On the 8th October 1990 the General Synod of the Church of England took a momentous decision. Despite much opposition,and after many thousands of hours of deliberation and prayer, the motion was passed; for the first time,a role that had been exclusively the preserve of one gender was opened up to the opposite sex.
Yes, for the first time in history, men were allowed to be the Vicar’s wife. Well, technically speaking, the vote was actually about allowing women to be priests, but the effect was the same. By default the Church of England had created the male ‘Vicar’s wife.’ (This is going to get confusing. I can’t spend the whole article talking about Male Vicar’s Wives’. But what do we call them?)
Of course, other denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists and URC had had female ministers for a long time. Which makes the general silence on the subject even more strange.
You see, in researching this article, I did a quick search of the Internet. And, among the millions of pages out there I found loads of articles about the pressures faced by female clergy, and quite a few of the pressures faced by Vicar’s wives. But on men married to ministers? Nothing. Zero. Zip. Which either means they don’t face pressures or difficulties, or - and this for me is the more likely option - the church still hasn’t come to terms with their very existence.
“Up until approximately two years ago, husbands of female ministers were not allowed to join the Baptist Minister’s Wive’s Fellowship,” says David Martin, whose wife, Sheila is a Baptist Minister. “But now we are. I do belong to our local group and really enjoy when they have meals or evenings out.”
This need for support and simple recognition is shared by Roger Parker, whose wife Christine is the minister of Aldershot Baptist church. “Christine meets with her Minister friends to talk, pray, and share,” he says. “Who can I talk to who will understand my problems? Things are sometimes organised for Minister’s wives, where does that leave me? Once at a ‘Churches Together’ meeting, the leader said “let’s pray for the wives of the Ministers” can you imagine how that made me feel? In other churches I have had friends, usually men, now, as the Minister’s wife nobody wants to be my friend in the same way.” In looking at the subject of men who are married to ministers there is this curious absence of official information. There are, as far as I can tell no statistics, no actual numbers. We know they’re out there, but that’s about it. (And what should I call them? Vicar’s Husbands? Too Anglican. Male Ministerial Spouses? Sounds like a government classification.)
Right from the beginning, they are left to their own devices and offered little in the way of induction, preparation or even simple advice. For men whose wives are about to enter the clergy, the training ranges from ’inadequate’ to ‘non-existent ’. Noel Alexander, whose wife Rachel is an Anglican Curate did, at least receive some training. “We had one day in Norwich,” he said. “How to be a good clergy wife or husband. I can’t remember a single thing about it, but I am sure it did me good!”
But Noel’s experience is the exception. “There was no preparation, induction or training for spouses, ”Paul Franklin told me. He is married to Louise, who is the pastor of two URC churches. “On a number of occasions the question was put to the College, but the request for some sessions for spouses were refused. These sessions could have included experiences from minister’s partners, security of the manse, how to support your partner, financial management, and probably lots of other issues. There was an informal grouping of spouses, but in the past this had been all women, and although attempts had been made to change that, it still was very much a women’s group. I think theological colleges should look at this issue seriously. Many of these colleges take too much importance in the academic standards rather than the practical aspects of ministry. Progress has been made, but the balance is still not right.”
His frustration is echoed by his wife Louise, who feels that not enough attention is given to clergy families in general. “Manse life is uniquely different from any other family existence,” she says. “There are unique pressures and strains that are not replicated elsewhere. I felt that college did not prepare for the life in a goldfish bowl which clergy life is. I and others at college tried to ask for help on manse life for all in the family. There are challenges for children of the manse - many of whom see the raw end of Christianity and church life.”
Perhaps part of the problem lies with the college’s own difficulties in dealing with the issue of women priests and ministers. For example, one of the issues that crops up regularly with regard to women clergy was the sexist attitudes, or even bullying, that they sometime have to face. Surprisingly, college was more of a problem than the real world. “Surprisingly enough the only hurtful sexism that Sheila came up against was at her training college,” said David Martin. “Also, under normal circumstances, when a trainee minister is sent to a Baptist college, the sending church pays the tuition fees. In our case, they didn’t make any financial or practical contribution. Being a woman, perhaps they assumed her husband should support her, so I did!”
For Paul Franklin, ageism, as much as sexism was a problem during his wife’s training. “Louise was one of the youngest theological students and is quite a lively personality with a sense of humour - which is really needed! But because of this she accounted some problems of being taken seriously, this was because she was young and to a certain extent because she was a woman. She would come home, and I would listen - and I mean listen - and we would talk about it.”
For Noel Alexander opposition has come from closer to home. “My Father was a vicar of the more traditional Church, my mother has taken a while to come round and probably most members of my family, I think they are getting there... slowly. We both knew this would be a problem for them. We have had no other real problems in this area.” Sexism, of course does not just come from within the church structures. Outside the church society is still coming to terms with the idea of female clergy. Paul Franklin relates that “If I answer the phone or answer the door to non-church members, people assume straight away that I am the minister!”
Often they are merely defined by what they aren’t. David Martin relates how he once called at a house and the lad answering the door called out to his father, “Dad, Dad, it’s ... er ... not the vicar’s wife”. When it comes to the role of Vicar and Vicar’s wife, it seems that the secular world has yet to come to terms with the possibilities. But let’s face it, we in the church itself still has an antiquated vision of the role of a Minister’s wife; the housewife, running the vicarage, dispensing tea and sympathy and chairing the Mothers Union. No wonder they struggle to work out how to respond to a Vicar’s wife who is male.
“I feel that a Minister’s wife might be ‘looked after’ and supported more than I have experienced,” David continues. “I feel that people think, ‘he’s a man, he can look after himself’. Although I am perfectly capable of looking after myself, I do feel let down and deserted at times but would not want to “force” my company onto people. Maybe women are better than us at getting together.” “The main problem is working out what my role is and not simply as the Minister’s spouse,” says Paul Franklin. “There are times when I am told ‘Paul there is a light switch in the corridor not working’ and ‘Paul the Cistern in the men’s toilet is not flushing properly’, not quite sure why I am being told these things! I think sometimes they are bypassing Louise, because they perceive she is too busy, so they will tell me instead. Expectations are high from members of the congregation; you feel that you are on show all the time!“
This feeling of being on display is prevalent among ‘clergy-husbands’. (This is getting ridiculous.) It is certainly one they share with their female counterparts; the feeling of being pigeon-holed and boxed in by peoples’ expectations.. “I feel a pressure - maybe of my own making - to attend all meetings, not just those in our church, but joint meetings or services,” says Roger Parker. “I can feel insignificant and feel I am playing second fiddle. In any other church I would probably be part of the leadership team, but I am not in this church as I am married to the minister.” And the other pressure that they undoubtedly share, is the frustration over the sheer amount of time ‘being a Vicar’ involves.
“My only main problem is the question of the amount of time that Sheila gives to people,” says David Martin. “I fully accept it is part of her job and I love most of them as well, but there are times when I think, ‘how about me’.” This problem is exacerbated by the fact that male spouses will generally be in full- time employment - often employment that has its own stresses and time-pressures. “I help my wife as much as possible but being away so much it is not very easy,” says Noel Alexander. “Encouragement is essential. I love what she does and will always do what I can to help.”
“She needs to know I support her in her job, that she has my backing,” says Roger Parker. “Sometimes it can be a strain, for example if I am under pressure at work. Also, sometimes I want to be supported, loved and feel wanted. I must add that I am very proud of my wife and what she has achieved, and I am proud when telling other people (usually at work) what she does.” “It’s about quiet support in the background, listening when required and advice only when requested,” says Paul Franklin. “Times to pray together are vital, as is making sure that we have our days off and holiday.” Paul and Louise - like most professional couples - rely on diary sessions to make sure that their commitments don’t clash.
“We hate ‘diary sessions’, because we are usually tired, and that is when the complications start! We only have one car! and if she has a wedding needs the car, and I want it for Football, its a complication! I do a lot of the domestics, but since I am now working four days of the week, and have other commitments, there can be strain. On the whole I enjoy giving support, but sometimes yearn for a different role.” Perhaps above all, what husbands of those in the clergy (precise, but unwieldy) want is recognition - recognition, not only for what they contribute to the partnership but what they need as a couple. “I would like people to treat us a ‘normal’ couple and not have unrealistic expectations,” says Paul Franklin. “And to remember or day off.”
A sentiment echoed by Noel Alexander. “Understanding that ‘we’ have a life together as a family. I know what the job entails and I am always happy to go along with it, but there are times when it’s nice to have some space together. For example,a few weeks ago on Rachel’s day off we went shopping.
Two hours later we returned to find 14 messages on the answer phone! On days off we now turn the machine off!”
With all these complications it might be imagined that being husband to a member of the clergy (too long) is nothing but hard work and role-confusion.
But there are plenty of compensations. “Clergy discounts in book shops and cheaper motor insurance!” says Noel Alexander. “I love to see Rachel working out God’s purpose in her life. I love to be with her when she is taking services and preaching. Rachel working from home is nice. We recently converted our garage to accommodate 2 offices so when I am at home we become office neighbours! I have been known to take her out to lunch on a few occasions!” “I enjoy being “part” of her work,” says David Martin. “Being involved in the good and the bad parts. Sharing in people’s good and bad times. I enjoy supporting Sheila and I feel enormously proud of her and think she does a great job and knowing that they all feel the same.”
These people - like their female counterparts - make a very real contribution they make to the ministry of their partners. For most of them, their wife’s decision to become a clergy woman was taken after they were married. It is a decision that,undoubtedly, has caused both partners much soul-searching and sacrifice. “We had been married for nearly 20 years when Rachel was called to ordination,” said Noel Alexander. “I will never forget when she rang me at work to tell me she had been selected, it was very much a ‘where were you when..’ moment, to be honest I cried my eyes out! It was a significant time and the start of a journey.” Over future years many more husbands will share this journey with their wives. They face unique pressures, expectations and difficulties. Perhaps now is the time to recognise their existence and to start thinking about what the church can do to support and encourage them. First though, we have to figure out what they are called...