ANDREW BROWN lowers his six-foot two, 13- stone frame on to the sofa and tries to describe how he plans to play the role of vicar's husband.

'If someone was on the verge of suicide,' says the 24-year-old, slowly, 'I would hope Verity would be around . . . I really don't know . . .' Verity, his wife, also 24, smiles encouragingly from across the room. She finishes at Ripon theological college, Oxfordshire, in June and is working towards a parish of her own, so has a keen interest in what her husband has to say on this subject. Andrew continues.

'But if I was expected to go round and pick up parish ladies to go to church,' he says, 'or if there was some group meeting and they said '. . . and of course you would be in it, Andrew,' then I don't like presumptions being put upon me.'

Feel the change? Sense the caution? No wonder. Until the recent Synod vote permitting the ordination of women everyone knew what a vicar's spouse was supposed to be: motherly, genteel, helpful, busy in the parish, bossy in the Mothers' Union, supportive of her husband's ministry, above all, a woman. Andrew Brown, on the other hand, plays rugby and is a site engineer for Costain. Yet if things go according to plan, within three years he should be taking messages in the vicarage whenever the priest is out.

'I think it will cause tensions,' Verity admits. And she may be right.

The truth is, of course, that the role of vicar's wife has been changing for years, despite the stereotyped image. Church officials point out that many are professionals now, with their own careers. True, older-style arrangements persist in more rural areas, and the cosy reputation clings on more widely as the epitome of traditional family values, but it was probably only a matter of time before that, too, faded.

What Andrew Brown and others like him represent, therefore, is not so much an instrument of radical change as the final twist in a tale of gradual decay. The question is whether this will make it any easier for men like him when the vicarage doorbell starts tolling out daily demands on whoever happens to be in at the time. Taken from the other end, the signs are uneasy.

In the village of Kellington, North Yorkshire, the Rev Barbara Lydon has been deacon in charge since 1987, running the parish while bringing in a male vicar to carry out certain functions (saying the prayer of consecration, for instance).

She says of her 74-year-old husband, Tom, and his contribution to parish life: 'He transports people to church on Sundays, or if someone wanted to go to hospital or the doctor's he would take them there if it was necessary. Nobody ever asks him to bake a cake, but the parochial church council meets here and it's easier for me to start the meeting and get Tom to do the tea-making. What he does for me - and not necessarily for the parish - is that he helps with housework and answers the phone, which is what wives would do.'

Tom says: 'When I say 'No, I can't help you,' people do accept that as final.'

So there are demands, but within limits. The question for Andrew Brown, who lives with Verity in Cuddesdon, just down the road from the theological college, is exactly where will those limits be drawn?

It is not the effort he seems to mind, just the idea of being pushed around. 'I don't mind being told by my boss at work what to do because he is my boss.' Which sounds an unnecessary thing to say, until you go into the couple's backgrounds.

Verity is a vicar's daughter. Her mother is her father's deacon. Andrew recalls only too well what it was like dating Verity as a teenager.

'One of the things that annoyed me was that whenever I went round there in the car there was always someone who needed a lift, or parish magazines to be delivered: things I was asked to do that you couldn't say no to. It was like that with the whole family, not just with me.

'It was strange, coming from a background where that kind of thing didn't happen - involvement with so many things and people. But once I got used to the fact that this was how they lived, it became easier.'

Verity says: 'Yes, you were a bit grudging, weren't you?' Then she adds, cheerfully: 'He just went off into sulks.'

Oh boy.

She and Andrew insist that the potential problems facing him are the same as those which any woman might have. He may even find things easier than a woman. 'I think it will be easier for male spouses,' says Verity. 'People don't know what to expect of husbands, so you are freer to direct what you do. Men are quite lucky that way.'

But is this really true? Andrew is a committed Christian who shares Verity's enthusiasm for equality in the Church; yet he so clearly sees his role as supporting her in the parish, not the parish itself, that perhaps his borders will be drawn rather more sharply than those of some parishoners. After all, a parish full of entirely reasonable people is statistically unlikely. He will help. He will do good deeds as any neighbour might. But . . . 'It would be nice to be able to work out when something was asked of me whether it was urgent or could wait five minutes until Verity came,' he says.

'You don't want to be used, do you?' asks Verity.

'No,' he replies. 'Exactly.'

So, two questions: are these masculine borders being marked out? And are women quite so territorial? Andrew says flatly: 'It's a human thing.' But maybe history tells another tale.

Verity says she doesn't want her husband to get bogged down in parish life anyway, and will need the breath of fresh air that he will provide.

But what would happen, I ask again, if someone came to the door with personal problems while Verity was out? Andrew begins: 'Well if someone came to the door in hysterics, I suppose . . .'

His voice trails into silence. Verity says: 'You wouldn't turn them away would you?'

They look at each other and burst into gales of laughter. There may well be a bit more defensive giggling in the vicarage until issues like this have been faced and settled. But maybe that won't be such a bad thing, anyway.

(Photograph omitted)