A rector's wife needn't wear it any more

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IT IS ironic that after years of bitter dispute in the Church of England, the first ordination of 33 she- vicars in Bristol Cathedral should coincide with the serialisation on television of Joanna Trollope's The Rector's Wife.

Those who are watching the series have long been accustomed to stereotyped Church of England clergymen whose lifestyle in some parts of the country has altered little since the original Trollope depicted the cathedral city of Barchester with such merciless accuracy. The latter-day Trollope has now completed her ancestor's revelation of clerical family life in a series which cruelly exposes much that might best have been left in the privacy of the parsonage, by turning her attention not to the rector, but to his wife and family.

The great interest of soap operas, of course, is that they enable us to peer into the details of other people's lives, in some cases with a voyeuristic pleasure, as well as satisfying our curiosity. Fortunately, the scripts are obviously fictional, and the events not always entirely convincing. But in The Rector's Wife Joanna Trollope presents us with a crispness of observation, a depth of analysis, and an irony that cuts to the quick - particularly when the viewer is sitting in a rectory.

Although the traditional pattern of parish ministry is breaking down fast under the tide of reform on which the General Synod has embarked since its creation in 1969, there are still 7,000 incumbents, many of whom live in areas such as Joanna Trollope's Loxford. There is much that is good about a traditional country parish, and the fact that much is still recognisably Barchester is ample witness to something that has stood the test of time: the married priest and his family at the heart of a rural community, belonging to the village, sharing the passage of their lives with their neighbours. It is a form of Christianity which is comfortingly normal in the minds of the vast majority of parishioners who are also married and have families.

True, there are some compensations in having an unmarried rector. He can give of his time more freely, and be available at all hours to deal with parish business. But when the parish falls vacant, the description of an ideal candidate to take over usually includes reference to a wife and children, as well as the priest himself.

What has changed significantly in clerical households is that the new generation of rectors' wives go out to work. In the past, it was taken for granted that the rector's wife would simply act as an unpaid assistant to her husband. In many cases the income of the parish enabled the employment of domestic servants, and paid boarding-school fees for the children, allowing the rector's wife to go out on daily rounds, administering hot soup, tea and condescending sympathy to the indigent poor in their hovels. In any event, a woman's place was definitely not the workplace, and even those poor wretches married to perpetual curates on pounds 50 a year were expected to devote their energies to their husband's ministry, in between scouring the better class of jumble sale for clothes that could be adapted for use by the rectory family.

Even today there are some clergy wives who make a virtue of the pittance paid by way of the stipend to their husbands. They organise Clergy Wives' evenings, write Clergy Wives' handbooks, and in some cases think of their husbands' vocation as a shared calling. 'My husband and I are so glad we are ordaining you tomorrow,' said one bishop's wife to an ordinand, on the eve of his priesting in the cathedral.

It has reached such a professional pitch in some circles that both husband and wife are interviewed by the theological college, where she will be provided with training for her side of the job while he is being trained for his.

Being a priest is a very public occupation, and many of the younger clergy are actually rather glad of the modern trend in which their wives are permitted to have a career or employment of their own. It means that the clergy wife is no longer taken for granted as a spare pair of hands to help to run the parish, and therefore just an adjunct to her husband. She can now be a person in her own right, pursuing a career every bit as socially valuable and respected as her husband's. It is true, nevertheless, that her earnings enable the rectory family to survive, and that she is therefore still subsidising the Church of England, albeit with her income rather than with free labour in the parish.

Having a professional for a rector's wife also means, thankfully, that she and the children can be spared the unrealistic expectations that many parishioners still have of their priest's family. One rector's wife I knew in Yorkshire was despised in the parish because she did not entertain frequently at the much-diminished modern rectory, nor did she scrub the church floor, as her predecessor had done. Some may think they have a vocation to do these things, blessed be they] But the wedding service for a priest getting married is the same as anyone else's, and includes no fine print about running the Mother's Union, or polishing the brass.

Hopefully the overall effect of The Rector's Wife will be beneficial, enabling the public out there to see that clergy families are struggling to be normal, like anyone else in the parish - the temporary glare of public fascination with our private lives may be a small price to pay for the recognition that we are like anyone else. Normality is, after all, the reason for having not only a rector in the rectory, but his wife as well.

The author is the Rector of Pitsford with Boughton, Northamptonshire