A Unique Role

by Gerry Lynch last modified 05 Jun, 2014 05:53 PM

Bishops' wives gather in Salisbury for what could be one of their last female only meetings.

A group of women met in Salisbury yesterday for what is likely to be one of their last meetings – at least in their current composition!

The wives of Church of England Bishops gather together twice a year in a cathedral city for a day of socialising together and mutual support. With legislation which will facilitate the consecration of the first women bishops due to be voted on by General Synod in July, the group could soon become a bishops’ spouses group, with its first male members attending in 2015.

In these days, when women and men largely work at the same jobs and gender equality is widely enough accepted that even the often staid Church of England is about to accept the principle, is there still a role for a gathering like this?

Rosemary Butler, whose husband Paul is the Bishop of Durham, thinks there is. She was the main organisers of the Salisbury event – and had one of the longest journeys to attend!

“We meet twice a year as a group, and it’s a really helpful way for us to support one another. We’re all carrying out a very similar – and unusual – role and it gives us a chance to swap ideas and experiences.

“There are very definite expectations on you when you’re married to a bishop, so it’s also a chance for us just to be ourselves rather than just ‘the Bishop’s wife’. People have some odd ideas about what our life is like – I can, however, confirm that I have never been asked to open a garden party!

“When we meet, we usually listen to a few speakers or meet with a women’s group, then have lunch together and a tour of the cathedral in the city where we’re meeting.

“Today we had two excellent talks. The first was by Caroline Welby, who was reflecting on her first year living in Lambeth Palace and having a very demanding and important ministry working with Justin.

“We also had a talk from Jenny Sinclair, who founded Together For the Common Good, which encourages Christians of different denominations to work together, along with other faith traditions and secular allies to become agents of change for the Common Good. This idea was inspired by the partnership her father, David Sheppard, had as Bishop of Liverpool with his Roman Catholic opposite number Archbishop Derek Worlock from the 1970s through to the 1990s.”

In a previous generation, in the unlikely event a Bishop’s wife had a career, she would be expected to give that up when her husband became a bishop. One sign that that was changing already a generation ago, was when Robert Runcie became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1980, his wife Lindy continued to work as a concert pianist.

These days, of course, it is very much the norm that both partners in a marriage work except when children are very young, and it is no different in episcopal families.

Sue Edmonson is married to Chris, who is Bishop of Bolton in Manchester Diocese. She works a teacher and says it is possible – albeit a real challenge – to combine a career with being an active Bishop’s wife.

“I do sessional work – in other words part time – teaching GCSE and A-Level students, which relieves the pressure, and it is possible to work full-time while being married to a bishop. But you must be proactive to make it a success.”

Sarah Condry is another teacher, but gave up work when she moved from Kent to Wiltshire when her husband, Edward, became Bishop of Ramsbury in 2012. She was another of the main organisers of the Salisbury gathering, the latest in a series of events she greatly values.

“It’s really important that we meet together as it’s quite an isolated role. It’s all about looking out for one another.”

What does she think about the upcoming changes to the group’s gender balance?

“We are thrilled to think we’ll be welcoming Bishop’s husbands to our gatherings in the near future – we guarantee they’ll be well fed!”

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