Clergy couples: those whom God hath joined together

by
02 November 2018

Abigail Frymann Rouch explores the experience of clergy couples

DIOCESE OF CARLISLE

Emma and Mat Ineson

Emma and Mat Ineson

THE husband and wife who are both ordained are not a particularly new phenomenon. Before bishops ordained women as deacons in the Church of England in 1987, such couples could no doubt already be found in other Anglican Provinces that already had women clergy; and there were ministerial couples in other denominations.

But, in England, issues connected with clerical couples have reached a new stage as women have been included in the episcopate, and as clergy are permitted to enter into civil partnerships.

Of the Church of England’s women bishops, more than half — ten out of 17 (including one announced but not yet consecrated) — are married to a priest. This is not a sign that the challenges encountered by such couples have been dealt with, however.

Clergy couples are prevalent in all age groups, although there is no central record of the total. Many older clergy couples were ordained up to 20 years apart, either because women’s ordination had not yet been permitted, or because of child-rearing. Since the 1980s, when deaconesses were training alongside male ordinands, clergy couples have met while both were at theological college or on a course, and it is now common for both to be ordained young.

They may run neighbouring parishes, carry out complementary functions in a diocese, or work in the same parish. In many instances, one person is the incumbent and the other is given a title such as “associate vicar”.

While clergy married to other clergy, as well as some bishops, emphasise the benefits that clergy couples bring to the Church, others express concern that power and decision-making in parishes can be drawn away from the PCC and into the vicarage. In some instances, clergy couples are forcing a rethink of the relationship between a parish and its resident priest, and of the part played by gender; and bishops have chosen to overlook parts of canon law which were drawn up before this situation could arise.

 

THE Revd Hilda and Alan Isaacson run neighbouring parishes in the diocese of Sheffield. Mr Isaacson is also the Area Dean. One vicarage in Mrs Isaacson’s united benefice is rented out by the diocese, and the other is lived in by a colleague. She lives in her husband’s vicarage, five miles away. “I have faced criticism for not living in the parish, but nothing that hasn’t been quickly sorted out,” she says. “I do point out that I’m more accessible . . . because I have to drive in; so I can get anywhere quickly.”

Travelling from her home to the parish would take almost two hours on public transport; so her parishioners drive or car-share to meetings at the vicarage, and many meetings take place at one of her churches or in parishioners’ homes. She and her husband run joint marriage-preparation sessions.

One challenge of this arrangement is that her hours are so similar to her husband’s. At Christmas, after services in three churches, they celebrate as a family with six small grandchildren; their daughter-in-law, a doctor, may also be on call. “There’s a vague plan that, at some point during the day, we will open some presents and eat some food,” Mrs Isaacson laughs. But, she says, “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Some clergy couples opt for posts with complementary hours to make family life easier. The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, is married to the Revd Mat Ineson, who is working as a parish priest near by. “While he is full-on on Sundays, my job is more focused Monday to Friday, which has been better for our children, to make sure there’s someone around,” she says.

Hilda and Alan Isaacson

This arrangement also avoids dilemmas concerning the stipend and pension (of which more later), and which house to live in; it helps non-parish-based clergy stay connected to parish ministry, and means that the family avoid being dependent on one institution for both incomes and the home. It may also be easier to find two posts of different kinds near to each other than two parish appointments.

The Ineson family, however, are about to be pulled in different directions, at least for a while. Dr Ineson will be installed as the Bishop of Penrith next February, and Mr Ineson is looking for a parish or diocesan position in Carlisle. “In the past, we’ve moved for his job. This is the time that we’re moving for my job,” she says.

But their son is finishing his A levels; so he and his father hope to move north about four months after Dr Ineson. In the mean time, she will travel to and from the family home. “It’ll take a bit of juggling, but once you’re in an ordained couple, you get quite adept at juggling,” she says.

Juggling, setting boundaries around non-work time, flexibility, and good communication, are recurrent responses when such clergy are asked about the balance of marriage and ministry.

These approaches apply equally to married couples and civil partners. One female priest who lives in her partner’s vicarage in Lichfield diocese said that it was important that she and her partner found a supportive bishop. They had not openly faced prejudice from parishioners: “Some people see us as friends. People see what they want to see.”

Taking advice from older clergy couples is helpful, too. One warned that, if an ordained couple opt to split a stipend, each individual would receive only half a pension.

 

THIS is a solution, none the less, that some couples opt for, as working part-time in the same church can ease many of the pressures. A clergy couple, the Revd Steve and Ali Taylor both serve at St James’s, Alperton, in north-west London. “Working half-time allows us to feel less guilty about prioritising our children,” Mr Taylor says. “I love the relationship I have with my daughters [aged 12 and nine], and I’ve seen them as much as my wife has.

Richard and Nicola Moy

“Men can still have an expectation that women will do the bulk of the childcare, the chores,” he says. For a woman to be freed to fulfil her ministry, the man will have to share in the “unseen stuff . . . cleaning up sick or cooking dinner while their other half is out doing exciting things”. He confesses that this is an area that he has had to “grow” in.

Another issue is canon law, under which job-sharing an incumbency is technically impossible, because the office-holder has to be one named individual (“corporation sole”). Mr and Mrs Taylor call themselves “joint vicar” rather than “joint vicars” of St James’s. They receive one stipend, and, strictly speaking, he is the part-time incumbent and she is the part-time assistant curate.

Naming Mrs Taylor as the incumbent was a deliberate move to counter the assumptions of other people which she had to contend with. “It’s easy for people to treat a woman as second-class,” Mr Taylor explains, although the pair may switch job titles at some point so that, when he applies for his next position, he can say that he has had incumbent status.

When he met the Bishop of London, then the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, the Bishop articulated what other bishops may also have been thinking: “That sounds like a terrible idea.” But then he continued: “I’ll watch with interest.”

Research published in 2001 by the Revd Lesley Bentley, now director of ministry in the diocese of Lichfield, discovered an antipathy towards clergy couples, particularly women. She described dioceses that offered one stipend for a couple who were both working full-time, and found anecdotal evidence that dioceses were more likely to “find a suitable post” for a male priest moving with an ordained spouse than vice versa.

She also found that, if half the couple was non-stipendiary and the other stipendiary, the woman was more likely to be non-stipendiary, which meant not only no pay, but also no pension contribution.

More recently, the Revd Susie Collingridge, an NSM in Hampshire, who is writing a doctoral thesis on clergy couples, has expressed concern that in only 12 per cent of clergy couples does the senior position belong to the woman, even among younger couples or those in joint ministry.

Guidelines from the 1980s emphasised that dioceses should be flexible vis-à-vis clergy couples. A foreword by a former Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, to guidance revised in 2009 — currently available only on the Southwell & Nottingham website — calls for expectations on all sides to be realistic, which Ms Collingridge translates as recognising limited resources and tailoring expectations.

Rachel and Tim Hughes

 

DIOCESES vary in their openness to the various forms of clergy couple. Researching this article, I heard praise from clergy couples for St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Chester, Carlisle, Guildford (where Dr Jo Bailey-Wells, also one of a clergy couple, serves as the Bishop of Dorking), and the Willesden and Kensington Areas of London diocese.

Other dioceses and areas were less well spoken of, though circumstances change quickly, and it would be unfair to name them.

In a paper produced for New Wine, which draws on research among clergy couples in the network, the Vicar of Christ Church, Turnham Green, the Revd Richard Moy, argues for a rethink of the stipendiary system.

He points out that a couple comprising one stipendiary minister and another in a “professional job” could have an annual household income easily in excess of £70,000 while enjoying free housing, whereas an ordained couple sharing a stipend could receive just £25,000 plus benefits.

If the first couple have no children and the second have three, the contrast in their living standards is even starker. And, if the ordained couple share a stipend for the 43 years required to qualify for a full pension, that pension would be worth only £12,500 a year.

Meanwhile, should a parish wish to fund a second stipend for a clergy couple, Mr Moy calculates that they will have to find not £25,000, but about one-and-a-half times that amount, because of the requirement to pay into a pension a figure inflated to cover a historic deficit.

Mr Moy, whose wife, Nicola, serves as Associate Vicar in the same parish, found that some clergy couples were being “forced against their will into different parishes”. There may be reasons other than the apathy recorded by Mr Bentley.

It may be that, in rural dioceses, distances are too great and groupings of parishes into benefices are too large to allow clergy to work comfortably in neighbouring parishes. Chichester diocese’s director of ordinands, the Revd Dr Daniel Inman, explains that new clergy couples there do not currently job-share, “given the challenges that this would mean for formation and supervision when it came to title posts”.

A diocese may struggle to provide two stipendiary assistant curacy posts near to each for a couple. Poli Shajko, the director of HR for the diocese of Oxford, which has five clergy couples, says that one issue that arises from job-sharing is confidentiality. “What is to be discussed at home and what is not? Usually, people use common sense: you don’t have to have things written in policies.” (Paradoxically, one priest told me that her husband’s parishioners expected him to have told her about the pastoral conversations that he had had with them.)

Regarding confidentiality, the Revd Chigor Chike, a vicar in the East End of London, says that he discusses his work less with his wife, Obaka, than he might otherwise do, because she is ordained. She is serving her title in a parish in the same deanery. “Before she finished training, I asked if she could become a curate in the church where I am, and I was told they tend not to encourage that. . . There’s probably some wisdom in that.

Ali and Steve Taylor

“We think we can cope with working together,” he says, but they are happy to affirm each other’s ministries independently. Their four children regard the church her husband leads, and which she until recently attended, as theirs.

There are other challenges: if one of a clergy couple is appointed elsewhere, the diocese will probably be left needing to fill a double vacancy. The Southwell & Nottingham guidelines emphasise that each of the couple must be appointed as an individual; but if their skill-sets are different, a neighbouring parish may choose not to appoint a spouse. If the relationship breaks down, the fallout is more intense if both the clergy are working in the same parish.

 

OVERALL, those clerics married to other clergy whom I interviewed emphasised that they represented a net gain for the Church. They said that such couples were more than the sum of the two halves: a ready-made support unit capable of being in two places at once and covering for the other in case of sickness, and, where husband and wife, complete with male and female perspectives. Job-sharers said that between them they worked far more hours than they could on their own.

The Area Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, explained his support for enabling clergy couples to work together: “Clergy well-being is increasingly recognised as vital to ministry. It can put strain on family life for [clergy couples] to be worshipping in different churches, although I recognise there are some couples who prefer it that way.

“If there’s a way for them to minister together, it can work very well, both for them and also for the parish, as it also offers a wider range of skills and ministry to the parish than one person on their own.”

The two theological colleges singled out as the most supportive of clergy couples were St Mellitus, of which Dr Tomlin is President, and Dr Ineson’s.

At St Luke’s, Gas Street, in Birmingham, a 700-strong church-plant from Holy Trinity, Brompton, (HTB), the Revd Tim Hughes and his wife, Rachel, both call themselves “lead pastor”, although only Tim is ordained. They had previously been on the leadership team of HTB.

“We had explored ordination together. We both went to see the diocesan director of ordinands together, knowing that we both had a call to leadership on our lives,” Mrs Hughes says. But their plans were disrupted by the rapid arrival of four children. “It was going to be too costly to our family for us to both get ordained.” But, with training while at work at HTB, she feels that she is well-equipped to preach and lead.

“Despite the fact I haven’t had formal training, I’ve been in ministry for many years, doing lots of things that an ordained person would be doing: preaching, discipling, leading, vision-casting, pastoral care, and all of that sort of thing.” She and Mr Hughes are “mum and dad”, she says, to the congregation of students and young adults.

Although she admits that not being ordained imposes limitations, and she would not rule out ordination in the future, she says that she has never been mistaken for a vicar. For many of the newcomers who walk into Gas Street wanting to explore faith, she says, denomination is not important.

Ms Collingridge says that, although there is no research into the attitudes of the laity, anecdotally — and this tallies with comments made to the Church Times over the years — “you hear . . . of senior staff worrying that there would be a power block in the PCC, or of congregation members feeling a bit disempowered because the responsibility is more focused in that couple rather than being spread out through the congregation.”

The Charismatic Evangelical wing of the Church, including HTB and churches in the New Wine network, has been giving honorific titles such as “associate pastor” to the unordained wives of male clergy for years. (It always seems to be that way round.) But some dioceses and clergy are less comfortable with the concept. A senior cleric in East Anglia voiced unease at “the elevation of the leader’s wife” at conferences. “Yet for many years you wouldn’t have a single woman on the platform.”

He has concerns about “power without authority” within a voluntary organisation: “I think the clarity of role and clarity of accountability is a very important thing.”

I heard of a church in the diocese of Oxford where the husband is Rector and his wife is chair of trustees. A diocesan spokesman said that, were a safeguarding issue to arise (he emphasised than none had), it should be discussed with the diocesan safeguarding adviser, given that it might not be possible to resolve it locally.

There is also the issue of fairness towards capable women — ordained or lay — who are not married to male clergy. Mr Moy, who, with Mrs Moy, is a regional leader for New Wine, notes: “The capacity of most of the churches that grew a lot 30 years ago were effectively [led by] a couple working together.” He agrees that, as women’s ordination becomes normalised, “it’s nice if people on stage are on stage in their own right.” External validation, he says, is helpful, especially when a couple are new to a parish.

There is clearly work to be done to ensure that being married to a cleric neither hinders a partner’s ministry nor enhances it disproportionately.

 

THE high percentage of female bishops married to male clergy has prompted a range of reflections. One person interviewed speculated that job-sharing with a husband could free a woman for profile-raising opportunities such as the General Synod.

Ms Collingridge suggested that being married to a male priest could help female priests to stay on their diocese’s radar during maternity leave. Is that ideal? “No, and plenty of people would be furious,” she says.

 

MR MOY’s paper concludes that there are “sufficient good practice and role-models now that a simple code of practice could be written, perhaps commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council”. Churches, he suggests, should start including in recruitment advertisements the words “clergy-couple friendly”, to help couples know where they would be most welcome.

“I’d love to see a network of ordained couples and an annual conference for them,” Dr Ineson says. “I’ve long had a dream about writing a book with different contributors — but no ordained couples have got any spare time, which is probably why it never happens.”

The Interim Director of Ministry for the Church of England, Canon Mandy Ford, says: “Vocation to marriage sits alongside a vocation to ministry. This needs to be discerned by each individual according to God’s call on their lives. Clergy will work this out in ways which reflect their own calling, and the Church would expect to work with them in making that discernment — but not to take policy decisions on a national basis.”

And yet there is clearly work still to be done on devising a consistent approach to clergy couples across the dioceses, which resolves incumbency and stipend issues, makes the most of the gifts that the couple bring, and guards against rejecting those of the laity.

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