Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Clergy Wives: Ministry in the Shadows from 'Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church' by Mavis Rose

Clergy Wives: Ministry in the Shadows

from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 92-109.

Allira Publications, 17 Cervantes Street, MacGregor, Queensland 4109, Australia.
Copyright: Mavis Rose 1996.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

At a Conference held in Sydney in August 1974 on “The Status of Women” organised by the Australian Council of Churches, attention was drawn to the statement made by a clergy wife that “the thing that was wrecking her marriage was that she was trying to fulfil herself through her husband”. She was convinced that “living within the shadow of another person can be very damaging to both”.

That clergy wives are conceptualised as working in the shadow of their husbands was borne out by the experience of the Australian Anglican Primate and his wife just prior to Archbishop Sir John Grindrod’s retirement in December 1989. One of the Archbishop’s farewell gifts from Northern Australia was a large wooden carving of a dugong. For Lady Dell Grindrod, there was the gift of a necklet with a small carved fish. She was informed that the carving was “the Shadow Fish”, which spends its life swimming in the shade of the great fishes. “It brought home to me how the people perceived my role as a clergy wife”, commented Lady Grindrod.

In October 1980, when delivering the “Mary Body Lecture” in St. Mark’s Library, Canberra, Mrs. Yvonne Dann, wife of the then Archbishop of Melbourne, admitted that before she married her husband she had “a frightful stereotype of the parson’s wife” in her mind:

She was old, what I would now call middle-aged, and dressed in dreary clothes - green felt hat and rabbit fur. She ran around a bit flat-footedly, being very busy with good works, none of which seemed at all important. She was definitely not a woman in her own right, but acted as her husband’s unpaid assistant and applause machine.

Mrs. Dann conceded that this stereotype did have some relevance. She added: “Much has been expected of the clergy wife. She has been expected to make up for her husband’s deficiencies, and yet do it in such a way that she doesn’t shine too brightly herself, or cast a shadow over him.”

The term “the unpaid Curate” occurs frequently in articles on clergy wives. In an article in The Church Standard of 21 May 1943 there was an acknowledgement that a clergy wife did perform an active ministry: “What country parishes would do without their unpaid curates it would be hard to say - Sunday Schools, guilds, youth organisations of every description and the hundred and one expedients for raising money all fall on the parson’s wife to organise”. Another commentator, under the pseudonym “Uncle Sam”, rejected the term “unpaid curate” on the grounds that “a clergy wife’s duty was in the home of her husband”. “Uncle Sam” disliked the concept of a clergy wife’s role being linked to that of an ordained minister. This would, of course, indicate that she was stepping outside her domestic sphere on to male clergy territory, although this was the reality of the situation.

The Rev. K. D. Andrews-Baxter, writing in the “For Women” column of The Church Standard of 25 April 1942 under the heading “My Impressions of the Unpaid Parish Drudge”, opened his article with the comment that “the priest’s wife receives much more sympathy than she deserves”, “she is a much to be envied lady” and “people are very kind and even too generous to her”:

One gets so tired of hearing a priest declare that his wife is not going to be an “unpaid curate” ....she is his wife to care for him. If a priest is willing to accept the service of the wives of his laymen, he must be prepared to allow his own wife to serve too.... I have known some of the clergy wives to be rather a hindrance to the work of the Church; far from being a drudge they have lived for themselves, and instead of their husbands doing their job in the parish, they have had to dance attendance on their wives, even doing the shopping, washing up, helping with the washing, and attending the children...

The Rev. Andrews-Baxter was indicating that clergy were above sharing “home duties”, despite the Church’s recognition of the “servant model” set by Jesus Christ. He obviously subscribed to the role stereotype that a clergy wife should not only be an “unpaid curate” but also a “parish drudge” like laymen’s wives.

In an article in The Church Standard of 14 September 1943, the writer (using the pseudonym “Man-in-the-Back-Pew”) observed that “Australia has always expected its ministers of religion to be married”, and that in the earliest colonial period Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden “both married by way of preparation for their Australian ministries”. Remembering general attitudes towards the unattached women who first settled the colony, it is unlikely that Johnson and Marsden would have been able to select wives from among them.

Australia’s first bishop, William Broughton, certainly encouraged his priests to marry. When a young bachelor, Rev. J. S. Hassall, informed Broughton that he contemplated marriage, the Bishop’s response was: “The sooner the better”. English women were considered to be more suitable as clergy wives in the nineteenth century, perhaps an indication that the early colonial stigma on women still lingered on. Bishop Mesac Thomas of Goulburn in 1878 wrote to an ordinand wishing for him “a good, pious English wife”, one who would “strengthen him in the Lord and ... put an end to the excessive attentions of families which have daughters”. Bishop Mesac Thomas valued elitism and wealth as well as piety in a clergy wife, writing to a priest on leave in England that “by God’s guiding hand you will be led to choose a godly sensible wife - a lady - with money if God will”.

But even in the mid-twentieth century, bishops were cautioning their clergy to choose a wife carefully, if in less classist overtones. The Bishop of Armidale in 1940 advised that a priest “should take at least the same care in choosing a wife as a bishop does in choosing a priest, for to be the wife of a parish priest is as hard a calling as a woman can choose”. “Calling” was certainly how many clergy wives viewed their situation.

Although colonial clergy were advised to marry, the Anglo-Catholic movement also encouraged the growth of “Bush Brotherhoods”, many of those within them taking vows either of short-term or life-time celibacy. However, according to an article written on “The Parson’s Wife” in The Church Chronicle of 1 January 1907, “to the mass of English churchmen the superiority, under ordinary circumstances, of a married to a celibate clergy is almost axiomatic, and the parson’s wife is considered a necessary adjunct to rectory or vicarage”. Despite this statement in its diocesan newspaper, the Diocese of Brisbane was unusual in that four of its metropolitans were celibate, i.e. Archbishops Donaldson (1903-1921), Sharp (1921-1933), Halse (1943-1962) and Strong (1963 - 1970).

Clergy marriage had not always been a respectable state in the English Church. Towards the end of the eleventh century, papal rulings on celibacy were finally accepted in England and widely implemented. According to Margaret Watt in her study of English clergy wives, after celibacy had been imposed, priests might still be allowed to keep a mistress or to marry “on consideration, of course, of a fine to an indulgent bishop or a fee to the Crown”. Watt found that marriage more than concubinage impeded a cleric’s advancement in the Church during this period. As in the penal years in Australia, women were used to provide sexual gratification for men (only in this case priestly men) regardless of whether this placed the women in a “fallen” state or not.

By the sixteenth century, the English Church had succeeded in thoroughly discrediting clergy marriage, so much so that Thomas More (later accorded sainthood as a martyr), could claim that marriage defiled the priest “more than double or triple whoredom”. Clergy marriage was not finally endorsed by civil law until 1604, in the reign of King James I. Little concern appeared to have been expressed for the women caught in the controversy over its re-introduction. It is recorded that in the case of Archbishop of Canterbury Cranmer’s wife, Margarete, “she was forced to live in such retirement that she travelled in a box with ventilation holes in the lid”.

By the nineteenth century, clergy marriage was the norm, life in the vicarage, mainly rural, idealised as including a devout wife, who engaged in charitable works in the parish as well as raising a large family. Anne Besant, a nineteenth-century English feminist, in her “Autobiographical Sketches” recalled her strong calling to lead a “religious life”, one of the reasons she married a clergyman:

To me a priest was a half-angelic creature, whose whole life was consecrated to heaven; all that was deepest and truest in my nature chafed against my useless days, longed for work, yearned to devote itself, as I had read women saints had done, to the service of the church and the poor, to the battling against sin and misery. “You will have more opportunity for doing good as a clergyman’s wife than as anything else" was one of the pleas urged on my reluctance.

Clearly in the eighteen-sixties entering into marriage with a clergyman was perceived to be a suitable vocation for middle-class churchwomen inspired to redress the spiritual and social problems of the labouring classes during a period of rapid industrial growth .

The mushrooming of inadequately housed, densely populated urban communities changed the village pattern of parish life. It was no longer feasible for a clergy wife to cope with parish relief work on her own, resulting in the formation, as we have seen in previous chapters, of auxiliary women’s organisations and later full-time professional female church workers. In 1907, the Bishop of Manchester appealed to laywomen to relieve the burden of overwork suffered by urban clergy and their wives:

Everything was to be done first by the clergyman and, second - or on the same level - by the clergyman’s wife. She had to attend to her home and bring up her family, and at the same time to be a rather more active and ubiquitous person than the parson himself. That sort of thing destroyed, and still continues to destroy, many valuable lives every year. In many cases, the wives of clergymen in poor parishes had broken down by attempting to do what was impossible.

According to the Bishop of Manchester, this kind of “sweating” by the Church of the wives of the clergy would continue until “there were strong centres of usefulness from which ladies would go out to do the kind of work that was now being done by clergymen’s wives”. His words were an acknowledgement that the “heavy” work of the Church was not confined to males as suggested by Bishop Saumarez Smith of Sydney.

Pioneer clergy wife, Mrs. G. F. Cross, writing under the pen-name “Ada Cambridge”, in her work Thirty Years in Australia (published in 1903) also indicated that Australia was “destroying” and “sweating” its clergy wives. She recalled a conversation with Bishop Charles Perry, the first bishop of Melbourne Diocese, shortly after her arrival in Australia in the 1870s:

It was not the hardships of the clergy that troubled him, he said, but the killing strain upon their wives - literally killing, for he quoted figures to show the disproportionately high rates of sickness and death amongst them.

Mrs. Cross, from her own “long and intimate acquaintance with the subject”, was convinced that it was not “the parson who ... bears the burden and heat of the day but the uncomplaining drudge who backs him at all points, and too often makes him selfish and idle by her readiness to do his work as well as her own”.

Mrs. Cross insinuated that Australian-born clergy were by nature less considerate than “the class from which our home clergy are drawn”:

As a general rule he [the colonial clergyman] comes from that which, while as good as another in many ways, and perhaps better in some, is not bred to the chivalrous view of women and wives - regards them, that is to say, as intended for no other purpose than to wait upon men and husbands. The customs of the profession accord so well with this idea that it is not surprising to find a pious man killing his wife by inches without the slightest notion that he is doing so.

Mrs. Cross was confirming the tendency among men in Australia to take for granted their wife’s attendance to their needs. The cultural attitude of the Australian male towards women combined with the undervaluation of women by the Anglican Church exacerbated the situation. The clergy wife was in a tighter bind to conform than other laywomen because she could not withdraw her labour or resign from the Church without adversely affecting her husband’s career The care of large families combined with parish duties, added to the pioneer clergy wives’ burden. Mrs. Cross related how a clergy wife who, in addition to averaging a baby a year “until the baker’s dozen was reached, if not passed”, did her own washing and scrubbing, taught her children and was still expected to perform “parish duties”.

For a woman newly initiated into clergy-wifeship, the role expectations could be daunting, as Nathalie Robin, wife of the Bishop of Adelaide, pointed out in 1945:

I can tell you, it comes as a bit of a shock to find how much you expect of her.... She is expected to be a born teacher, in Sunday Schools and elsewhere, a born organiser and committee woman, a mine of information on the Christian faith and theology, a well-trained speaker and brimful of tact, and a good social leader, to run her home without any help, to have a sound knowledge of catering for from three to 300 persons, to bring up her children as good Christians and sound citizens, on top of all the rest .

The clergy wife’s role could also be socially alienating. Nathalie Robin described the average Australian man’s reaction to the news that the vicar’s wife had been invited to tea, which was to discover “an urgent engagement in town” while his wife warned him to “be careful what you say to her” and “keep off racing and divorce”. This meant, Mrs. Robin pointed out, that the vicar’s wife stepped across the doorstep “into an atmosphere already made for her by your conception of what she is or should be or should not be!”.

Yvonne Dann admitted that in the late nineteen-forties, “most wives were expected to stay at home when they married”. The majority of clergy wives she knew accepted this situation. However they resented being linked continually to their husband’s job, such as being introduced as “Mrs. X, the vicar’s wife”. “Let me tell you”, said Yvonne Dann, “the wives I’ve heard waxing loud on this subject hate it.” She contended that clergy wives wanted to be persons in their own right, “and to sink or swim socially without the burden or benefit of their husband’s job on their backs”. Although this remark was made in the “feminist” era of the 1980s, a similar view was expressed by Mrs. Cross in 1903, the era of first wave feminism, when she wrote: “Very early in the day I evolved opinions of my own as to the right of parishes to exact tributes of service from private individuals in no way bound to give them.”

In his work “The Fate of Ministers’ Wives”, Australian sociologist Kenneth Dempsey reported that for the wives in his sample (from a mixture of denominations, including Anglican, in two small country towns, one in Victoria and the other in New South Wales), escaping from their husband’s job meant in large measure “escaping from control ... by the laity”. He found that “the ability of the laity to exercise great influence or power over a minister’s wife is demonstrated repeatedly when a wife breached one or more traditional expectations”, such as restricting lay access to the parsonage or manse.

Lay encroachment on the private world of the clergy wife and her family is also reflected in an article in The Church Standard of 4 April 1941:

Half the parish fondly imagines that the parson tells her all their secrets, is indignant if he does, and bewildered when he doesn’t....She can, indeed, know much, by poking and prying, but usually has quite enough secrets to guard on her own account....She will be sensitive too over the conduct of her children, knowing that their peccadilloes will be regarded as crimes. Her lightest word, in an off-guarded moment, may commit her husband, and so she develops a restraint which people describe as “offhandedness”.

The lack of privacy suffered by clergy families was also described by Nathalie Robin:

The white light of publicity that shines on kings and queens and famous people is nothing to that which shines on the inhabitants of rectories, vicarages or manses. What they do, what they think, what they eat, what they wear, what they say or what they don’t say are all subject to the closest scrutiny of the parishioner...

A letter from an English clergy wife published in The Anglican of 7 January 1965 pointed out the stresses imposed on young wives tied down with children and the difficulties they faced in behaving spontaneously in a parish situation:

I find the crux of the difficulty of being a clergy wife is that I am almost always second-best.... I had high-minded visions of entering with my husband into the great work of converting the world (who doesn’t at 21), but here I am, surrounded by four children, tied to the house, expected to turn up at every cat-hanging, and feeling like a widow as my husband is always on duty. I resent also the double-standard. A clergy wife is expected to “run” the conventional things, turn up at church and every other connected social affair, whatever her domestic circumstances may be. This is often extremely difficult with a young family. I also resent the fact that I have to be myself self-consciously. If I “twist” at the parish dance. this causes comment. I now have become so introspective that I ask myself if I “twist” in order to cause comment - which would be an irrelevant question for most other women. I do not resent the comment, I resent the basic reason behind it - that somehow we are different.

This clergy wife was of the opinion that clergy ought to be celibate, “because no decent right-minded man ought to have the effrontery to ask any woman to take on such a lousy job!”

Australian clergy wife, Marlene Cohen, recalled that before her marriage, as secretary of the League of Youth (a youth auxiliary of the Church Missionary Society), she was leading and training a large group of students, both male and female. She claimed that “the circumstance of my being female was an irrelevance in my ministry”. However, on becoming a clergy wife, she was no longer wanted as a youth director nor encouraged to speak in church. “There was no official reluctance or compunction in accepting a high level of dedicated work involvement from me, so long as the work was in the blue-collar category - not white-collar, and certainly not dog-collar!” Her conclusion was that the reason for this attitude was “not my sexual status alone but a combination of my marital and my sexual status”.

The exclusion of clergy wives and their undervaluation was often reflected in parish articles and in biographies of clergy. For example, in an article headed “Farewell to Archdeacon and Mrs. H. J. Richards”, who were moving from the parish of Christ Church, Bundaberg, there was a full account of what the Archdeacon had done but no mention of any of his wife’s activities. A full-length biography of Bishop Arthur Nutter Thomas of Adelaide contained eight references in all to his wife and the majority of them were fleeting. Even nowadays, as evidenced in a recent article entitled “Carpentaria’s Pilot Bishop Celebrates 25 Years” in the Church Scene of 8 December 1989, wives are often excluded, even when, as in this case, the article displayed a photograph of Bishop Hall-Matthews accompanied by his wife.

Obituaries of clergy wives, just like those of many laywomen, could also give more weight to prestigious relatives and exclude the personality and activities of the deceased. Take, for example, the obituary of Adelaide Emily Pike:

The death occurred on April 26 of Mrs. Adelaide Emily Pike, wife of the Ven. Joseph Pike, archdeacon of Goulburn.... The late Mrs. Pike was the daughter of the late Mr. H. C. Williams, formerly member of the Queensland Parliament before Federation. She was born at Birmingham and her family resided in Ipswich, Queensland for many years where her father carried on business as a merchant until his death. She was married in Ipswich in 1892, and afterwards resided at Townsville, Cairns, Charters Towers, Young, Yass, Wagga, Queanbeyan and Goulburn....One of her brothers is the Rev. Canon Williams, who is at present rector of St. Peter’s Church, Townsville.

Clergy wife resentment about loss of identity was reflected in a short speech by Mrs. Micklem at her husband’s retirement from the parish of St. James, King Street, Sydney. She stated that it was “not easy to come into the parish after her husband’s bachelor-rectorship, and in some quarters she had been treated in the most extraordinary fashion”. She had always “been loved for her own sake until she went to St. James”s, and it was a strange and trying experience to be loved only for someone else’s sake".

Yvonne Dann pointed out in her address that, in the Book of Common Prayer, the form of service for “Making Deacons” included a reference to wives, so even at the institutional level the Church claimed some control over their lives:

When a man became a deacon, he used to be told in the service that his wife must be “grave, not slanderous, sober and faithful in all things". Now he is only requested that he and his family be good examples to the flock of Christ.

The constant intrusion of the Church and parish into their privacy could drive clergy wives to seek refuge. Elizabeth Bunker, an ergonomist as well as a clergy wife, who attended the Brisbane Clergy Wives Conference in February 1989, commented that she “was amazed that perfectly sensible, ordinary women were saying that they hide in the toilet rather than answer the doorbell again”. She found clergy wives who, if living next door to the Church, “were frightened to go out into their garden because there might be a funeral and it is considered disrespectful for the vicar’s wife to be out there pruning the roses or hanging out the washing”. Most clergy wives “wanted to do the things parishes expected of them”, but sometimes this was difficult because parish expectations were not spelt out for them. Elizabeth Bunker believed that if the parish expected the clergy wife to be an unpaid worker, then they should analyse exactly what duties they expected of her.

Dempsey in his study found that many clergy wives compared their work with that of the deaconess, whom they assumed to be a single woman. Dempsey found that clergy wives were considered to have higher standing and greater influence on parish life than deaconesses. This may have become the practice in parishes but was not the original intention. In an article on “Women Church Workers” in The Church Standard of 16 April 1948, Bishop Woodward of Gloucester explained that, while he was “far from underrating the value of such part-time voluntary workers as those invaluable ‘unpaid curates’ - the wives of the clergy”, they could “never take the place of a whole-time member of the parochial staff who has been properly trained for Church work”. But then many Sydney clergy wives had been trained for parochial service at Deaconess House, and inculcated with the prevailing ethos of the diocese as well.

Anglican laymen who, after they had been in the general workforce for several years, felt a call to priesthood, could cause considerable upheaval in the lives of their wives and families. Brisbane clergy wife “B.M.” believed she was fortunate in that her husband’s call had come in the nineteen-seventies, when ordinands were allowed to live in St. Francis’ Theological College accompanied by their families. Previously married ordinands were separated from their wives and children during their college residence. “B.M.” personally had found the community life enjoyable. Nevertheless, financing the cost of three years of theological college training could necessitate the sale of the family home and the wife’s acceptance of much more cramped living quarters than she was accustomed to. Several wives of ordinands, especially those without children, worked outside the home during this training period to help support their husband’s vocation.

In an anonymous paper “Some notes on the pressures on the family relationships of the married clergyman” written by an Anglican cleric, included in the expectations which the clergyman believed the parish to have, often unspoken and undiscussed, were that his family “should be a model of marital bliss, juvenile behaviour and commitment to the church” and that “the family should come second in all things to the parish, for after all the parish pays him, and he is as wedded to the church as to his wife”. The clergy wife is expected to be “a kind of super-parishioner - available for every parish activity and (appropriate) committee”.

This paper also noted that “it is only with difficulty that the church copes with marital breakdown among the clergy” and that “it really cannot cope much at all with obvious sexual indiscretion”. The clergyman’s designated pastors are the bishops and to a degree the archdeacons. While “some of these pastors may have skills in counselling in the area of family relationships...they are also perceived as ‘the boss’ - the providers of future appointments, the assessors of one’s quality of work and of professionalism”. As a result, many clergy and their wives would be uncomfortable in seeking help and counselling from them, preferring “counselling from an agency outside the Anglican Church.

In her comparative study of clergy and non-clergy couples, in this case sampling clergy of the Queensland Uniting Church, Patricia Noller listed the greatest dissatisfactions in clergy families. Clergy wives wished their husbands would spend more time with their family and work late less often. Clergy husbands felt their wives were not devoting sufficient attention “to their sexual needs”. There were problems with sexual relationships for both males and females in clergy samples. Sexual problems in Anglican clergy marriages were often related to stress and overwork. Also, because a clergyman was closely involved with people within the parish, “the relationship can step outside the bounds of professionalism, running the gamut of various levels of intimacy, to full sexual intimacy”.

According to Yvonne Dann, when a clergy marriage founders, “there is always an extended ripple of influence going out from their distress” because “the clergyman and his wife are usually at the centre of a large circle of people who look to them for some kind of example and leadership on moral issues”.

In his study of clergy across the denominations, Dr. Rowland Croucher, a Baptist minister, found that “clergy are the loneliest people in the community, the least likely to have close friends”. The only person to rival this situation was the clergy spouse, “the only creature on the planet who doesn’t have a pastor”. Yvonne Dann admitted that “some clergy and their wives find it very hard to admit that they are in trouble of any kind. They are so used to being the ones who take care of others, that they may find it hard to ask for help, or to accept it comfortably when it is offered”.

Another difficulty for clergy wives arose if their husbands were transferred to a non-parish situation, such as a chaplaincy or administrative position, and the clergy family wished to live in the same area because of schools or other private reasons. Normally, a retiring clergyman is expected to stay away from his successor’s area. As Yvonne Dann queried in her address, was it fair on the new incumbent and his wife if “we maintain much contact with former parishioners after we leave a parish?”. Perth clergy wife, Pam Albany, wished to continue worshipping in the same church when her husband moved to a non-parish position because of children friendships and her own involvement in the parish. However, the new incumbent made it clear that he would prefer her not to stand again for parish council. Pam Albany was not only hurt but felt that the ultimatum from the new rector emphasised that she was not a woman in her own right but an appendage to her husband.

“Gossip chains”, Dempsey discovered, caused a great deal of “emotional pain” to clergy wives. Because such superlative standards were expected of them, those who did not measure up became the subject of adverse comment As a result, clergy wives took on excessive workloads to try to avoid criticism, which in turn could lead to physical and spiritual breakdown. According to Nathalie Robin, “some of the essential qualities necessary in a ‘parson’s wife’ are - to be her natural self, untroubled by gossip, serenely unself-conscious, yet fully aware and sensitive to the needs and desires of her husband’s flock”.

It was the effect of vicarage life on clergy children which worried Yvonne Dann the most: “It is one thing to accept a life for yourself when you marry, but what can cause a lot of heartache is to see one’s children unhappy because of the life one has been called to lead.”

Early widowhood as well as divorce for clergy wives could entail considerable financial hardship.An editorial in The Church Standard of 7 November 1947 expressed concern about clerical stipends, commenting that few clergy are free “from a well-founded feeling that they are being exploited by those to whom they minister”:

The clergyman and his family must live, they must pay their debts or involve themselves in public scandal, but if in pulpit or church council any guarded statement is made of the need for better pay, the cry will be raised that love of filthy lucre, not love of souls, is being shown.

The editorial pointed out that an unskilled labourer often received more than a parish priest. In a letter to The Church Standard of 17 September 1948 signed “Veteran Vicar”, the writer pointed out that “in too many parishes the services of two (the vicar and his wife) are expected for the stipend of one” and that the provisions were too meagre, “especially for wives”.

One of the problems for clergy and their wives, Dempsey has pointed out, is that at the same time as they “saw their economic and social incentives” being eroded, “a majority of their laity were improving their position economically and socially”. As a result “ministers and ministers’ wives generally have not shared in the growing affluence of Australian society to nearly the same degree as many and possibly as most of their lay leaders”.It was this disparity which motivated many clergy wives to break with tradition and re-enter the workforce.

For clergy wives, their husband’s promotion to a wealthier parish or to a higher position in the Church usually improved the family’s economic and social standing. A clergy wife was aware that her own performance could be a decisive factor in her husband’s promotion. Clergy wife status in the Anglican Church improved considerably if the clergy husband entered the episcopate, especially if head of a large metropolitan diocese. A bishop’s wife could gain access to considerable power and influence, although this still required considerable discretion on her part. It was customary for bishops’ wives to be the patron or president of various churchwomen’s groups and to lead clergy wives’ associations. As was noted in Chapter Four in regard to the advancement in England of the cause of the deaconess and women’s church work in general, Mrs. Davidson, wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was able to exert considerable pressure on her husband to appoint commissions to examine the question of the ministry of women. In the case of the Sydney Deaconess Institution, Archbishop Wright’s wife and sister did much to promote its interests and raise money for its capital needs in its formative period.

In this chapter, valuable insights into the world of the clergy wife have been gained through the willingness of bishop’s wives such as Nathalie Robin and Yvonne Dann to speak out publicly. However, in the area of church politics, bishops’ wives had to exercise particular caution. For example, Lady Dell Grindrod found that she could not participate as overtly as she would have wished in the Movement for the Ordination of Women because of her husband’s perceived need, as Primate of Australia, to balance the opposing viewpoints on the issue.

A bishop’s wife in Australian Anglicanism who could be classified as “a power behind the throne” was Dorothy Anne Mowll (1890-1957). While a missionary in China, she married the then Assistant Bishop of West China, a fervent Evangelical named Howard Mowll, who in 1934 was enthroned as Archbishop of Sydney, a position he occupied until his death in 1958. Dorothy Mowll appears to have been the only Australian clergy wife to whom a whole edition of a church journal, in this case the Sydney Diocesan Magazine of February 1958, was devoted as a memoriam.

In this particular edition, Dorothy Mowll received personal tributes which contrasted with the general tendency to undervalue the deceased woman, an indication of the impact she had made. Considering the “headship” ethos of Sydney Diocese, it was unusual for a clergy wife to be hailed as “an astoundingly successful organiser and leader, a visionary” and that she “emanated Jesus Christ” Even Archbishop Marcus Loane, not noted for recognising women’s abilities, wrote of her: “Her charm and vivacity were in complete contrast with her husband’s measured quietness” and “it is quite impossible to say how much her drive had meant in the Archbishop’s ministry”, a suggestion that without her backing her husband’s performance might not have been as effective. Dorothy Mowll was unusual in that she did not have children so was not tied so tightly into the domestic sphere nor did she reach the position of bishop’s wife after years of “drudgery” in a parish. She went straight from being an exceptionally enterprising, independent missionary to being a bishop’s wife.

Dorothy Mowll’s accolades were not confined to Australia. In 1956, the Queen conferred on her the O.B.E for her war-time and post-war efforts for the good of the whole community. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society for charting large tracts of unmapped country in China while a missionary. Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, thought her the most charming Bishop’s wife to have visited Lambeth for the Conference in 1930. Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, referred to her at the Lambeth Conference of 1958 as “one of the most remarkable women in the Anglican Communion”.

Dorothy Mowll’s organisation of the Church of England National Emergency Fund (C.E.N.E.F.) from St. Andrew’s Cathedral during the war was one of her most outstanding achievements. But she could not have run such a large-scale operation without the cooperation of a considerable body of voluntary workers. Dorothy Mowll used her position as Archbishop’s wife to marshall Sydney diocese’s clergy wives, with their support, forming the Sydney Diocesan Churchwomen’s Association. As most clergy wives in the diocese were leaders of parish women’s groups, it was possible by using clergy wives as middle management to roster thousands of churchwomen for duty in the canteens and hostels. Dorothy Mowll, as bishop’s wife, very effectively mirrored the clergy command structure through clergy wives to carry out large scale projects. Again laywomen bore the brunt of the operation at little cost to the diocese.

Other Sydney initiatives organised by Dorothy Mowll were the Broughton Centenary Celebrations of 1936, which included a pageant with seven hundred players. She was associated with the purchase of the MacArthur-Onslow estate “Gilbulla” which became a Conference Centre for the diocese and a centre used by Australian bishops for their annual conferences. In later years, Dorothy Mowll launched a plan to provide a Church Veterans Village. The renowned Mowll Village in Sydney is not named after the Archbishop but after Dorothy Anne Mowll.

Dorothy Mowll accompanied the Archbishop on his travels both within and without Australia. She never openly questioned the “headship” ethos of Sydney Diocese, which had been preached to her on her wedding day, but instead cleverly worked around it, thus by her achievements challenging its validity. Her leadership role was not restricted to the women’s sphere, so that even bishops conceded that her performance outshone that of her husband. Her light was too brilliant to remain unnoticed in the shadows.

Dorothy Mowll died before second wave feminism hit Sydney, so it is impossible to record her reaction to it. But, in view of the subordinate and self-suppressive situation in which a majority of clergy wives, especially those in parish situations, were expected to live their lives, it is not surprising that they have been well represented among both first and second wave feminists. In England, in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, 10.7% of the members were clergy wives and 19.5% were clergy daughters. Most branches of the Australian Movement for the Ordination of Women have clergy wives as active members. Some clergy wives, for example Janet Gaden, Peta Sherlock, Zandra Wilson, Alison Gent, Alder Hall, Pam Albany, Diane Johnson, Jill Mendham, Denise Nichols, Barbara Pace, Dorothy Barraclough, Ursula Roper, Barbara Marsh, Muriel Porter, Leslie McLean and Marlene Cohen, have been very active in promoting the priesting of women. Other clergy wives have supported the women’s movement but for diplomatic reasons have not participated actively in it. Such a person is Ann Hollingworth, wife of Archbishop Peter Hollingworth of Brisbane, who admits that she has “always felt that women in the church should be able to become priests” but has not become involved in feminist activism.

But there are also clergy wives who dislike intensely the concept of women priests. For Brisbane clergy wife “L.P.”, priesthood must be male. She is adamant that, if she wanted to, she could do everything her husband does, but it would be wrong for her to do so because she is a woman. Several laywomen have expressed the opinion that clergy wives might not like a woman deacon in the parish. This viewpoint has validity. In a church structure which allows limited ministerial opportunities to women, the presence of a professionally trained female clergyperson might appear to diminish the clergy wife’s role of “unpaid curate”, forcing her even further into the shadows. Also, a more professional worker might not have the same commitment as the clergy wife to covering up for the rector’s deficiencies and at the same time keeping the rector informed of undercurrents in parish life.

Contents of Book Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.