Spouses partners in bishops’ ministries

Published September 2, 2008

Spouses handcrafted leaves which were then added to a vine, symbolizing journey and faith

Canterbury, England
When bishops’ spouses ended their conference, each was given tangible reminders of time spent in the company of others who, like most of them, perform huge – sometimes even heroic – tasks on behalf of the church that are largely unpaid and unrecognized.

Each received a signed copy of Marriage, Mitres and Myself, a book chronicling the experience and reflections of bishops’ spouses about what it’s like being married to a bishop. Authored by Jane Williams, who is married to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the book has been a bestseller, much to the puzzlement of bishops’ wives.

Each also received a bookmark with the photograph of a vine that had been covered with leaves that they had made early in the conference as they sat in groups and told their stories to each other.

Linda Baines, whose husband is Nick Baines, the bishop of Croydon in South London, was asked to conceptualize an art activity for spouses and came up with the idea of the vine and leaves, representing that they are “firmly rooted in Christ.”
Each table of the spouses’ venue had been given a box of recycled materials to use for the leaf – pieces of fabric from around the world, sequins and glitter, metal chips, and buttons among them. Ms. Baines said that she had been “amazed at the difference in what each person had made.” The leaves, she said, also assumed an additional meaning, representing home and journey. Before they said goodbye, the spouses were also asked to eat cherries on their tables and to plant the pits in bowls with soil.

The bowls were given to the spouses of English bishops to tend. This, said Margaret Sentamu, spouse of Archbishop of York John Sentamu, “is a real symbol of enjoying the sweetness of gathering together and being together for these two and a half weeks, but also recognizing the hardness [that] the tough stone represents, the toughness of people’s lives and contexts, but also looking to the death of that seed into resurrection.”

During their conference, which had been structured into story-telling sessions, a theme that often emerged was the sacrifice and work that many bishops’ spouses, in particular women, have had to make to support their husbands in their ministries. (Six husbands attended the conference and said that, unlike women, no expectations are foisted upon them as bishops’ spouses.)

“Some of these spouses, and women in particular, are totally amazing,” said Lynne Samways-Hiltz, who is married to Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. “I’m always floored by what they are and what they’re doing. Personally, I can’t even begin to compare with what some of these women do and feel called to do and must do in many cases.”

“One bishop’s wife told me that when her husband got elected she had to give up her full time job to be with him all the time, to fulfill the expectation from the diocese,” said Monica Coffin, who is married to the bishop of Western Newfoundland, Percy Coffin. ” Of course in our country we can continue working and have our own life really. But she didn’t have that anymore. She had to take on a fulltime role with him.”

Mrs. Sentamu described the work that some spouses and other Anglican women do as “humbling.” In a session called “Equipping God’s church: Empowering ourselves and others for service,” spouses heard Mugisa Isingoma from Boga in the Democratic Republic of Congo talk about how the Mothers’ Union has been helping widows and victims of rape and other forms of violence.

Mathilde Ntahoturi, the wife of the Archbishop of Burundi, Bernard Ntahoturi, has been helping to care for children orphaned by HIV-AIDS and civil unrest. A lawyer by profession, she runs a number of other social care projects with the help of the Mothers’ Union. During their time together, the spouses also talked about the challenges and joys in their dioceses.

Mrs. Sentamu said some of the stories were “really heart-rending,” citing the experience of a bishop who had to walk eight miles to a church because there were no roads, and the bishop from Congo who was arrested for his involvement in peace and reconciliation efforts.

At the conference, spouses were also offered a wide variety of self-select sessions, ranging from workshops such as management training and micro-credit, to discussions on empowerment and other justice issues.

With files from ACNS, Episcopal Life


  • 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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