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Helpmeet to a man in a clerical collar

15 November 2013

Caroline Bowder recognises authentic women's voices

In step: Sue Howden with her husband, John, in 1997

In step: Sue Howden with her husband, John, in 1997

Clergy Wives' Stories: Fifteen oral histories from the 1950s to the present day
Sheila Rowe
Plynlimmon Press £11*

"AH, MARRIED clergy - never on duty, and never off duty," remarked our bachelor clerical friend on the difficulty of balancing parochial and family responsibilities. He went on to be an important, if unmarried, Dean. In the Roman Catholic Church, marriage can be seen as a hindrance, an obstruction to the relationship between the priest and his flock.

Nevertheless, Anglican church life continues to benefit hugely from the clergyman's wife: not only as unpaid parish worker, hostess, flower-arranger, Sunday-school teacher, figurehead, and moral example, etc., but often as a wage-earner contributing towards a house to retire to after years of tied church accommodation: a partner who enhances and, to some extent, subsidises her husband's work.

Clergy Wives' Stories: Fifteen oral histories from the 1950s to the present day lets 15 straight-talking women tell their stories of clerical life. With a variety of backgrounds and ages, they present a pretty comprehensive picture. Some grew up in the vicarage, and so knew what to expect (and still they married clergymen!). Others were shocked by the stringencies of their husband's chosen vocation (theological students' needing their Bishop's permission to get married; being expected to survive on tiny stipends in inadequate housing; being bossed around by an imperious rector). Some women asserted their right to be individuals despite the expectations of the parish. When told that "the Vicar's wife has always done the flowers," one contributor replies: "Not this one!" One blames herself for "conforming too easily", so as not to upset her husband's parishioners. Another is advised: "Keep your door open and your mouth shut." But it is generally agreed that today there is less pressure on the clergy wife to conform to a stereotype: most wives feel able to follow their own careers and interests rather than just being Mrs Vicar.

There are certain aspects of the clergy wife's experience which regularly recur in these accounts. All the women felt that their main function in their husband's ministry was to support him personally: to be his chaplain and confessor, a defence against the vagaries of the parish. Usually he did not expect his wife to take on parochial duties unless she wanted to - it was the parish that had these expectations.

All clergymen's families operate from a property that is not their own, and is often used for parish functions, and in which the father is frequently "on duty". Lack of privacy, telephones, callers at the door (including tramps) - all disrupt family life. The vicarage and its enormous garden may be challenging to maintain. There is a sense of being set apart: close friendships within the parish are often problematic. "Having to be available" is also "lonely".

The family feels judged, and has to keep up appearances. But, at the same time, the women speak of the immense privilege of being married to the Church, and serving a vital community: several relate how the experience of leadership in organisations such as the Mothers' Union gave them confidence and authority in the outer world.

Because this book is based on oral contributions recorded by the author, Sheila Rowe, herself a clergy widow, it has a chatty, informal tone. These are real voices, occasionally a little woolly or repetitive, but authentic. There are family photographs of slightly blurry quality, and I must confess I found the print a little shiny. The whole effect is friendly and immediate. What I appreciated was its honesty - having been a clergy wife myself.

This book is a reminder of the way things were in the past: the relative poverty of clergy families, their reliance on the generosity of others, the privileges and deprivations co-existing. The women recorded here have been impressive public figures or quiet heroes, and many have also suffered. One is a widow; one was divorced. Both stated sadly: "When you lose your husband, you lose your priest," and that says it all.

*This title can be obtained from the author, Sheila Rowe, 14 Salter Court, St Mary's Fields, Colchester, Essex CQ3 3FF; or email sheilaeve@googlemail.com.

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