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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Priest's Wife

I suppose, fifty or sixty years from now, the next generation will all be thoroughly entertained by dramatic performances (Will they still be making 'films'?) of this most amazing time in our religious lives.

I'm convinced future generations will watch dramas about "the ordination of women" and "homosexuality" in the church and scratch their heads in a mixture of confusion and fascination, much the way I am entertained watching the British 'Masterpiece Classic' Theater's production of Downton Abbey.

Earlier this morning, I received no less than three emails alerting me to articles about the wives of clergy. One was a short but silly little 'lark' from Lark Magazine entitled "Pastor’s wife sends body double to sit pleasantly on front pew". Here are a few snips:
GRAND FORKS, Mich. — Unbeknownst to her husband or congregation, Trudy Smith has been avoiding church for two years, sending a look-alike in her place.

The impostor played the role successfully, greeting people, hugging her husband, listening to the sermon, taking copious notes. But she was found out when (the pastor) invited her up one Sunday for a spontaneous reprisal of an old hymn they sang early in their ministry.

“I knew the kids’ names, anniversaries and birthdays, but I didn’t know that song,” said the fake Trudy, who asked not to be identified. She made roughly $10,000 over two years.

“Worth every penny,” says the real Trudy, who’s back on the front pew. “You know, mannequins are getting more realistic …” •
The other two emails were about the NY Times article "For Priests' Wives, a Word of Caution," which pondered the role of the wives of priests who have joined the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, a special division of the Roman Catholic Church that former Episcopal congregations and priests — including, notably, married priests — can enter together en masse.

The author, Sara Ritchey, who is an assistant professor of medieval European history at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, reminds us:
The Vatican has stressed that the allowance for married priests is merely an exception (like similar dispensations made in the past by the Vatican) and by no means a permanent condition of the priesthood. If a priest is single when he enters the ordinariate, he may not marry, nor may a married priest, in the event of his wife’s death, remarry.
She then goes on to give us a history of the evolution of celibate, unmarried clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, and how it came to be that "decisive legislation mandating priestly celibacy" was not enacted until the reform movement of the 11th century.

During the....umm....assimilation...of married clergy, their wives were (Surprise!) treated horribly. Ritchey reports that
"The priest’s wife was an obvious danger. Her wanton desire, suggested the 11th-century monk Peter Damian, threatened the efficacy of consecration. He chastised priests’ wives as “furious vipers who out of ardor of impatient lust decapitate Christ, the head of clerics,” with their lovers. According to the historian Dyan Elliott, priests’ wives were perceived as raping the altar, a perpetration not only of the priest but also of the whole Christian community."
And .....
"Furthermore, the priest’s wife was often accused, along with her children, of draining the church’s resources with her extravagance and frivolity. Pope Leo IX attempted to remedy this problem in the 11th century by decreeing that the wives and children of priests must serve in his residence at the Lateran Palace in Rome."
Oh, but wait! There's more! Ritchey saves the best salvo for last:
Until then, priests’ wives should beware a religious tradition that views them, in the words of Damian, as “the clerics’ charmers, devil’s choice tidbits, expellers from paradise, virus of minds, sword of soul, wolfbane to drinkers, poison to companions, material of sinning, occasion of death ... the female chambers of the ancient enemy, of hoopoes, of screech owls, of night owls, of she-wolves, of blood suckers.”
You know, I have to say that I much prefer bigots who are simply bold and obvious in their bigotry. They're ever so much more entertaining and much easier to deal with than the subtle forms of institutionalized sexism with which we have to manage today.

Ritchey notes: "Given this history, I caution the clerical wife to be on guard as she enters her role as a sacerdotal attaché. Her position is an anomalous one and, as the Vatican has repeatedly insisted, one that will not receive permanent welcome in the church".

"Sacerdotal attaché"? Oh, dear. Ms. Ritchey may know her medieval European history, but she clearly doesn't know too many wives of Episcopal clergy.

Oh, to be sure, there are 'good wives' in the ranks of the wives of the ordained in The Episcopal Church. Indeed, there are 'good women clergy', too, who play the game according to The Boy's Rules.

There are lots of variations of both and I am sometimes hard-pressed to know which is the greater portion of wisdom and efficacy - the woman (ordained or spouse of the ordained) who commits her life to authenticity to one degree or another, or the one who lives in some manner with the understanding that her husband is 'head of the household' and does her best to be her best - for herself, her family and the church.

In thinking about it, I have been able to identify at least six different incarnations of 'The Priest's Wife'. They are, in a way, of course, stereotypes; but the thing about stereotypes is that there is always at least a grain of truth to them.

Admittedly, there's lots of 'cross pollination' amidst the six categories. And, I'm being completely heterosexist in my perspective. Those of you who are LGBT clergy or the spouse/partner of LGBT clergy will have to do your own translations - until the next installment on that particular issue.

I also hasten to add that I'm not trying to fit people into boxes. Rather, I'm trying to describe the ecclesiastical landscape as I've observed it over the years.

I know the risks involved in trying to describe what I see. I'm fully prepared to pick up lots of flack for this piece. So be it. I think it makes the point about the 'issue' I'm guessing Rome hasn't considered in this whole 'Ordinariate' scheme.

See if you recognize any one of these "Priest's Wives".

1. The Iconic Wife

I vote this woman 'most likely to succeed' in the Ordinariate. She attends everything, sits up front, takes notes on her husband’s sermon, and believes she lives in a glass house and so she acts like it. She 'minds her tongue' in public, and dresses modestly and impeccably. Everyone knows the sound of her proper Episcopal pumps on the center aisle as she makes her way to 'her pew' - which no one would ever dare sit in, except the occasional, unsuspecting visitor who is quickly whisked away by the ushers who know the exact time she will make her appearance in church. The congregation speaks well of her but not necessarily warmly or fondly - sort of the same way in which they speak of the rector's sermons (which, in a way, she is painfully aware that she is).

2. The Helper Wife

This woman will also fare well in her new role in the Roman Catholic Church. She sees her 'calling' as helping her husband be a priest - which does not mean that she teaches Sunday School or is involved much in 'traditional' church activities. She is often her husband's at-home secretary, confident, coach, and advisor but she does this without pay. Make no mistake (and, members of the congregation do so at their own peril), she is her husband's eyes and ears in the church, informing him about conversations she 'just happens' to overhear in the kitchen or lady's room or garden or parking lot or from an open window in the rectory. She is pleasant and may even provide sparkling entertainment at the rectory, but she relates mostly to her husband's ministry, rather than the church's ministry.

3. The Priest's Wife

That's it. That's all she is. Well, at least in the eyes of the institutional church. She's a member of the congregation who may or may not sing in the choir or serve an occasional 'season' as a Sunday school teacher. She may or may not bring a casserole to the church potluck supper or even entertain at The Rectory. The Priest's Wife, more often than not, has her own life and "works outside the home" as a doctor or lawyer or some other professional. Her attitude is, "“He is a priest and I am a lawyer. He doesn’t come to court to work at my job and I don’t interfere with his job at the church.” I suspect she'll do well, at least for awhile, depending on the relationship she has with her husband and the strength of her relationship with him and the quality of their family life.

These first three categories of women will do fairly well in their new lives and roles, I suspect. It's still going to be an adjustment - to one degree or another - but as long as the Roman Catholic Church in the post-modern world does not treat her as wives were treated in The Dark Ages, she'll be okay.

Time will tell, but I'm guessing most of these women will not.

The 'rude awakening' will come when she becomes The Dowager Priest's Wife. I don't expect the institutional Roman Catholic Church to treat her well if her husband predeceases her. Indeed, I don't expect any provisions have been made for her in this little arrangement.

It's the next three women for whom I have the most concern.

4. The Vicarious Wife.

This woman may have silently or even unconsciously struggled with her own vocation to ordination for years. Unlike the 'The Helper Wife', she believes her call is to the ministry of the church, not her husband's ministry - at least, for the first decade or two. She leads ministries in the church and often functions practically as the chief lay leader. This wife is intimately involved in programming, organizations, and often launches new initiatives or new programs on her own. She counsels, teaches, organizes, administers, manages and leads as if she is a paid staff member even if she gets no paycheck from the church. I have seen these wives - in middle age or after her husband's untimely death, or, in at least two cases I know, after her husband 'came out' as a gay man - come before Commissions on Ministry to seek ordination. Many of them do not pursue ordination and make their peace with their status - mostly because they are recognized as leaders in their own right by their husbands and members of the congregation.

I fear for the future of this particular woman more than I do the next two because I don't think too many husbands of too many of the following wives would seek membership in the Ordinariate. Oh, there will be some, but it would obviously require a sacrifice of major proportions such that the possibility could not even be entertained - unless, of course, there were to be a divorce.

Now, wouldn't that present an interesting problem to Rome?

Anyway, here are the other two 'priest's wives'.

5. The Ordained Wife

She may have been a Vicarious Wife for years who has come to realize that she has been called to ordination all along. Often, she is a deacon but sometimes, she is also a priest. She may or may not be a paid member of the staff, but she works in full partnership with her husband. She may even be 'co-rector', receiving - at least, theoretically - half of the salary package or, perhaps, simply working for health insurance and pension. She sometimes is called by the bishop or canon to help out in another congregation that needs short-term supply or interim. Sometimes, she also has a private pastoral counseling and/or spiritual direction practice. Or, she may work as the (paid) Director of one of the Church's Outreach Ministries. I can't imagine the turmoil the Ordinariate will bring to this person and her relationship with her husband.

6. The Parallel Wife

I vote this woman 'most likely to fail' in the Ordinariate - or, at least, least likely for her or her husband to become a member of the Ordinariate. She is also a priest (or Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC or Unitarian minister) but leads another congregation as Rector, Priest-In-Charge, or on staff as an Associate/Assistant. She may work full or part time. Sunday mornings, both are preaching at their own church and, throughout the week, both are involved in the pastoral and administrative and educational pursuits of their congregations. Sometimes, one of these clergy couples - it may or may not be the woman - is working part time while the other pursues a doctorate. In most congregations I know, there is, among some members, a low-level resentment about The Parallel Wife because they feel they have been denied the full benefit of having either an Iconic, Helper or even 'just' a Priest's wife. They may feel sorry for their priest if the wife is ordained in another denomination. We often want most what we can not have - which is 'the way it was'. Or, at least, the way we think it ought to be.

So, there it is. My perspective on one of the 'complications' of this complex and difficult shift to the Right in the creation of the highly impersonal "Personal Ordinariate".

I wish them all well. Really.

I've never been happier since my decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church and enter The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

I wish only the same happiness for those who have swum the baptismal waters from The Thames to the The Tiber.

Because the institutional Roman Catholic Church does not see women in the fullness of their humanity - despite the encyclicals that proclaim their 'full respect for the role of women in the church' - they will be blissfully unaware of the quiet revolution they have unknowingly begun.

Despite the ruling that these matters may not even be discussed, I suspect that many conversations will ensue in the pews and parking lots and in dark corners of the parish hall which question the church's decision about the unmarried, celibate state of their priests in particular and the role and status of women in the church in general.

Alas, I won't be around in 50 or 60 years to watch the dramatic portrayal of the drama of these days, but I have no doubt it will be the subject of many an entertaining program one can watch on whatever technological gadget or gizmo is available at the time.

I'll just have to watch the whole thing unfold from the other side of The Pearly Gates. Which is just fine with me. Really.

Besides, I've got Downton Abbey to keep me entertained while I'm here.

Ah, 1914, in the days just before the first World War. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. And all of it is very entertaining.  As, I suspect, 2012 will be to the next generation.

It has been said that "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

Shhh....don't anyone tell The Boys in Rome.  It's bound to completely ruin their day.

I mean, Rome just apologized in 1992 for putting Galileo on trial in 1610 because he said the world wasn't flat.

What are you expecting?



Kirkepiscatoid said...

What I found most objectionable about the story The Lead referenced was the attitude about celibacy in general. The attitudes expressed in the history of the Roman church that were brought up in the article, are so incredibly insulting, so incredibly demeaning, I am literally speechless (and I don't mean the awed kind of speechless.)

As a presently celibate by choice person taking this route without the backdrop of vows as an excuse, it is so incredibly small to think of this solely as a matter of sexual passion. "Not gettin' any" is the smallest piece of an attitude of celibacy. Celibacy is DEMANDING in a far bigger way. It demands that I express love and intimacy in a more vulnerable and widespread way, and in a way other than sexual passion. That ain't easy, dammit!

Brook Hedick Packard said... a clergy spouse it's just fascinating to read another piece where I am tokenized and stereotyped!

And as part of the mass exodus from The Episcopal Church (20,000 annually) one of the primary reasons is the imbalanced emphasis on the ordination of a few and the hierarchy of the instution. When the unique vocations of every human being are equally celebrated there is a chance - a slim one - that some of us might return.

As Trudy revealed so publicly there is little relevance in the pulpits.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

As the spouse of an Episcopal priest, I feel lucky. The congregation seems to have few--if any--expectations of me. That suits me just fine. I married the man, not the church.

But I do wonder if these women have any idea of what they are getting into. They will be the inevitable objects of curiosity for those who want to find out how "Father" manages to be both spiritual leader and family man. If they stay with the parish they came with, it may not be so difficult--but if they get moved to a new place? Only time will tell...

I suspect that couples who make the transition have been totally vetted to be certain that their marriages are solid. I can only imagine how awful it would be to be a woman in that situation and want to leave my marriage. It was hard enough for me, and my priest and faith community were totally supportive!

maleveque said...

How about the wife who refuses to be defined by her husband's occupation? The wife who doesn't even go to church, or goes to a completely different church?
Here's what I posted on Episcopal Cafe with regard to the medievalist's caution to the newly-RC clergy wives:
While I agree with the sentiment expressed, I wonder why this writer only brought medieval sources to bear on this. Two things come to mind: one, that these folks have NO IDEA what they are getting themselves into. I felt this way not too long ago when All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Md. went RC. You KNOW that within the next 10 years, that beautiful ANGLICAN building and grounds will become, oh, a conference and retreat center run by men, and the remaining few sisters will be shunted off to a Benedictine home. Two: I predict that the attitude of parishioners will be much more like what my mother experienced 50 years ago: unrealistic expectations, including the wife as an extension of the priest; huge hostility toward her when she's pregnant, prolife pretensions notwithstanding (the church gossips criticized my mother for going into labor the day of the annual church picnic - the noive of her!).
- Anne LeVeque

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I absolutely agree. Requiring celibacy is like requiring ordination. Both are vocational choices. To withhold one on condition of the other is to cheapen both.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brook - I assure you that neither you nor anyone else was either tokenized or stereotyped. I do not see you as identified by your husband and you do not see you identified by your husband but both you and I both know that, like it or not, you are.

As I explained, I was describing what I see, not making up categories to box women into. I am too much of a feminist (and my credentials are sterling and of long standing) to ever even consider doing that.

I'm not sure what this has to do with "relevance in the pulpits" but clearly, you haven't been hearing some of the sermons or attending some of the churches I have. There are lots of places where preachers - lay and ordained - are breaking open The Word and people are being fed. Admittedly, not enough, but more than you think.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Doxy - You definitely fit the description of #3. Indeed, I thought of you and many, many women as I wrote it. Indeed, I know more women in that description in TEC that I can't imagine these churches going over to Rome.

Given the "priest shortage" in the RCC, I'll be curious to see if Rome does a "mix 'n match" move and what impact that will have when Anglican-Romans and their wives come to lead a RCC. I'm not sure Rome knows what it's unleashing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anne - I think I covered that in description #3. These are women who are spoken of without much warmth or affection as "The Rector's Wife". That does not diminish their identity or humanity by one iota. They have their own lives and identities, but it still stings.

I do know one priest who is a woman whose husband is an atheist. She and her husband do just fine. I wonder how it would be if the situation were in reverse.There were some elements of her congregation who were not at all pleased. She left before her 10th anniversary with them. No one ever came out and said, "Well, if you can't convince your husband about God and Jesus, how do you expect to bring others to Christ?" but you could feel it in the air.

As for the article, I'll let you take all that up with that author, but I agree with you. These folks have no idea the full impact of this move. Fortunately for them, TEC will always keep the porch light on.

JCF said...


I'm sincerely thankful to you and your spouse, Bishop Packard, for your work w/ OWS (and putting your bodies on the line vs TWS).


I'm sincerely tiring of this:

And as part of the mass exodus from The Episcopal Church (20,000 annually) one of the primary reasons is the imbalanced emphasis on the ordination of a few and the hierarchy of the instution.

You use similar phrasing (and that 20k #) in every statement I've heard from you (since Occupy). A mix of "The Sky is Falling!" and "We're Mad as Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Anymore!", it seems to CONFLATE dozens of complex (if not opposing) factors, and boil them all down to your single POV.

Your witness doesn't NEED to be bolstered by dubious citations of "there's 20k/year who agree w/ me!": it has genuine integrity on its own. Let it speak for itself.

Peace be with you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Thank you for your visit here. I've not heard Brook quoted, so I don't know the veracity of your comment. If it's true, I hope Brook takes your advice. It did seem a bit out of sync with the point of the post.

Joel said...

Amen Kirkepiscatoid!!! And I am a clergy spouse but NOT a female, but I guess I just don't get it. ' seems to me that the Episcopal Church just does not like the idea of clergy... most especially male.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Joel - TEC doesn't like clergy or clergy spouses? Not sure what you mean.

Turtle Woman with an Ax said...

We learned the hard way that sexism is deeply rooted even in gay and lesbian churches. When my partner got ordained, men would make jokes about me wearing white gloves and teaching sunday school.
As a radical lesbian feminist, I found these gay male jokes horrifying. They shut up when I got in their faces. With men, you get real aggressive real fast, and they shut up! The goal is simply to SHUT THEM UP! So we realized that the sexism towards clergy spouses wasn't going to end, I hated church and couldn't stand the arrogance of the clergy... hated the whole damn social structure. We came up with a clever term that would SHUT MEN UP---"We believe in separation between church and mate." I don't bother with her church stuff, she doesn't bug me for my radical lesbian feminist, smash the patriarchy delight. It works for our union! And NO we won't get married and assimilate into heteronormative structures... FTR

Anonymous said...

Why think that the priests joining the Ordinariate will have the same cross-section as the Anglican world in general? I'll take your word for it that these 6 types exist in TEC/AC, but I doubt many of the last 4 would swim the Tiber.

And since all Anglicans enter the Ordinariate as the laity, the Ordinariate has the freedom to not ordain men with messy home situations. Indeed this has already happened in one publicized case.
While I am in favor of the Ordinariate, this is not a big deal in the RCC in the US. The numbers are so small that I expect the lasting influence to be nil. Maybe because you have been gone from the RCC for so long, you have forgotten how big the RCC is, even in the present decline. My one parish has 3/4 the Sunday Mass as the local TEC multi-county diocese recorded last year for ASA. And I'm far from being the largest parish in my RCC diocese. Unless inordinate numbers of AC/TEC priests swim over and are accepted into Roman Orders, IMHO this is a flash in the pan, save for the souls for whom the Ordinariate is a life-saver.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Michael, I'm glad we can agree on two things: The last four women would not make good RC priest's wives. And, like you, I do think this is a flash in the pan. Which is interesting since Rome is making such a big deal about it.

Things that make you go, "Hmmmm..."

Anonymous said...

It is certainly possible that the Ordinariate will have a greater impact in England, which has fewer RCs and RC priests. I suppose that could influence Roman thinking. But here? Don't see it having a huge effect.


Anonymous said...

My story is not a favorable one as our 20 year "friendship" and 12 year marriage ended with the most painful realization that I, as a Pastor's wife did not matter. I was locked out of our rectory by the congregation after he announced at the Pulpit the day after I left for a "cooling off" period to my Mother's house, being accused falsely of adultry. Being a Priest, he refused counseling for years stating that as a "counselor" he was above it. During our 2 year separation, he methodically cut me off from marital assets, money, friends and even an attempt to reconcile. I believed in marriage no matter how hard it was. After much counseling, I was advised that I was in danger and needed to stay away from him for my own safety. For years, in front of people we were the "perfect couple' behind the scenes, he gambled, cheated and was an uncaring husband.. I dont think he knew how. Starting out as a Roman Catholic Priest, then converting to Polish National Catholic where we were married, was not easy. the PNCC did nothing to help us when we were in a critical state as a clergy couple... it is a shame. Today, after divorce, I have moved to another city, have a new life, career and even found someone to care for that I trust. How can a man be so cruel yet in charge as a Shepherd of a flock? I'm not sure when I will return to church... but maybe someday.
--- Survived "living behind the white collar"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear Anonymous - I don't usually post Anonymous comments but I understand completely. I understand because, as difficult as this is to admit, you are not alone in this kind of abuse.

You are also not alone in terms of people who understand. I hope you find the strength to write about this. More people need to know your story so they can tell their own.