"Mr Clergy Spice" Published in "The Church of England Newspaper" 31 May 2019
Five o’clock in the morning and a phone is ringing. That’s never good! A telephone phone call in the middle of the night is unlikely to be someone ringing for a friendly chat. Struggling to both wake up and not panic at the same time I realise it is my wife’s mobile, which is penetrating my dreams, and not her personal mobile but her church phone. Sensibly, she has two telephones, one for family and one for church business. That is the number emblazoned on the church notice board, the number which on this cold and dark winters morning is still ringing and needs answering. I can relax, there is obviously no crisis with the children or grandchildren, I don’t need to mount the white charger and rush off to the rescue, I can stay beneath my warm duvet and go back to that lovely dream, somewhere sunny and hot that I was in the middle of enjoying. I overhear the conversation; it’s not the anxious relative of a dying parishioner but the local police. The church door is wide open and the lights are on, they have been in to check and can’t see anybody inside, but in case anything is missing, they leave an incident number and pass the matter over to my wife. Obviously she needs to make the short journey to the church and investigate and also obviously I am not going to let her go out in the freezing, dark night on her own. Resigned I get dressed, put on a warm coat and walk down with her to the church.
It turned out that the last person to leave the day before had forgotten to turn out the lights and to close the large wooden door but fortunately nobody had been in and stolen the silver. However it made me think about what it means to be married to clergy. To consider how my life has changed in ways I could not have possible imagined when back on that day in the cathedral, I had watched the Bishop lay his hand on her head and her new role as a curate began.
I am not keen on labels and the term “atheist” seems to me as though it has an almost pejorative ring to it. Nevertheless I don’t have a belief in God. I’m quite happy to sit on the fence and declare, that “I just don’t know”. If I must have a label, then I suppose agnostic will do. And yet here I am, married to a Vicar in the Church of England with all the cake baking, fete attending and handshaking with a smile, expectations that such a position involves.
My background is from a non-conformist tradition and my only knowledge of the Church of England was gained from either twee 1970’s television comedies or the more up to date but equally unrealistic “Vicar of Dibley”. I had been to a few traditional church weddings and had also been along to social events at the church my wife attended before ordination, which, as it was very evangelical in it’s outlook, didn’t seem too dissimilar to the church’s I had known as a younger man.
Following ordination, Sharon began her role as curate in a far more traditional church to the one where she had just left. It was a church where the worship was a lot less like the hands waving in the air, imitation of a contemporary music concert, a sort of Coldplay lite, if you will but something much more similar to what I had seen on television’s “Songs of Praise”. And so her spiritual journey and growth continued and as the vocation is hers alone, ours is not a joint ministry, I have tried to find where it is that I fit in. There may have been a time, back when ordained ministry was the preserve of the men, that congregations naturally assumed that they were getting two for the price of one. It was expected that the Vicars wife’s could and should, of course have a role in her husband’s ministry. That wifely role might include Sunday school teaching, women could be trusted to instruct the young just woe betide them if they ventured to have a leadership role over men. They could possibly run a midweek ladies bible study, or take charge of the flower rota and if they were musical then the church would also get a new organist for free.
Fortunately those days are largely a thing of the past. Women now represent nearly a third of ordained priests in the Church of England and this change in the gender of clergy has had an effect on the expectations made on clergy spice, (I do like that term by the way, so much more affirming and jolly than Vicar’s husband). These days it would seem I’m not even expected to attend church regularly, which is a great relief to me as the prospect reminds me too much of childhood Sunday’s sitting quietly in my short trousers and polished shoes, listening to terribly long sermons. I do however go to important events, such as the service when the Bishop licensed Sharon, as this is about showing support and about me also being part of the community.
When I do attend an event or service, then everyone at the church are very welcoming and pleased to see me without the expectation that I will convert. There is no proselytising pressure, which for me is definitely better than my memories of being made to feel guilty at an evangelical meeting when I didn’t want to sign on the dotted line. I do however have a little rebellion when I am there and always pass the offering plate on, I don’t like to feel as if I should have to put money into the collection. My wife is a non-stipendiary minister or to use the current terminology, is self supporting in her ministry. As she has no income this in effect means supported in her role as Vicar by my income. I feel no need to put any more in the collection plate.
One of the first ways her new position impacted on me was because of the uniform. In the Church of England, because the clergy wear a dog collar and they are identifiable in a crowd, everyone can see who they are. When we are out together, I get lumped in to the expectations of the role by default. People will approach and talk to clergy, whether they are known to them or not and for my wife this visible aspect of being part of the community is very much an integral part of her ministry. The collar does not embarrass me but it can be a little frustrating that a five-minute walk to the pub will usually take a good half an hour or more. There is always someone who needs to talk to the Vicar and if it is of a personal or private nature then I have to try to blend into the background, study the contents of a shop window and try not to listen.
I am also handy to be called upon to move chairs and tables which in our more equal and liberated world, still seems to be expected of me because I’m a man. Equally though, I have done my fair share of making cups of tea and washing dishes.
I often wonder how Prince Phillip felt about his role as the Queen’s consort, playing second fiddle as she attended all the great events of state, only there because he was married to the office as well as the person. With the connection that still exists between church and state, the Vicar has a secular as well as spiritual position in the local community and I, like the aforementioned Prince have had my share of hobnobbing with the local dignitaries. And also like Phillip, I have had to try and find a role for myself in the community, which is not contingent on being married to someone with such a high profile. I have interests and skills in visual arts and music and have therefore been able to follow my own path, which is equally as important to helping to maintain the community in which we live.
There is the sense that both our lives are lived under a degree of scrutiny, the moral high ground that clergy necessarily have to inhabit also extends to their families. I don’t believe I have any skeletons in my closet waiting to be exposed but I am more conscious now to avoid the minor indiscretions that previously would not have been quite such an issue. Getting a speeding ticket is hardly a hanging offence but nevertheless I am now much more aware of when a 40 mile an hour limit changes to a 30 mile an hour limit and therefore much less likely to receive the points on my licence than ever before. Being known in a small community has its downside as well as the many benefits.
It would seem to me as the husband of a priest that the historical notion of the male Vicar and his obedient wife ministry team is a thing of the past. The church reflecting the changes we have seen in society in general, albeit slightly lagging behind in implementing them. I quite expect that the attitudes that exist now towards the position of the LGBT community in the life of the church will also eventually catch up with the more inclusive and less prejudiced way individuals live their lives outside of the church environment. I can see this happening now in more and more churches but radical change takes time. There are still those who will not accept communion if given to them by a woman and I am sure there will be those who will not accept the same from a gay priest. As someone who is not part of the church community but keenly observes all that goes on from the margins, I believe that all these disagreements and controversies are in fact fairly meaningless if everyone just follows the most basic tenant of the faith and loves their neighbour as themselves.