two of us were introduced to Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, a Sephardi Jew who teaches Kabbalah.

Not the Kabbalah of Madonna and the Kabbalah Centre, I hasten to add. A much older Jewish system based on the oral tradition in the Bible and the Convivencia (coming together of souls) in Medieval Spain under Moorish rule.

It enabled me to understand God, Judaism and the teachings of Jesus (he being a Jew and all that). It turned me upside down and inside out and inspired a trilogy of novels—The Chronicles of Deborah—about a fictional wounded and bitter little girl who came to live with Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Nazareth; who married Judas (probably not the best career move) and who, after the crucifixion, became a spiritual leader in her own right. As Deborah grew up, learnt and understood, so did I.

Jonathon and I divorced after a series of adventures including a year of learning New Testament Greek, teaching in a Russian hospital and emigrating to Montana, and my mother said “At least you can give up that Kabbalah rubbish now.” But I didn’t. I ended up (so far) as the author of 17 books on Jesus, Bible history, mysticism, Kabbalah and spirituality. That’s not to brag; I love writing so much that if I were shipwrecked on a desert island I’d probably write a novel in the sand.

I was also a funeral minister. So often as part of our healing we try to ensure that others don’t have to go through what we did. So I wrote and facilitated bespoke funerals for whatever level of faith people required. I never wanted anyone ever again to go through what I did at Henry’s funeral.

I knew by then that a vocation had been stalking me for some time and had investigated ordination. Back then (in the Iron Age) my C 0f E vicar told me I had to renounce all other religions to be ordained (though I’m not sure if that was actually the case or just what he told me) so that was out of the question and Unity—a wonderful New Thought Christian Church—wouldn’t have me because I was a) too weird and b) didn’t have a degree.

Then Jon Taylor, my third husband Lion’s best friend, was murdered. I led his funeral and my Bishop was in the congregation. He telephoned a few days later saying that God was prompting him to ask me to consider ordination as an Independent Sacramental Minister in his Church. This was, then, called The Apostolic Church of the Risen Christ but is now known as The Flower of Carmel, and is a parish in the world-wide Ascension Alliance of Independent Catholics..

This movement is a part of the Liberal (or Old) Catholic Church which broke away from the Roman Church at the end of the 19th century over the matter of Papal infallibility. I won’t bore you with details—lots more information here.

I resisted. It seemed far too “Christian.” But once I had got to know the Bishop better; once I understood that he was leading a deeply mystical branch of the church, and once I’d realised that this was a gift (and a huge challenge) from God, I accepted and began to train. The Church’s teaching and my Kabbalistic training enabled me to understand the Mass and the sacraments in a completely different way from the norm and I could both make peace with and be inspired by it all.

However, the demons that showed up in my mind the night before my ordination to the diaconate were enough to show me that this would not be a sinecure. And inviting friends and family to my priestly ordination in 2007 was pretty scary as they had never heard of this church and didn’t know what to make of it.

Five months later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the authorisation of the Pope, decreed that all women Catholic priests were automatically excommunicated at the moment of their ordination, even retrospectively (you’d think they would at least have the courtesy to send a text, but no). So I like to think that I am now, officially, a heretic. Luckily, God doesn’t seem to be bothered by that…

Change is coming to the Catholic Church. It is coming from the grass roots. It will grow in its own time until homosexuality, married and women priests, contraception and all kinds of other developments will be accepted as totally normal. No fighting or pushing is needed. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime but it will come to pass. No one ever forbids anything unless there is someone already doing it.

I am a Catholic priest—just not a Roman Catholic Priest—and my work includes salving the wounds that have been experienced throughout orthodox Catholicism, from families dealing with suicide through the death of unbaptised babies to the equally important “What is God and why is this happening to me?”

My faith is summed up by these quotations:

Hafiz: “It is a great injustice and a monumental act of cruelty for any religion to make someone fear God.

Ibn Arabi: “My heart has opened unto every form: it is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka’ba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah and the book of Qur’an. I practice the religion of Love; in whatsoever directions its caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.

The Dalai Lama: “My religion is kindness.”

Jesus of Nazareth: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

May God grant me grace to be of service (and funny with it whenever possible. But that’s another story).