Book Review: Holy Matrimony?

Holy Matrimony? An Exploration of Marriage and Ministry, Mary Kirk and Tom Leary, Lynx Communications 1994

I picked this book up in my pre-CS days when a library was having a clear out and on seeing that it is on a book list in the Rochester Clergy Family Handbook I thought I would re-read it. It is a fascinating read, if only as an insight into clergy marriages and the Church of England twenty years ago (other denominations are mentioned but the clergy couples involved in the case studies are all CofE). I felt that some of the issues discussed are less relevant to most clergy couples today due to significant changes in the church and society. However, much of what they cover is still very true for CSs and it left me with plenty to think about concerning how marriage and ministry relate to each other.

Tom Leary is a marital psychotherapist as well as an ordained minister and Mary Kirk is a trained marriage and relationships counsellor. The book is informed by interviews with 37 clergy couples (all the clergy were men in full-time stipendary posts), with each partner interviewed separately and then in a joint interview. It would be fascinating to see if interviews conducted with those currently in ministry would come up with similar findings, especially as it would include couples where the ordained person is female. I felt that some of the themes they found emerging would not be as prominent today. For example, they say that there is a large amount of evidence that clergy select spouses more for qualities that will assist their ministry than for their own personalities and rate sexual attraction low on the list of reasons for picking a spouse. Most clergy I know did not go into ministry as their first career and were married/romantically involved before exploring the possibility of ordination, which may explain why I found it hard to relate this evidence to clergy couples today. Many of the ideas the authors discuss as a result of the interviews are very interesting but I think so much has changed in two decades it is hard to know how much of their evidence is still applicable to clergy couples.

Despite this they do cover much that is relevant, especially looking at the tensions which exist for clergy couples. A significant point they raise is that, ‘Clergy marriages shoulder people’s projections and expectations.’ There is a feeling that clergy and their families should be perfect, in the midst of a society where relationships are turbulent and rapidly changing. The danger they point out is that priests and their families can end up colluding with others’ projections and internalizing these expectations. It is dangerously easy to fall into the trap of behaving in order to fulfill others’ expectations. As the authors say, ‘It takes considerable skill in perception and communication for a clergyman and his spouse to be able to differentiate between problems stemming from other people’s projections and expectations, and those which may arise out of personality and relationship difficulties within the marriage.’

They cover many other issues, including: ill-defined boundaries between home and work; the feeling of competing with God; reluctance to seek help in time; social marginality and isolation; the complications of your parish priest being your other half; expectations on clergy children; how the spouse relates to the clergy ministry; how spouses are prepared for vicarage life. They have many insights into these areas and offer useful advice on negotiating the tensions which come with clergy life. I was heartened by the fact that I think there have been some positive changes in the past two decades and some of the problems the authors raise seem to have become less prevalent. It seems to me that it is becoming rarer for parishioners to expect CSs to fulfil specific roles and many assume you will have som form of work separate to the clergy person’s ministry. So far I’ve also found that they are very respectful of James’ time off and that our privacy is not intruded on. I’m aware that CSs experiences will vary depending on the churches their partners minister to but overall I think the church has made a positive move away from expecting every clergy spouse to fit a certain mould.

What particularly struck me about this book is that the authors are calling for changes within the church which, judging from my experience, have not happened. Twenty years ago they were trying to ‘prompt the hierarchy into a more proactive overall policy,’ rather than only stepping in when a marriage is in serious trouble or has failed completely. As far as I can tell support still tends to be reactive rather than proactive. One of the saddest things I discovered when investigating what support exists for clergy spouses is that there is a whole organisation dedicated to supporting ex-partners of clergy and yet there is no equivalent centralised support for those actually married to a clergy person; you are at the mercy of whether your diocese proactively supports you or not. As Leary and Kirk point out, it is not irrelevant to ask why all the resources which appear when a marriage fails ‘could not have been put at the disposal of both husband and wife earlier, for maybe then the problem would not have reached this point.’ They suggest several practical measures which they think would help clergy marriages and it seems a shame that their suggestions have not been implemented.

This is a really interesting read and there is a good chance that you will come away with some sound practical advice which you can apply to your own situation. Some aspects may be out of date but I found it helpful to read something focussed on clergy marriage rather than just looking at the experience of the CS. Maybe it’s time for a similar book for the 21st century?

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