(as published in the Mothers Union Magazine May/June 2013)
Divorce is always immensely painful. The tender romance that began with so much hope for the future crumbles into acrimony or emptiness, leaving profound grief, not just for the love that once was, but for the ashes of all those shared memories, hopes and dreams. For a minister’s wife, (most divorced ministers’ spouses are still female), the pain is compounded by the immediate loss of home, church, friends and potential support network. And it comes with a bewildering sense of failure, guilt and shame, as a host of inner voices say accusingly, “This shouldn’t have happened to you. You’re supposed to know how to do it.”
For Rosemary the bereavement included her sense of shared ministry and purpose. She felt called to serve the church with her husband, and gladly accepted the cost of his exchanging a potentially well-paid job for a stipend that made the family eligible for free school meals and clothing tokens. “We loved serving God together, giving the parish our time and energy, sharing our home,” she says. “We trusted God for holidays and treats. I felt it a privilege to support my husband all the way, even though his total commitment to his calling meant endless availability to everyone but me.”
When the pressures took their toll on her marriage, Rosemary lost everything - partner, home, church, vocation, role, status in the village, her emotional and financial security. “I felt such a failure, so full of guilt. How would I ever pick up the pieces of my life again?”
For ministers there is no home to sell and divide. Having been forced to vacate the vicarage or manse, many former wives find themselves in dire financial difficulty. Even if they are fortunate enough to have a job, it is almost impossible to get a mortgage and it’s hard to start paying rent and council tax for a home large enough to accommodate the children, who experience their own particular difficulties – the loss of their friends, extended family and schools if the ex-wife is pressurised to move away to minimise discomfort to the church. “The children have grown up in a community that can then appear to reject them,” Rosemary says. “Small wonder they often throw God out with the breakup.”
Lack of Support
Rosemary felt rejected by the church authorities at diocesan level for causing embarrassment, and locally because church members blamed her for the breakdown. “There is a strange mentality that keeps a clergyman on a pedestal, unable to do any wrong” she says. “Some in the congregation wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened and ignored me. A few stood by me and helped practically, financially and emotionally, and how I thank God for them.”
“Alex”, who suffered domestic violence at the hands of her clergy husband, agrees. “There are many people in the church who do not believe that clergy are capable of physical and psychological abuse” she says. “And I suppose, having been brought up in an environment where priests were to be respected and marriage was for life, it took me a very long time to admit to myself and others that it was wrong. The institutional church was also not helpful; even though people at all levels of the hierarchy were aware of what was happening behind the vicarage door there was very little in either day-to-day support or how there may be a way out.” Both women eventually found the help they needed when they happened to discover Broken Rites. The organisation, which celebrates its thirtieth birthday this spring, was formed, largely on the initiative of the Right Hon Frank Field MP. Aware from his own constituency that divorced clergy wives, who had often served the church for years, were then confronted by a brick wall of silence and denial, and left homeless and destitute, he urged the House of Commons to raise the matter with the Church of England. He also invited any minister’s wife in this position to join him in London for the inaugural meeting. 26 women turned up, and Broken Rites became a national society, dedicated to supporting former ministers’ wives, offering a listening ear and advice from women who knew the traumas first-hand. Members say how good it was to find that they were not alone, that someone understood what it was like to feel, “dumped by the church, as well as our husbands”, where they could share their doubts about their faith.
In its thirty years Broken Rites has lobbied the government to change the divorce rules on pensions and retirement home provision. It has also been a powerful pressure on the church to face up to its responsibilities to divorced minister’s wives, rather than turning a blind eye and leaving them to survive as best they may. Each Anglican diocese, and many denominations now have “Visitors” or dedicated personnel, to provide practical support at the point of the breakdown. Yet support within the church is still inconsistent and patchy. A postcode lottery dependent on denomination and diocese. Elizabeth, divorced from a husband who installed a mistress at the vicarage and locked her and their two children out, says, “There’s an odd assumption in many churches that the minister is always right - even if he has had an affair. A divorce in the diocese is almost the bishop’s guilty secret. Support channels are not obvious. You have to shout, “I’m homeless with two children under five, now what do I do?” before you can get any help. Now ordained herself, and a link member responsible for Broken Rites in the South West, Elizabeth says Broken Rites is essential in offering an awareness that there is life after breakup. One member wrote recently, “For me the most important aspect of Broken Rites is still the ability to meet with people who understand where I’ve come from. It’s also inspiring to know - even right at the beginning of the long road after separation - that other women have turned their lives round from the depths of the pit they were in at the beginning of the process and done absolutely amazing things. The founders and subsequent members of BR are truly fantastic women.” Alex says, “Broken Rites - where clergy ex-spouses can go for help ranging from, “I need a new microwave”, to “I hate the church” to “I need somewhere to live – who can I ask?” has been fundamental in my rehabilitation. I have a new job and a busy social life. Although it is deeply traumatic to lose shared history, I remain convinced that God gives us opportunities to move forward and never loses sight of us.”
Broken Rites is inter-denominational and serves the whole of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and even the Anglican diocese in Europe. There is a minimal subscription. Anyone who is not a divorced can become an associate member. It relies on the kind donations of friends, church leaders and individual Christian congregations. www.brokenrites.org
Here are some ways in which you may be able to support your minister’s marriage:
- Be aware of the pressures: the endless availability, six day working week, expectations to conform to the perfect family, the isolation and loneliness, the possible financial pressure of a relatively low income.
- The vicarage family carries the joys and sorrows of the parish. Thank and encourage them. So often they hear only criticism.
- Ministers and their families are only human. They have discouragements, weaknesses and temptations. Befriend them without being judgmental.
- Pray for them. If there’s trouble in the vicarage it can hamper the growth of the church - and ultimately split it in two.
This article was first published in the May/June issue of Families First magazine in 2013, www.familiesfirstmagazine.com.