Marriages made in heaven?

They want more sex and they aren't role models. Meet the bishops' spouses
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The Independent Culture
They mend aeroplanes, they need sex more than once a week and five are men. Welcome to the bishops' spouses. The stereotype of a frumpy, dependable creature, complete with bun, brooch and bonnet, whose moment of glory is cutting the tape at the church fete, has been blown apart by this year's spouses' conference. Their programme has had a distinctly feminist flavour.

The Archbishop of Canterbury may like to think of them as "the natural priests of the home" around whom the family "swivels", as he told them, but most have a very different perception of themselves. Dr Carey did concede that they could also make great evangelists, but neither did that really account for the fact that some have full-time careers of their own, often earning more than their purple partners. Thankfully, Dr Carey's wife, Eileen, who put together the inspired parallel programme, did not feel restricted to domestic science.

Three years ago, she sent out questionnaires to the 600 spouses - or "spices", as they have been dubbed - who were coming to the conference. Their replies made clear that she was dealing with women who wanted to stand on their own two feet. Clearly, the only pinny many of these women would consider wearing would be the one designed by the organisation Women and the Church. The customised pink aprons bear the slogan "A woman's place is in the house - of bishops". The line has been so popular it has sold out.

Indeed, the wives turned out to be a more liberal-minded bunch than their husbands. There was a huge number of people wanting roles in the end-of- conference play based on The Happy Prince - a short story written by Oscar Wilde, whose sexuality might have given the conference cause for concern. "We all latch on to one thing and forget that he was a complex man who wrote deeply," said Jo Cundy, married to the Bishop of Peterborough, as she hared across Kent University campus, late for rehearsal.

Of course, no spouses' programme (as it was renamed this year so as not to exclude the five husbands present) would be complete without its trademark "mend a mitre" and "make a kneeler" workshop, but needlework was not, in the main, the order of the day. The spouses were far more eager to find out what to do "if the role doesn't fit".

"The veteran juggler" workshop looked at the "challenges and frustrations that a full-time career brings to the role of being a bishop's spouse"; and "Women in the structures: our light is no longer under a bushel" speaks for itself. It was, they said, "empowering". A talk by Susan Howatch, cherished author of the "the Starbridge sextet", the ecclesiastical bonkbuster series, was a sell-out. Her description of the inner thoughts of one of her "harassed heroines" - a priest's wife called Rosalind - seemed to strike a chord. "Rosalind was thinking to herself: 'He's always out there being wonderful to someone else,' " said Ms Howatch. "She provides sex on the weekends. He's too tired for it in the week. Being wonderful is a very tiring occupation." This sketch was met with roars of sex-starved approval.

But the bishops' spouses must be grateful for small mercies - such as the Lambeth Conference. Bennita Hough, wife of the Bishop of Papua New Guinea, looked up from writing her postcards home. "This is actually our honeymoon," she said. "We've been married 12 years but this is the only time we've ever been on our own for any length of time."

In many ways it has been a holiday for the bishops' spouses. There have been outings galore: day trips to the beach (where some of the women paddled in the sea for the first time), boats down the Thames and historical tours for those with a thirst for Ye Olde England.

One of the more unusual requests for workshops came from Marion MacCall, wife of the Bishop of Willochra in South Australia. She spent a day doing light aircraft maintenance at Kent's Headcorn Aerodrome. Mrs MacCall's story was enough to raise the spirits of any downbeat bishop's wife. Six years ago she woke up to the fact that she rarely saw her husband. With a diocese stretching over an area six times the size of England, he was driving 40,000 miles a year. So what did Mrs MacCall do? She set up a fund entitled Wings Over Willochra, overcame a lifelong fear of flying and set about acquiring her pilot's licence.

When she's lost, she likes to sing hymns. "On one occasion," she told the spouses, "after singing my repertoire several times, including 'Abide With Me' and 'Nearer My God To Thee', a voice came over the radio: 'Don't you know any other hymns?' I'd left my microphone on.'

But whatever happens, her husband must watch out. In the air, it is wife who has the controls. "The only domestics we have are when we are in the air," said Mrs MacCall. "We quite often fly across a large lake. One time we were going away for four days. I looked back and realised my bag was not there. My husband had forgotten to put it in. I nearly pressed the ejector button and dropped him in the drink."

A theme running throughout the conference was summed up in the title of one of the presentations by Isobel Hardy, wife of Bob Hardy, the Bishop of Lincoln: "The role and how to survive it." As a GP, she has resisted the role of bishop's wife. "The less adequate the person, the more they identify with the role," she told the spouses. "They feel exposed and lost when they cannot follow one of thee social automatic behaviour patterns. Their lives become more and more limited by "playing the role", like the clergy who are never ever seen without a dog collar; one wonders if they wear it in bed."

Nevertheless, she had every sympathy with her fellow "spices". "Our position as spouse often makes us feel frustrated, ignored, criticised and powerless," she said, drawing on a vocabulary from cognitive psychology. She addressed the "psychological baggage" each of them brings to the role. "We may resent the popularity of the bishop and be unable to reflect and rejoice in it. We may envy him. If we feel our work is a vocation and we have to give it up because of the 'role', it is almost inevitable that we will have to struggle with resentment.

"As a spouse one must often be seen and not heard. One of the most difficult parts of being a bishop's wife is to have ideas and yet not be able to disclose them to anyone other than your husband for fear of rocking the boat."

Among the five male spices who arrived on the scene this year, Dr Philip Roskam, husband of Catherine Roskam, the Suffragan Bishop of New York, won the prize for being the keenest. Sauntering around campus with his red tote bag (blue for bishops, red for spouses), he was always happy to stop for a chat. But then, as it turned out, chatting is his business. As a psychotherapist with a practice on Park Avenue, he offers Freud while his wife offers God.

Since Bishop Roskam took office, Dr Roskam's life has inevitably changed - and probably in precisely the way most wives dread. "As a result of being a bishop's spouse I learned to cook," he said. "I went on a course and discovered I had a talent for it. Rack of lamb is my best dish - and soft shell crab with deep-fried parsley. When I'm stuck, I look things up in The Joy of Cooking."

The only activity that Dr Roskam couldn't find time for during the three- week conference was the daily keep-fit classes. Perhaps he didn't want to cramp the women's style. In which case, there's always next time. In 2008 you may not be able to move for men.