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Broken Rites marks 40 years of support for ex-spouses of clergy

23 June 2023

Despite social changes, the group shows no signs of being made redundant, Pat Ashworth reports

Broken Rites

A cake to celebrate the 40th anniversary, last week

A cake to celebrate the 40th anniversary, last week

BROKEN RITES, a support group for divorced and separated clergy spouses and partners, marked the 40th anniversary of its founding on 10 June. Despite significant social changes over four decades, its work shows no signs of being made redundant.

The trigger for its establishment in 1983 had been a letter to the church press from Frank Field MP, with an invitation to this previously overlooked community to tell him their experiences.

The response to his subsequent questionnaire exposed what a founding member, Gillian Murray, said had been “an almost total lack of responsibility by the Church of England for us wives. No provision for housing, financial help, children — we were in fact swept under the carpet.”

In a presentation on the anniversary, she said that 28 respondents had turned up to Mr Field’s subsequent meeting at Church House. “Some had had to declare themselves homeless and be re-housed by their local council. Many were living in poverty and trying to bring up a family,” Mrs Murray said. “We had all lost any status we might have had as wives of clergy, and many found that very hard. It was a most distressful gathering — as you may imagine, there was much weeping.”

A House of Bishops report in 1985 recommended that every diocese appoint a Bishop’s Visitor to care for ex-wives of clerics. These, Mrs Murray said, “proved to be a great support and fought our corner with us,” she said. “Down the years, Broken Rites and Bishop’s Visitors have worked hand in hand.”

 

BROKEN RITES, an ecumenical organisation, continues to offer confidential support and advice to its members, all of whom are divorced or separated from clerics. Now, of course, this membership includes men.

Dr Maggie Wilkinson, the current chair (Comment, 9 September 2022), observed that, in the early days, many of the women had never had a job, and had no source of income. This was much less likely today, she told the Church Times. But it remained the case that women were still more likely to be financially disadvantaged than men, given the likelihood of their having had times of not working, or of part-time working, for example, after having children.

“You lose your home, and whatever role you may have had as a clerical wife,” she said, “but you also lose your friends because you have to move away. You lose your church, too — in the past, people were told not to go back to their church. Your children lose their schools and their friends.”

The problem of finding affordable housing after a separation remained a significant one, she said. The difficulty had been exacerbated by the current cost-of-living crisis and increasing rents. Many clergy wives came out of the marriage with no history of having rented, and no money for a deposit, she said. Help with housing also varied enormously from diocese to diocese, as it did with pastoral support in general.

But the best of the Bishop’s Visitors — whose brief is to support the spouse or partner at the time of the marriage breakdown, identify their pastoral needs, and signpost them to someone qualified to help — had been an asset, Dr Wilkinson said.

The Church of England policy on support for spouses and partners of divorced and separated clergy has recently been updated to recommend two Bishop’s Visitors, one of each gender, and, crucially, to enable contact without having to go through the Bishop or senior staff member. The Visitors can no longer be senior members of the clergy in the diocese or clerics themselves, as has been acceptable in the past.

This was a forward step, Dr Wilkinson acknowledged, and supervision and training of Bishop’s Visitors had also improved. But while it was the Bishop’s responsibility to ensure that the spouse partner and their dependants had a safe and appropriate home, at least in the short term, dioceses had been slow to provide (as recommended in 2022) a means for spouses to make contact about this, in confidence, through the diocesan website.

In a trawl of all dioceses, Dr Wilkinson has found only four that had done so.

 

SINCE 1999, there have been no published statistics on the breakdown of clergy marriages. When the Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing was being debated by the General Synod in 2020 (News, 21 February 2020), Broken Rites put in a submission which drew attention to the extent to which the stresses and strains on the clergy were contributing to relationship breakdowns.

Today, when members speak to the support group about their experiences, it is clear that the need for change remains — and that the shortcomings of current systems are not unique to the Church of England.

A Methodist spouse spoke to the Church Times anonymously about her own experience. When her minister husband walked out without warning or explanation, she said, the Methodist Church failed to get in touch with her as it should have done. There had been no contact at all.

“I was dealing with the grief and trauma of the break-up, completely isolated from church. It was absolutely appalling,” she said. “I followed it up when I came out of the first two years of feeling completely isolated, and questioned why I had received no support. Basically, they said [that] information had not been passed through.

“I was pretty much hung out to dry, really. If it hadn’t been for Broken Rites, I think I would have drowned in my own isolation. To be completely airbrushed out of the whole system — when, as well as marrying a Methodist minister, I had ministers in my family — was an extraordinary let down.”

She echoed what other members said of Broken Rites, that it was “a sanctuary where I felt safe, supported secure. The surprising thing initially was just how many of us there are. It’s astonishing.”

Most of its members are women. But men, while generally found to have a lesser financial disadvantage, not only suffered the same levels of emotional trauma, but faced unique problems in what some perceived as the Church’s greater support for “one of its own”.

One man who preferred to remain anonymous was angry to discover that a letter had been sent to key people in the parish announcing the separation from his wife, a cleric. The letter instructed that no one get in touch with either party — thus forestalling any support he might have received, he said.

“There was no support network whatsoever for me in the diocese.”

Dr Wilkinson acknowledged that there was less stigma now about divorce, which had helped to raise awareness of the issues. But Broken Rites was increasingly concerned about domestic abuse, which, she said, was talked about even less than clergy marriage breakdown.

“Being married to a member of the clergy does not lessen the risk [of domestic abuse] and may even increase it,” she says. “Those who have left an abusive marriage face the injustice of seeing their ex continue in ministry, usually with no-one knowing the reason for the separation, while the spouse has lost everything and is also blamed for the ending of the marriage.”

www.brokenrites.org

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