ALISON describes Rob, her ex-husband, as persuasive. He must be. For almost 16 years he persuaded her that she could not object to sharing him sexually with other women. 'He knew all the answers,' she says. 'My ideas of love were 'possessive' and 'narrow'. His questioning meant development while I had just stagnated.' Rob was not a rock star, nor even a Tory MP, but a priest.

They met at university and married when they were both 23. Rob's religious calling was central to their life together, but quite early on Alison realised that she was not the only beneficiary of his divine aptitude for love. He persuaded her - 'it was excruciating but at the time he was very convincing' - that forsaking all others meant making sure that he fathered children by nobody but his wife. For him to bare more than his soul to selected parishioners was actually part of a glorious vision. He seems to have explored his theme at length.

'His sermons would seem to be getting directly at me,' Alison says. 'He'd go on about his broader capacity for love, although it turned out to be mostly in the direction of the young, female members of the congregation.' Alison and Rob used to lead marriage preparation classes together and took their own good advice. They talked and made time for each other, and Rob seemed to have perfected the knack of clean escape from other relationships until he met, as she says, 'somebody who wanted him'.

Alison met the other woman and her husband with Rob to talk over Rob's need for 'sustenance'. No blows were exchanged. The woman decided to leave her husband, and moved into the rectory with Rob, Alison and their children. 'Looking back,' says Alison, 'I was a complete and utter idiot.'

However Rob interpreted his marriage vows for himself, the Church's line is clear. An adulterous priest must resign. His licence might be restored later - more often it is partially restored, with 'endorsements' - and that happened to Rob. He has a job elsewhere as a chaplain now, and a new wife.

Alison knew that a clergy wife's place is predominantly in the home; she discovered fast that an ex-wife's is in the wrong. 'I was such an embarrassment that the wife of the rural dean told all the clergy wives I had moved away. It was not true. I was isolated for ages because no one believed that he could do wrong. The reaction was always the same, 'But he's a priest]' It was that trust in the clergy that gave him the leeway.'

Although Alison ejected the other woman in a blast of temper, their attempts at a joint menage had dragged on for months. Now she and Rob live several counties apart.

FROM next Thursday, Joanna Trollope's novel The Rector's Wife will be serialised on Channel Four. Trollope's heroine, Anna, is an overworked (though beautiful) drudge, whose life is selflessly dedicated to cake-making and delivering parish magazines - until rescued from her fate by an affair with one of three admirers.

The realities of life for a clergyman's wife are likely to be somewhat different. Obscure she may be - even the Church Commissioners have no records of how many of their 10,247 full- time male clergy are married. And poor (the average stipend is pounds 12,830). And selfless - the 'youth club' wife is very much still a recognised type: she runs parish groups; her freezer is full of fund-raising cakes; she effaces her own career in support of her husband's work; she is always in church, lipsticked and courteous. But there, as some wives are only too aware, the similarities with Anna end. If any clerical hanky-panky is in the offing, the truth is that the object of attention is less likely to be the rector's wife than the rector.

Broken Rites is an an inter-

denominational group which was formed in 1983 by ex-clergy wives. Pam Dawson, its secretary, had been married 28 years when her parson husband fell in love and resigned: 'She was a member of the congregation. A friend. This is very often the case.' The bulk of clergy marriage break-ups come after 20-27 years of marriage; that is (as Pam says) among a generation of women for whom the notion of self-sacrifice is not necessarily risible, and who are unlikely to have jobs or qualifications of their own. Pam found her own drop in status hard: 'It is a middle-class sort of set-up. Graduates and so on. If the husbands had been in any other walk of life, the wife would have been entitled to her share in the home and in his pension.'

Broken Rites can help an ex-wife deal with financial and other agencies. Her most pressing need is usually a home: as soon as a vicar resigns, his tied housing is threatened.

Among Broken Rites members - there are over 230 - adultery by husbands is by far the most common reason for marriage failure, which seems to be increasing. In the first six months of 1993 the number of clergy wives rehoused was the same as for the whole of 1992. Pam Dawson is used to being approached for help by about one wife each week, but since Christmas she has heard from over 20. The Church of England keeps no central statistics. 'It's too painful for them,' Pam says. 'While the church is putting over ideals, it's hard to admit it's happening so much in their own group.'

So how common is it? The Rev Tom Leary is planning to publish his own figures early next year and hopes to jolt the church into action. He is a

51-year-old Anglican priest, married for 25 years and a marital therapist for 23. He counsels clergy 'couples in pain' through the Westminster Pastoral Foundation (WPF) Clergy Marriage Consultation Service.

'Most couples stay together after they've seen us,' he says, crediting the fact not to his own conciliatory genius but to the couples' intense commitment to marriage itself. 'Clergy marriage breakdown is probably nothing like as frequent as the national average of about one in three,' he says, 'but it is definitely on the increase.'

Mr Leary cites loss of faith, depression and sexual insecurities (these are often people who married their first date) as critical areas, but agrees with Broken Rites that a third party is by far the greatest cause of strain. 'There might not necessarily be an affair,' he says, 'but often a third party is strongly present. The congregation will throw up these people.' It might be a girl in the youth club, intrigued by what is worn under the cassock, or it might be the ever-present parish helper who drives the wife to distraction.

'Wherever you get sexuality and sacredness and fertility, things get steamy,' he says. 'Ordination seems to attract a disproportionate number of effeminate men and masculine women, people who may be using the Church as a safe haven for working out their own sexuality. Or they may be people who have been excessively dominated by one parent or bullied at school.' There is a showbiz element, too, and all clerics struggle with its flipside, vanity.

Tom Leary has noticed above all that the Church attracts many people who are anxious about very strong erotic urges. They seek the safety of a formal structure. But at the end of the day they are only human.

Theological colleges are well aware that clergy try to be snow white, but some drift. Students are warned about counselling attractive parishioners behind drawn curtains. They may snigger, but the risks are well documented. The Rev Jeffrey Heskins (happily married to Georgiana, who will become a priest herself in May) says: 'You don't really appreciate the dangers until it happens. It is an ongoing hazard for both of us.'

Pastoral counselling differs from the commercial sort. It costs nothing and it is not anonymous - the vicar is available at home and on the telephone. Physical contact, sobbing on shoulders and so on, may be hard to avoid with people whose emotional needs are extreme. Seasoned vicars say that a pastoral visit should last precisely as long as it takes to make a cup of tea and drink it.

Jill Hall, the Bishop of Woolwich's wife, runs a support group for clergy wives in her diocese and says the wives know all too well what they are up against. They fell for that combination of compassion and leadership themselves. They may recall the impact of being singled out for attention by the great man. Their greatest fear is of predatory parish women: 'We've had people in tears over that one,' she says briskly.

A clergy marriage is very public. The wife is expected to be a perfect Christian with perfect children, home and temper at all times. Meanwhile, the man who has all the time in the world for needy strangers is as capable as anyone else of storming out of his study demanding hush or sulking in the kitchen.

'Who looks after the knight in shining armour?' says Jill Hall, 'Who looks after the little child inside that?' No one, she hopes, but the embattled wife.

I asked one attractive South London vicar if he knew any predatory women. 'Oh yes,' he said. 'Jailbait can be a big problem. Sometimes they run in families. I just give them the two fingers.'

What? 'Bless you, my child,' he murmurs and, with his index and middle fingers close together, makes the sign of the cross.

Some names have been changed. 'The Rector's Wife' begins on Channel 4 on Thursday, 10pm.

(Photographs omitted)