The bride's name was Emily Byers. Her groom? God.
It might sound strange enough that Byers, then 25 years old, walked down the aisle when her husband-to-be was nowhere to be seen. But that wasn't the only difference between the Lafayette schoolteacher's wedding and that of an ordinary bride. Five years on, Byers still hasn't consummated her marriage. She's made a vow to stay a virgin—for life.
Officially known as consecrated virgins, Byers joined an estimated 3,000 Catholic women in 42 countries who've publicly pledged lifelong virginity to God. They're not nuns, exactly, but the decision is taken as seriously as choosing to enter a nunnery. In the UK alone, there are 200 consecrated women, according to the National Office of Vocation. And the figure could still be higher, since the most recent records were compiled in 2008 and 2013, respectively.
In an era where sex (and sexual fulfilment) can be a Tinder hookup away, shunning it seems like an extreme—even unviable—lifestyle choice. Not to mention that celibacy doesn't have the sexiest image. It's little wonder that Byers' friends and family were initially confused by her decision when she first revealed it.
At the time of her ceremony, Byers was the youngest consecrated virgin in the US. So why are so many young women so drawn to this lifestyle?
"The idea of dedicating my virginity to God first came to me at 17 as a close friend from high school discovered his vocation to be a Catholic priest," Byers says. "It was his example of generosity—of being willing to give his entire life to God—that awakened a desire within me. I knew that consecrated virginity coincided with the deepest desires of my heart: to belong totally to Jesus and to serve the church."
Janis Clarke, 56, experienced a similar awakening. Clarke was consecrated at 33 after making "private promises" of celibacy at 25. The Washington DC-based classical singer fell in "love with Jesus after a priest encouraged me to write letters to him when I was 13 and let him 'write back to me.' This [led] to an intimate personal relationship with God. I sensed him inviting me into a spousal relationship with him, to give myself totally to him as he had given myself totally to me on the cross."
On the surface, consecrated virgins bear a striking resemblance to nuns. Some Catholics themselves are divided over why consecrated virgins just don't simply become nuns in the first place. But dedicating their lives to God is where the likeness ends.
Unlike nuns, who can take their vows even if they've married before, few women are eligible to become brides of God. Prospective consecrated virgins can't have ever had sex, for one. That's not the only difference, though. Unlike those who enter a nunnery, these women live out their calling individually and outside church walls, holding down jobs, renting and taking public transport, just like us.
While virginity no longer has the same desirability, or importance, in our culture as it once did – a recent study even found that most people wouldn't date a virgin—the same can't be said for the Catholic Church.
It does not make me any less a woman.
Since early church history, celibacy – for women, anyhow – has been held in high esteem. It is what National Catholic Reporter journalist Thomas C. Fox, writing in Sexuality and Catholicism, dubs "a higher state of life." From St. Hilda to Catherine of Siena, most Catholic saints have been virgins, with Mary as the most high-profile example. If anything, the powerful position she occupies in the church today can arguably be rooted in her so-called purity.
In that sense, consecrated life could be seen as a way for women to elevate their power within religiously acceptable bounds. Dr Sarah Salih, senior lecturer at King's College London, whose work spans the history of virginity and sexuality, seems to think so. "I would say they're imitating the virgin, trying to be like her. Certainly the Virgin Mary is a very important model."
"Catholicism does have a long-standing history of empowering women through virginity," adds Salih, who is also the author of Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England.
But could these women be taking ownership of their bodies in a culture which routinely portrays virginity loss as one of the most meaningful events in your sexual career? It could be the case for Byers. "Virginity is not a possession to be 'lost,'" she tells me. "Speaking of it as something that can be 'lost' is disempowering, especially to women. Because virginity is a gift that cannot be 'taken back' once it is given, it has an inherent sacred quality."
The consecrated virgins that I spoke to are adamant that lifelong celibacy can be just as fulfilling, if not more so, than sex.
Anne Duell, 44, was consecrated in 2015. The Birmingham-based nurse spent 31 years feeling that God was 'calling' her to give her life to him. "It does not make me any less a woman," she says.
"If all that defines a person is his or her sexual activity, then consecrated virginity would be a life of deprivation," Byers adds. "But there is more to life than sex. Consequently, my life is not a deprived one at all."
Just as marriage is for life, consecrated virginity is a permanent state in life.
While Byers does concede that celibacy is "not easy especially in our over-sexualized culture," she "cannot emphasize enough that... the life of a celibate person is not lacking in intimacy."
If anything, it can achieved in other, non-carnal ways. "I still enjoy spiritual intimacy in prayer and the emotional intimacy of close human friendships," she adds.
Clarke stresses that she hasn't sacrificed her sexuality in the process: "As a Catholic, I believe that marriage is the only morally acceptable context [for sex]. So does that mean that everyone who is not married is no longer a sexual being? I don't think so."
Is it entirely reasonable to maintain the vow for their entire lives, though?
These women are, after all, human. Surely they might—or at least have been—tempted to change their mind and want a relationship?
"Have I considered marriage? Yes. [But] will I change my mind? The answer to that is simple: no," Duell says. "It is not a stop gap until something better comes along. Just as marriage is for life, consecrated virginity is a permanent state in life."
For Byers, human love comes with its own pitfalls—chiefly that it doesn't last. No wonder then that God's love, which doesn't come with the same drawbacks, seems so appealing. "Real love is a lasting commitment, not a passing feeling. I am in love with Him and I will be His forever because He will never stop loving me."
However, consecrated life can come at a price. For one, most of the women say that they did initially assume their life partner would be human.
"For much of my life, I did presume that I would grow up to marry and have children," Byers admits.
Elizabeth Rees, 69, the oldest consecrated virgin in the UK, agrees. "I would actually love to be married [to be a man]. I do miss having a man in my life. You can't do everything 100 percent. It's a choice I made and sort of have to re-make from time to time."
Since they can't exactly catch a film with God or share out the chores, surely they must feel lonely?
Not quite. Duell tells me she's "blessed" to be part of a "vocation which crosses all five continents and is growing in number. Thanks to social media, many of us keep in touch and support each other."
Consecrated life does by no means make me a recluse.
"I have other consecrated virgins living near me in Birmingham that I meet with. Consecrated life does by no means make me a recluse," she adds.
Recently, the notion of celibacy has even come under fire from the church itself. An estimated 150,000 men have left the priesthood, largely in part because they're banned from getting married—but the figure could still be much higher since the Catholic Church can under-report departures. Meanwhile, Ireland faces a dire shortage in priests for that same reason.
Considering the Church has long been resistant to change—carnal love and conjugal pleasure, even within the bounds of marriage, was deemed pointless until the 1960s if not for the purpose of procreation —could the life of consecrated virgins soon go extinct? After all, its governing Order of Virgins was disappeared for centuries before it was reinstated in the 1960s.
Despite these threats—and the fact that God might not be present in the physical, touchable sense—many consecrated virgins don't believe that a man can come close to their saintly husband. Despite its drawbacks, consecrated life, as Duell says, "gives me much joy, happiness and contentment."