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Loss of parish — and housing    

09 September 2022

Marriage breakdown can leave spouses without a place to live, says Margaret Wilkinson


“IT’S easy to think your marriage is safe because he is a vicar, but the evidence doesn’t support that,” Millie says.

Despite nearly 40 years of lobbying by Broken Rites, many separating spouses face acute housing challenges, which often persist for the rest of their lives. These challenges are greatest for spouses married to clergymen in tied housing. Broken Rites believes that new spouses of clergy should be warned to put a back-up plan in place.

When a marriage based in tied housing ends, the spouse and any dependent children will have to find other accommodation. Losing your home means further losses — of friends, community, and church — and disruption to support networks and education.

Standard family law, including calculation of child support and division of property, does not reflect the peculiar situation of tied housing. Rental and mortgage deposits are often out of reach, particularly when the spouse’s earning capacity has been reduced by supporting a clergy husband, working part-time, and moving from parish to parish.

THE magnitude of the task prevents many spouses’ leaving abusive marriages to face an uncertain future with their children. Naomi recalls many years living in an increasingly abusive marriage, fuelled by her husband’s alcoholism, but too afraid to leave because of loss of confidence and fear of homelessness. Annie recalls sitting in her car outside the archdeacon’s house many times, too scared to raise her concerns. Others are afraid of losing their children, as they couldn’t afford to house them.

Our members have often reflected on their high expectations of marriage to a member of the clergy; but, sadly, this is not borne out by the evidence of marital breakdown or domestic abuse. We do not know how many people are affected, but we do know that our enquiries represent only a fraction of all the clergy-marriage breakdowns. This is especially true for male spouses of clergy and spouses of self-supporting clergy. The Church of England has not published any figures since 1999, when there were 40 clergy-marriage breakdowns. Without recent data, we have made peer-reviewed calculations (available on request), which suggest that the breakdown rate is high.

Broken Rites receives about 20 enquiries each year from women who have separated from Church of England clergy. We compared this with the number of Church of England male stipendiary ordinations (adjusting, of course, to reflect the fact that not all are married). Using cautious assumptions, we would expect a minimum of one in five (20 per cent of) marriages to male stipendiary clergy to break down after ordination, although it could be as frequent as two in five (40 per cent).

We are concerned by these figures, because of the devastating effect of a clergy-marriage breakdown, and fear that the severity of the consequences is rising, owing to living and housing costs. We are also concerned that the Church of England’s response to the housing problems of separated spouses remains woefully inadequate, despite the publication of a new Policy for the Care and Support of the Separated Spouses and Partners of Members of the Clergy in January 2022.

While the policy recognises a pastoral responsibility for spouses and children, for which we are grateful, the section on housing remains only guidance. This means that support will vary between dioceses. This may be the offer of a short-term rental property, or help to find and secure private rented accommodation or to find and buy a property — for example, by undertaking a property search. Some members did find the implication that they could not use Rightmove a little patronising.

EVEN with support, outcomes are poor. Millie and her children were housed in an unoccupied vicarage, which allowed her time to make the transition to full-time work and to buy a home. But she is now £0.5 million in debt, which will not be paid off until she is 75. Naomi was offered a subsidised short-term rental property, but had no other support to help her to plan for the future. After the short-term arrangement ended, she sofa-surfed or lived in single rented rooms, until being offered temporary use of a relative’s flat.

Emma, a full-time nurse, was told that she did not earn enough even to register with local letting agencies, but, at the same time, she was not entitled to any state support; nor was she given support by the Church of England.

We ask that either the Church ensure that all separating spouses can find suitable long-term housing, or that all potential clergy spouses living in tied housing are warned about their vulnerability should their marriage end, and that they should plan for other housing.

Margaret Wilkinson chairs Broken Rites, an organisation that supports divorced and separated clergy spouses and partners.

The organisation can be contacted at www.brokenrites.org, and can offer confidential support and advice.

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