Here’s a question to test how hard you were concentrating at your other half’s (OH’s) ordination service. Hands up if you heard the bit where they agreed to this:
‘to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people.’
There is no prize (sorry) but if you did register this vow you are doing better than me. If I did notice it at the time I certainly did not remember it for long. It was only when I revisited the ordination service when I was trying to discover the Church of England’s view on clergy spouses (CSs) that I became properly aware of it. It surprised me to find it because I felt that generally as a CS I was invisible to the wider church. Yet here was this vow declaring publicly that I would be part of my husband living his life as an example to everyone else. No pressure people, we’re just supposed to be living ‘according to the way of Christ’ in such a way as to be a pattern for every other Christian you encounter – easy peasy right?
Unsurprisingly many clergy and their families feel under pressure to live an exemplary life. Many of us put this pressure on ourselves. You may also encounter all sorts of expectations and assumptions from others which can make it feel like you and your family have to be perfect (and possibly teetotal going by the number of times I’m asked if I drink alcohol.) If you share your ordained partner’s faith you become a public Christian in your community in a way that is different to most other church-goers.
The main problem I have encountered with this is that I am not perfect – despite having an ordained mother. My husband did not magically become perfect when he got ordained and nothing very holy happened to me at the moment of his ordination. My children are not perfect just because their dad is a vicar. My dogs seem to have received no special benefit from living most of their lives in a vicarage.
So what are my options as an imperfect person and CS trying to live a Christian example in a fallen world?
Option 1: Fake it til I make it
It is oh so easy for some of us to fall into the temptation of living up to the image of the perfect clergy family. Despite the fact that we are not perfect we can end up projecting the image of perfection. All struggles are kept hidden within the family unit whilst the outside world sees only the side of us we think is acceptable. If we excel at this we may even start to believe this projection and think we really are as good as everyone thinks we are. I have found many people are predisposed to think the best of me simply because of who I am married to. Which sounds lovely but actually makes it harder to be honest about my failings because true openness would require altering their image of me – or they think I am being falsely modest and don’t really believe me when I do mention my failings. Francis Dewar points to the danger this can pose:
‘If your identity and your sense of self-worth are not secure you run the risk of being lived by other people’s projections. This I believe is the single most important factor in the warping of the character of the clergy and the breakdown of their marriages.’
Trying to be perfect will drive you and your household bonkers because you cannot do it. Projecting the image of perfection will drive you bonkers because you will be living a lie. It will make you lonely because you cannot have true friendships without openness and vulnerability. It is much harder to ask for help when you have been pretending to be absolutely fine. The public image of perfection is worthless if the private person does not match up. The truth always comes out in some way and the fall-out can be severe.
Option 2: Be open about the mess I surely am
As I read somewhere, ‘you either were a mess, are a mess or are one step away from being a mess.’
In a typically Christian paradox I have found that the healthiest way to be the perfect CS is to not be the perfect CS. My children have greatly assisted me with this because there is no way of pretending everything is peachy when your 4 year old is calling the most elderly member of your congregation a ‘grotbag’ (yes, he did pick up that word from me. No, I did not predict that a word used in jest would be directed against the elderly of my community by a rage filled pre-schooler, you live and learn.) I am not going to burden my children by expecting them to be perfectly behaved just because they are the vicar’s children. I am not going to burden myself by pretending that I have parenting completely sussed just because I’m married to a vicar as I patently still have a long way to go.
The challenge this poses for clergy and their families is summed up by a clergy wife in How the Other Half Lives by Fredrickson and Smith:
‘I’ve long felt we families of the cloth have to act like we’ve got it all together. We don’t, of course. We curse, fight, struggle with money, have vices, and face mid-life crises like everybody else. Publicly acknowledging our imperfections is scary and powerful – scary because we’re supposed to be the ideal family. If we don’t have it together, then there’s no help for everyone else. On the other hand, if we can honestly share our struggles and triumphs, I think we offer true hope for others…’ (p.xiv)
As another CS I know put it when she talked about having integrity as a preacher:
‘…yes that also means I will have what comes with that [integrity] which is maybe public brokenness too. But that is ok because the alternative is a slick, fake version of myself and that is NOT the true Gospel and God’s word.’ Rowena Cross, Esther Ministry Founder
Which brings me back to that vow from the ordination service. Did we accidentally sign up to being perfect 24/7, 365 days a year when our OH got ordained? Have we been set up to fail? Are we supposed to keep up a fake appearance of holiness for the sake of the church’s reputation? Or do we need to remind ourselves that the way of Christ is one of grace and mercy. That the only way to be open to receiving that grace and mercy is if we are aware that we need it. People who think they are perfect miss out on the gift of grace because they have the illusion of self-sufficiency. In Luke 18 Jesus gives us the example of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is the master of appearing to be perfect – he goes through all the motions which put him in good standing in his community by fasting and giving money to the temple. Yet this is a barrier between him and God because his illusion of perfection has conned him into thinking he has no need of God’s grace. The tax collector is painfully aware of his sinfulness – and Jesus says that he is the one who went home from the temple in right relationship with God. He is living in the real world whereas the Pharisee is living a lie.
I’m not suggesting that CSs are obliged to air all their dirty laundry publicly for the sake of being a good example. However I think for ourselves and others it is much healthier to work to be as real as possible. To learn to be honest and vulnerable about our struggles and challenges. To understand that a Christian example is not about looking perfect but about relying on our perfect God. It is scarily easy to end up more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. Especially when you are negotiating the expectations around a role which have been thrust upon you by someone else’s calling. Being like the tax collector means being vulnerable and that is scary. But the consequences of people being warped by the pressures of the CS life are even scarier. I think the tax collectors of this world have a better chance of putting their trust in the right place – not in our ability to be perfect in our own strength but in God’s willingness to love and forgive us even when we are imperfect. Surely that is the most hopeful example to offer Christ’s imperfect people in an imperfect world?