Gathering shows bishops’ spouses they are not alone

Published April 1, 2008

(L to R) Eileen Carey wife of then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, enjoys a moment with Jan Ferris, wife of Algoma bishop Ron Ferris, and Nancy Bowman, wife of then-bishop of Western New York, David Bowman.

In the first in a series that will examine the upcoming Lambeth Conference, its events and issues, the Anglican Journal looks at the parallel spouses’ gathering that will take place alongside the once-every-10-years meeting of the bishops of the Anglican Communion.

“Some of you may think of the spouses’ conference as basically Jam and Jerusalem, more tea vicar or mitre-making and flower-arranging. There will certainly be food and singing in our program, but there will also be a chance to meet some of the most interesting, committed and dynamic people of the Anglican Communion.”

With this statement, Jane Williams, wife of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, set the tone for the upcoming spouses’ conference, which will run parallel to the Lambeth Conference of bishops, a gathering every 10 years of the world’s Anglican bishops. They will meet this year from July 16 to Aug. 4.

Like the last spouses’ conference in 1998, which London’s Independent newspaper noted as having had a “distinctly feminist flavour,” this year’s gathering promises to be equally ground breaking.

Yes, spouses will reflect on the familiar questions, “Who is the bishop’s spouse? How to be effective in that role.”

But in a world fraught with challenges and conflict (including divisions over sexuality that are preoccupying much of the Anglican Communion), they will also look at such topics as “Charged to be God’s peacemakers: situations of conflict,” “Equal in God’s sight: When power is abused,” and “Stewards of God’s earth: the environment.”

The conference is aimed at helping spouses “learn from each other and to resource ourselves to be God’s people for God’s missions,” said Ms. Williams, chair of the planning group, which includes the spouses of Anglican bishops from churches in Australia, Ghana, England, Kenya, Myanmar and France.

“We plan to look at some of the huge issues that face us all, and that diminish God’s people and make it harder for others to hear God’s good news,” said Ms. Williams at the launch of the conference last Jan. 21. Bishops will join spouses in discussing some issues “because these are not ‘women’s issues,'” she added. “The whole people of God need to be challenged and have their needs heard and ministered to in these areas.”

More than 600 spouses attended the 1998 conference, which for the first time included five husbands (the Communion’s first female bishops were consecrated in 1989 and 1990). While this year’s numbers are still uncertain – some bishops are boycotting or contemplating staying away because of the row over sexuality – those who plan to attend say its importance cannot be understated.

Jan Ferris, who is married to the bishop of Algoma, Ronald Ferris, called the two conferences that she attended “a privilege.” The Bible studies held every morning were a highlight, she recalled. “I thought it was going to be an awfully long time with people who were so different, including myself, but it was wonderful. I couldn’t believe how quickly the mornings would go.”

Lynne Samways Hiltz attended the conference in 1998 for the first time with her husband, Fred Hiltz, who was then diocesan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (and now primate of the Anglican Church of Canada). “You learn what it’s like to be in other parts of the Communion,” she said.

Attending the conference is also valuable because it allows spouses to be together, said Ms. Samways Hiltz. “Three weeks is a long time to be away from each other when we’re away from each other for a long time to begin with.”

Equipping the spouses for mission and looking after their wellbeing is important, the planning group has stated, because they make “independent contributions (that) are real resources upon which the church relies…”

Indeed, as Anna Burton, who attended her first conference in 1998 with her husband, Bishop Anthony Burton of Saskatchewan, noted, “the almost overwhelming sense of community was a real high point … So often we think of ourselves as toiling away alone, but to see in a tangible way that we are not alone and we are all working to the same end was very moving.”

One sentiment that resonated at the 1998 conference was that spouses’ contributions are not always recognized, much less appreciated.

“We know the feelings of isolation and loneliness that come from the solitary nature of our unique position within the community. We also know what it means to be invisible, unrecognized for the work that we do,” noted Phoebe Griswold, wife of then-U.S. presiding bishop Frank Griswold, in an address to spouses in 1998. “We know, time after time, what it means to be taken out of a familiar life and then forced to create another from scratch. We know what it means to be handed a position that comes with no written job description but nonetheless carries many unspoken expectations… We know the difficulty of making a life with an authority that has been derived from our spouses, but which must eventually earned by us.”

[pullquote]One unnamed spouse of an American bishop said in Paths of Love and Faithfulness, a 1999 compilation of reflections on Lambeth and the Anglican Communion: “Spouses at times experienced frustration. There was a feeling there was no ‘work’ for us. That no one cares what the spouses think about the issues of the day. Granted – we were not elected. However, we do live with these issues daily the same as our spouses do. We suffer the slings and arrows that come with our spouses’ position. We are committed to our faith, our Lord, our spouses. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here, we couldn’t do what we do, whatever that is, from doing the purple laundry to running diocesan organizations.”

Another spouse cited in the book reflected that she didn’t come to Lambeth “to do crafts, however much fun they are. I didn’t come to listen to people tell me how wonderful spouses are in ministry … Yes, I am frustrated, but then I tell myself, let it go, enjoy, let somebody else solve the church’s problems. You’re in England for three week and you’re going to see the Queen.”

Setting aside time to attend the conference is, of course, not always easy since it often means rearranging lives.

Ms. Ferris almost didn’t attend the 1988 conference because of childcare issues. “I wasn’t going to go, but the administrative assistant said, of course you have to go. I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know anybody that cares enough about me that would take my six kids for three weeks,” she recalled. In the end, she and her husband transported the children to London, Ont., to be cared for by their godparents. “We were really lucky,” she said.

The Burtons attended the last Lambeth conference with their small children in tow – Caroline, then 3, and Peter, then 1. It meant experiencing the conference “in bits and pieces,” said Ms. Burton. “I had one on my hip and one in the stroller and became very familiar with the playgrounds and parks of Canterbury,” she said. “We lived on a beautiful sheep farm about 20 minutes out and I remember trekking back and forth, navigating the hair-raisingly narrow roads with babies in the back seat.” Peter learned to walk at the conference, “so there were lots of jokes about his Doing the Lambeth Walk (a popular song from the 1930s),” added Bishop Burton.

Ms. Burton said she was able to attend some sessions because the teenage children of Canadian bishops offered to babysit the toddlers.

Bruce Moxley, spouse of Bishop Sue Moxley, diocesan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island is not planning to attend this year’s conference – his wife’s first – because it means using three of his four weeks’ vacation “to be away at something where we wouldn’t be spending much time together,” said Bishop Moxley. “The only time we get to spend together in big blocks is when we’re on vacation.”

Observers say that getting there is only half the challenge. “There were days when it was tense because of the issues that the bishops might have been discussing,” observed Ms. Samways Hiltz. “Of course, you see many things that you like and many things you don’t like. But you just sort of understand that people come from different cultures and hopefully, they will have the same kind of consideration toward you and where you come from.”

On some occasions, discussions mirrored the deep divisions among bishops on issues such as sexuality, world debt, interpreting Scripture and Christian-Muslim relations.

But there were lighter moments too. “There were times when cultural differences were funny and poignant and all the participants enjoyed the differences,” noted a spouse in Paths of Love and Faithfulness. “There were times we shared lovely, sweet, private exchanges with our culturally different new friends.”

And yes, there were outings that ranged from visiting a winemaking community to tea in London with the Queen (along with 2,000 others) at the gardens of Buckingham Palace, lunch at Lambeth Palace, and a trip on the River Thames. (A similar trip to London is on this year’s agenda.)

Ms. Samways Hiltz has urged other spouses not to think twice about going. “Do it. Don’t be afraid to do it. Find a way to do it. These are experiences that only come once in a lifetime.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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