Glenn Close In The Wife: Thoughts On Being Clergy And Having A Wife

As is so often the case, the real drama is in the silences. In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan – a woman who had been a promising potential novelist but whose career became subsumed when she married her teacher Joe. Early in the film we come to the two of them, now relatively aged, awaking to a phone call with the news that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature. As the news is broken to Joe – with Joan listening in on another phone – the camera shifts to Joan. She barely moves – but her face speaks volumes, hinting at layers and depths of varied emotions that imply a kind of darkness that can’t be named, but longs to be. It’s an astonishing piece of silent acting from Glenn Close, which is echoed throughout the film by similar moments. She is attentive to Joe’s every need (both as they travel to the Nobel Ceremony, and in flashback to the early days of their relationship); but something is trying to emerge, but also stay hidden. Christian Slater plays Joe’s would-be biographer, who thinks he can see there’s a secret to come out; and we uncover it with him.

To say more would be to spoil the film; it’s often comic, but really it’s a drama about ambition and frustration, about marriage and the challenges facing the wife of a lauded man. The film’s present day is 1992; it would be tempting to say that things have changed, but I’m sure many of us can understand that in much of life they haven’t.

beautiful blur bouquet bridal

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

At least, it often seems, they haven’t changed in the church – which is where I have worked for all my married life (save the first two years of our marriage, which was spent at seminary). When I was training for ministry (in the late 90’s/early 00’s), women had been welcomed to priestly ministry in the Church Of England for some years – though it’s only relatively recently that the glass ceiling to women becoming Bishops has been broken. Nevertheless, at the seminary I attended (chosen as much for geographical location as any theological conviction of mine), the support group for the spouses of students was very much a wives’ group. I can’t now remember the official name of the group; but there were a grand total of 0 female students training there for ordained ministry; many (though not all) of the staff and students at this conservative college did not agree with the ordination of women, and often said so – loudly and publicly. So it’s little surprise no women trained alongside me. My loss; though I suspect not theirs.

Never mind, though. Other parts of the Anglican church were better. Right? The network I was most committed to at that time contained few, if any, high-profile female church leaders. Platform speaking engagements were largely for male church leaders; women from para-church groups; or were wives of male leaders of (large) churches. These large churches were spoken of as being led by ‘X and Y Surname’ (husband and wife) where the husband was the ordained leader. The wife would often be on the large paid staff team; though sometimes not. She would sometimes be still be spoken of as leading the church with her husband, despite not being paid by the church, not having a formal input in the decision-making and only being involved in church life, like any other member of the church would be. Now it is fair to say that in this network things have got much better in these regards; I’m sure some would say there is still a way to go – but it seems much that is good has happened.

It’s true, however, that the role of clergy wife and clergy husband remain very different. My wife has been invited to chair Women’s Fellowships, sing in the choir (until someone overheard her singing), do the flower arranging. She’s not done most of it; whilst she was unable to work for Visa-reasons when we came to Cape Town, she did volunteer much time to the church; but things have long since changed. The same expectations or offers are rarely made of clergy husbands. Married women who are clergy speak often of a church’s inability to see that she must be ‘a wife, a mother and a clergywoman’; a similar expectation of a married clergyman does not exist.

The problem seems to be that inherited models of church leadership and gender roles within church and family have not kept up with a changing society. There’s also another, subtler pressure. In many churches – especially larger, suburban ones – excellence is a spoken or unspoken value. Professionals who are members of these churches work in businesses where excellence is prized; so churches have to imitate that. That’s expressed in many ways; but not least in the role of women. Either a clergy wife must be fully involved in ministry – paid, or not – to ensure it all happens; or she must sacrifice much of her time and career in order for her husband to meet church expectations. One theory goes that excellence in anything requires around 10,000 hours of committed practice; for that to be a reality someone must take care of the rest of life for the one who aims to excel. That’s almost always a woman, like Glenn Close appears to be in The Wife; doing everything behind the scenes whilst her husband is lauded across the world thanks to his 10,000 hours of labour. It never seems to be mentioned that by definition, as the man achieves his greatness thanks to the 10,000 hours given to his craft, the woman has invested the same amount of time in un-lauded areas. Behind every great man … the expression goes (the tag line of the movie is a clever play on this, especially in light of the film’s ending).

It’s patriarchy writ into the fabric of family and career, of course. The church is slowly learning to let go of it, but whilst it slowly learns the ministry of women in church, business (or wherever) suffers and stagnates as the woman’s call is seen to be to follow and enable the husband’s call. Doesn’t Ephesians say a woman should submit to her husband?

Well, it does – but that was written 2,000 years ago; and it seems to ignore that at the start of that section of Ephesians the invitation to all of us, of whatever gender, is to ‘submit to one another’. So this assumes a husband also submits to his wife in some way; in fact, so submissive is he that he is expected to be willing to do for her what Christ did for the church (to die). More of that passage is about the responsibilities of the husband to sacrifice (and to submit) and of Christ’s love for the church than is ever said of the wife’s responsibility to submit – which in any case is never defined; presumably the better to be re-interpreted within each time and place. But the Bible has usually, over 2,000 years, been written, translated, taught by and written about by men – so it’s no surprise, really, that these attitudes and interpretations continue as the norm in many places.

As a married male church leader I speak to people like me. Are we willing to submit to the calling of our wives? Are we willing to say ‘no’ to posts, opportunities or potential avenues of church life in order for our wives to fulfil their calling – as we have so often expected them to sacrifice to us. I’m not talking here about motherhood and the ‘traditional’ housewife – though not to dismiss and denigrate that if that’s what both feel is best for their marriage. For most of my ordained life, my wife has had paid employment too. She has a calling too (of course she does; every disciple does). We also need a second salary – especially now with children. So my wife follows her calling and gifts in the world; social enterprise, academic research, photography  – and other things; one of those other things is motherhood, but it’s by no means the only one. So, as sometimes she has had to say no to opportunities to enable my ministry, so I must also, equally, say no to some things in order to enable her ministry. If I were looking to move to a large, busy church (which I’m not), maybe I would have to rethink my plans because of my wife’s career and calling. Maybe a church shouldn’t be busy (or maybe even large? that’s to discuss another time, I think)? Too often I, and men like me, can be entitled in our expectation of our wives to sacrifice, to give up, to say no, for our sake. Of course, we say and think to ourselves that it’s ‘for the Gospel’; failing to notice that our wife’s calling is as much ‘for the Gospel’ (whatever that means) as mine – maybe even more so if she’s not spending all day in the church office.

This needs saying to us: male, married church leaders must say no (sometimes to the church, sometimes to ourselves), that our wives may yes to God’s invitation to them. If something we say no to must still be done, then God is big enough to cope with our no; and if the church complains … well experience seems to suggest that if the no is repeated often enough and for long enough, the point is taken.

God can cope without us; God can also cope without our wives. He can cope without all of us; but too often we have just assumed He can cope without our wives, or can only cope with them within very specific parameters. To misquote The West Wing, let’s let God be God; let’s be strong enough to say no, that our wives may say yes.

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9 (or more) things I’m going to do, and would like others to do too

The tipping point is a helpful idea, but in this case I can’t point to one. I’m sure being a (foster) dad to a young girl for a few months has been part of the picture; I’m not aware of a news item pushing me to this point, but there may be one or two sub-consciously in the mix.

This has been a long time coming. My wife and I play to very few traditional gender roles or characteristic stereotypes and archetypes. I have become increasingly aware of rape culture, male privilege and patriarchy; and on a few occasions I’ve deliberately acted to fight against them. I’ve realised, uncomfortably, that as a white British male in the early-21st Century, I’m one of the most privileged people in humanity’s history. I’m also aware that not one iota of this privilege is earned or deserved.

So I’ve taken a decision to do what I can to walk away from it. If you’re a man, I invite you to walk away from it also. Because if girls and women suffer or are held back, then I suffer and am held back. That’s what it means to be a fellow human, also made in the image of God, also part of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a truly isolated human – especially one who follows Jesus. I’m doing this because I’m a man, a husband, a father, a friend, brother, son, citizen, Christian, minister, blogger, sports-fan, culture-consumer. Many other things, too.

I’m not seeking to start a movement or get publicity. I don’t have a hashtag for this, a website to promote, a t-shirt to sell you or a book deal to anticipate (of course, I can’t promise that none of those things will happen – but I’m not looking for them). I’m doing this because I should, and I want to. I need to, and so do you. I’m doing this in a public forum so that I know I’ve done it and I can’t get out of it. As well as inviting you to join in, I’m inviting you to hold me to this (lovingly), especially if you’re a woman. Do it sneeringly, nastily, self-righteously, or in an attempt to show me that it’s doomed and useless, then I’ll try to ignore you. Do it to help me do it better, then I’ll listen to you and I’ll try to act.

So here’s what I’m going to try and do. There aren’t ten of them because that would just be too comfortable, and it would suggest completion. If you have other suggestions, then please make them.

1. Take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.

2. Raise my foster daughter to insist that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

3. Raise my foster son to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, and to                 teach him that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

4.  Act on the basis that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

5.  Critique and challenge men when I become aware of them acting out of rape culture,            patriarchy and privilege.

6.  Without evading my responsibilities or God’s call, I will step away from an                                 assignment when I know of a woman who could do as good or better a job than me.

7.  Consciously empty myself of privilege when I become aware that I am                                         acting out of it; and to examine myself for signs of acting out of rape culture,                             patriarchy and privilege.

8.  Allow others to point out to me when I may be unaware that I am acting out of                         rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.

9.  Work towards breaking patterns of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege in                               church ministry.

 

“Everybody knows … “: Men, women and the deep dangers of universally accepted truth

Everybody knows that men are obsessed with sex. Our predominant temptation is lust. The danger of being sucked into a dangerously coercive relationship with pornography lies around every corner or click. I must train my eyes and constantly monitor the film on repeat play in my head. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Sex is used to sell to men and to women (because what’s being sold will make them more sexually capable or desirable or both); men think about sex every seven seconds. Pull that last often-quoted statistic out in the company of any group containing men (or women, for that matter) and someone will inevitably reply … ‘What about the other six seconds?‘ Laughter, knowing nods and smiles. Men and women alike now Understand Something about themselves and each other.

It’s true.

Only it isn’t. It’s utter nonsense. It’s a fabricated myth spun around a kernel of half-truth with the status of near-divine revelation.

It’s a myth-as-fact proclaimed implicitly from magazine covers and advertisements, from preachers and counsellors. I’ve heard sermons based around it; I’ve experienced marriage preparation use it as a foundation for the evening spent discussing intimacy; I’ve been told – repeatedly –  it’s how I function; I’ve heard it said that my wife must understand this if we’re to have a fulfilling and intimate marriage.

I do not think about sex every seven seconds. I don’t even think about sex every week. I’ve never really had a problem with lust; I am not an especially visually stimulated man. What more often stimulates me are kindnesses, time spent, words uttered. I love my wife deeply and truly and am attracted to her and desire her. That waxes and wanes as it does in all relationships, but after 14 years of marriage I know that our intimacy is far deeper and truer than simply what we do with each other’s bodies.

Sometimes I think about sex but can’t act on it because I experience chronic arthritic pain. More often I experience chronic arthritic pain so I won’t even contemplate sex or pretty much any sort of movement. Sometimes I just don’t think about sex because I’ve got plenty of other really interesting things to think about like work or a conversation with my wife or a movie or the dog to walk or the house move or the emails I need to send or the food I’m cooking or just about any of the other fascinating, thrilling, disturbing, inconvenient things which make up my life.

What am I to think, then? Am I not a proper man? Am I lying to myself? Am I pretending I will never sin sexually? Am I a deviant?

No.

Imagine my relief at stumbling across something resembling actual proof that I am approaching normal. I like busting myths; I like discovering something assumed to be true isn’t. It brings a special kind of freedom. Experience plus the article you can read if you click here leads me to a confident conclusion that there’s little to back up this particular ‘fact’. As the article states, the Kinsey Institute’s research suggests that around 43% of men think about sex a few times a month. That’s a lot of men not thinking about sex a lot of the time.

Not quite every seven seconds, is it?

Now this report and article isn’t definitive; and to be clear I’m not ever suggesting I won’t fall into sexual sin, because I’m human and I may. I’m not suggesting I won’t ever find lust a problem, because I may find myself there. I’m not suggesting that every man who says he does have a problem of this nature is lying, because he may well do so. However my experience, my private conversations and what I’ve read suggest a deeper truth.

The truth is this. We have bought a lie, sold ourselves into captivity. We are liberated prisoners running back to prison. We do it as individuals, as preachers, as churches, as citizens, as partners. We do it as consumers and protestors. We do it in relation to sex, work, emotions, thoughts and almost anything we can relate consciously or sub-consciously to our identity as a man or a woman.

The truth is that we will accept definitions of what it means to be men or women so that we can fit in, not stand out, get help and be accepted into the group. We will do so to the extent of agreeing that we have a problem with something even if we don’t. I know because I’ve done that; I’ve nodded sagely at the preacher saying ‘All of us men here tonight have struggles with lust’. I’ve asked people to pray about it with me, totally convinced myself of having a problem that needs to be addressed.

I’ve done it, and other men have told me they’ve done similar. It makes you feel accepted by the church, you’re proclaimed as honest and down-to-earth and ‘real’. Because that’s what real men are like.

Best-selling Christian and non-Christian books alike proclaim this and so many more ‘facts’ about men and women as to leave you buffeted into submission. Men are this way, so this is how your church should be; men want to rescue and women want to be rescued (there’s even a course you can do). Men’s weekends away are full of outdoor activities and outdoor food, women’s with crafts and women’s food (yes, really). The often italicised caveat is that not all men or women are alike; it’s so brief you miss it in a blink and forget you even read it because actually saying that won’t sell, won’t get applause or laughs or money in the bank.

Men and women are different. Of course they are. Try to generalise that, apply it broadly and you end up with all manner of problems. What matters to me is not what all women are like; it’s what the woman I share my life with is like. What matters to me is not what all men enjoy, but what will bring life and hope to me or to the man I’m trying to understand. What matters is the person in the moment with me.

The wisdom of the lives of other men or women will help me. It will not define the other, though. It may shed some light, it may grant a glimpse of insight; but each unique creation is as spectacularly, gloriously different as the other. Men and women were not made to fit a shape; we were made to explore a creation, to bear the image of the eternal, to be saved by One bleeding and dying and rising to give us abundant lives, who said we could do greater things than He.

We will have problems and brokenness, fear and failure; we will sink into sin and messes of our own making. They are ours, though. They are unique to me and you; I may gain help or comfort or encouragement from a shared struggle. Or I may not.

However I do not walk alone. Which is enough.

Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.  (Hebrews 4:14-16, The Message)

Enough

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (The Bible)

There must be more to life than stereotypes. (Blur)

The great John Stott, one of the grandfather figures of Western evangelicalism, a man you couldn’t be in the same room as without being struck by his humility and graciousness, titled his brilliant book on the Sermon on the Mount ‘Christian Counter-Culture’. Those three words speak volumes about Stott’s prophetic vision for the church. One where church and Christians are so devoted to Christ’s call to a radical self-redefinition and compassion that a vision is painted of how life can be that’s compelling and luminous. It implies a way of living as Christians which calls us to something subversive, something liberating, something hard but offering eternal rewards. Stott was a man of conviction with whom you could disagree – which of course meant he was far more likely to win you over in the end.

This Christian faith to which Stott devoted his life takes as undergirding and forming it a book and as its object of worship a God who is so beyond us that He makes Himself accessible to us by living amongst us as a human being. It’s a journey of faith replete with revelation and mystery, with liberation to be who we are called to by our creator to be and of radical self-giving to neighbour and enemy. It’s what God’s done first for us, and it’s what He calls us to model towards others in His power.

It’s a majestic vision of life. It’s one I can’t live up to, but I love trying to because doing so sets me free. It’s tempting as one who’s been called by God through the church to exercise leadership within the church to simplify the call. At times, of course, it’s right to do so. Sometimes pretence and pomposity needs to be stripped away and unvarnished simplicity must shine through. God can do anything and often does; we are saved; Jesus is the Way. God forbid self-aggrandisement obscures the King of Kings from view, even if it is through a glass darkly. With that, there’s a temptation to strip mystery away and make it all easy. Do this and more people will be healed. Do this and you’ll have more Sunday School volunteers. Do this and you’ll have a better prayer life. Deep down we all know it can’t work the same way in every case, but it’s no less tempting to portray it as such.

Still, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of much of this over-simplification, of what should be a vision of counter-culture instead being a pale imitation of the sea we swim in. That takes many forms; for me, today, it’s about being reduced to archetypes and stereotypes.

There’s a few foundational truths about humanity in Scripture; the first is that we bear the stamp of the creator. His signature is written on our souls and bodies: on mine, on my wife’s and  on every last single snowflake unique human being ever to grace creation. It’s a signature that at times seems smudged and illegible; that’s my fault and our fault, not the artist’s. Why, then, do such vocal parts of what should be the Christian counter-culture persist in such a shrivelled vision of our mutual gendered image-bearing? Why do we shrink the culturally specific and historically located complex individuals like David, Moses, Sarah and Delilah into examples of what men and women should be thousands of years later? Biblical people are just that – people trying to figure out how to follow God in a specific place and time. They don’t show us that a man has to be a warrior or a woman must wait for a man to win her.

I’ve had enough of Christian books and talks and articles about men and women taking their templates from fairy tales and movies, then reading those back into scripture, shrinking God’s image-bearers into versions of pop-quiz pseudo-wisdom that belong more properly on the back of a cereal packet. I’ve had enough of marriage being reduced to who obeys whom, when Scripture frames it as mutual submission and leaves us to figure out the rest in the awkward ambiguity of squaring eternal words with two people living together in a time and a place. I’ve had enough of women being told they are all waiting to be rescued and men being convinced they are the ones who have to do the rescuing. I had enough of the unbearable pressure that puts on anyone who feels that somehow they don’t quite fit. I’ve had enough of lazy analogies about roses and thorns, of stereotypes about being passive or active, of big name preachers going on and on about sex and intimacy, about his role, her role. I’ve had enough of single women being told they are being prepared for something that may never come, so missing out on God’s rich and deep calling to them. I’ve had enough of men’s groups that always seem to revolve around curry or outdoors activities, alienating fifty per cent of men.

I’ve had enough of a reductionism in Christ’s name which bears no relation to the expansive new creation I read of God bringing about in the pages of Scripture. I’ve had enough of God’s mutual image bearers being reduced to seven quick tips for a peaceful marriage. I, you, we are graced by the image of God; we also obscure it. We’re preciously, dangerously unique. We’re called to express that and also hold back from expressing it in mutual submission to those with whom we live. We’re called to read the God-inspired words of Scripture with brains and hearts and bodies – all of which are alive now, so of course it will need some interpreting.

Yes, it’s hard being called to be part of bringing to birth a new creation which we only see fleetingly.

Who said that which is hard isn’t worthwhile, though? It’s easy to swap the words of eternity for glossy magazine-style quick tips. It’s tempting to trade wisdom for one word answers. Jesus is the Way. That’s a process, a journey, not a cop-out.

Enough, then. I’m trading in answers for wisdom, solutions for ways, archetypes for endless variety.

Enough.