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Gathering shows bishops' spouses they are not alone.

"SOME OF YOU may think of the spouses' conference as basically Jam and Jerusalem, more tea vicar or mitre-making and flower-arranging. There will certainly be food and singing in our program, but there will also be a chance to meet some of the most interesting, committed and dynamic people of the Anglican Communion."

WITH THIS STATEMENT, Jane Williams, wife of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, set the tone for the upcoming spouses' conference, which will run parallel to the Lambeth Conference of bishops, a gathering every 10 years of the world's Anglican bishops. They will meet this year from July 16 to Aug. 3.

Like the last spouses' conference in 1998, which London's Independent newspaper noted as having had a "distinctly feminist flavour," this year's gathering promises to be equally ground breaking.

Yes, spouses will reflect on the familiar question, "Who is the bishop's spouse? How to be effective in that role."

Not 'women's issues'

But in a world fraught with challenges and conflict (including divisions over sexuality that are preoccupying much of the Anglican Communion), they will also look at such topics as "Charged to be God's peacemakers: situations of conflict," and "Stewards of God's earth: the environment."

The conference is aimed at helping spouses "learn from each other and to resource ourselves to be God's people for God's missions," said Ms. Williams, chair of the planning group. "We plan to look at some of the huge issues that face us all, and that diminish God's people and make it harder for others to hear God's good news," said Ms. Williams at the launch of the conference last Jan. 21. Bishops will join spouses in discussing some issues "because these are not 'women's issues,'" she added. "The whole people of God need to be challenged."

More than 600 spouses attended the 1998 conference, which for the first time included five husbands (the Communion's first female bishops were consecrated in 1989 and 1990). While this year's numbers are still uncertain--some bishops are boycotting or contemplating staying away because of the row over sexuality--those who plan to attend say its importance cannot be understated.


Jan Ferris, who is married to the bishop of Algoma, Ronald Ferris, called the two conferences that she attended "a privilege." The morning Bible studies were a highlight, she recalled. "I thought it was going to be an awfully long time with people who were so different, including myself, but it was wonderful."

No job description

Lynne Samways Hiltz attended the conference in 1998 for the first time with her husband, Fred Hiltz, who was then diocesan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (and now primate of the Anglican Church of Canada). "You learn what it's like to be in other parts of the Communion," she said.

The conference allows spouses to be together, said Ms. Samways Hiltz. "Three weeks is a long time to be away from each other when we're away from each other for a long time to begin with."

Equipping the spouses for mission and looking after their wellbeing is important, the planning group has stated, because they make "independent contributions (that) are real resources upon which the church relies."

Anna Burton, who attended her first conference in 1998 with her husband, Bishop Anthony Burton of Saskatchewan noted that, "the almost overwhelming sense of community was a real high point ... So often we think of ourselves as toiling away alone, but to see in a tangible way that we are not alone and we are all working to the same end was very moving."

One sentiment that resonated at the 1998 conference was that spouses' contributions are not always recognized, much less appreciated.

"We know the feelings of isolation and loneliness that come from the solitary nature of our unique position within the community. We also know what it means to be invisible, unrecognized for the work that we do," noted Phoebe Griswold, wife of then-U.S. presiding bishop Frank Griswold, in an address to spouses in 1998. "We know what it means to be handed a position that comes with no written job description but nonetheless carries many unspoken expectations."

Setting aside time to attend the conference often means rearranging lives. Ms. Ferris almost didn't attend the 1988 conference because of childcare issues. In the end, she and her husband transported the children to London, Ont., to be cared for by their godparents. "We were really lucky," she said.

Lighter moments

The Burtons attended the last Lambeth conference with their small children in tow--Caroline, then 3, and Peter, then 1. It meant experiencing the conference "in bits and pieces," said Ms. Burton. "I had one on my hip and one in the stroller and became very familiar with the playgrounds and parks of Canterbury," she said. Peter learned to walk at the conference, "so there were lots of jokes about his Doing the Lambeth Walk (a popular song from the 1930s)," added Bishop Burton. Ms. Burton said she was able to attend some sessions because the teenage children of Canadian bishops offered to babysit the toddlers.

Bruce Moxley, spouse of Bishop Sue Moxley, diocesan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island is not planning to attend this year's conference--his wife's first--because it means using three of his four weeks' vacation "to be away at something where we wouldn't be spending much time together," said Bishop Moxley.

Observers say that getting there is only half the challenge. "There were days when it was tense because of the issues that the bishops might have been discussing," observed Ms. Samways Hiltz. On some occasions, discussions mirrored the deep divisions among bishops on various issues.

But there were lighter moments too, when participants enjoyed their differences and forged new friendships.

And yes, there were outings that ranged from visiting a winery to tea in London with the Queen (along with 2,000 others) at the gardens of Buckingham Palace, lunch at Lambeth Palace, and a trip on the River Thames. (A similar trip to London is on this year's agenda.)

Ms. Samways Hiltz has urged other spouses not to think twice about going. "Do it. Don't be afraid to do it. Find a way to do it. These are experiences that only come once in a lifetime."

In the first in a series that will examine the upcoming Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Journal looks at the parallel spouses" gathering that will take place alongside the once-every-10-years meeting of the bishops of the Anglican Communion.

For more Lambeth coverage please see lambeth2008

For a longer version of this story, please visit Lambeth2008


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Author:Sison, Marites N.
Publication:Anglican Journal
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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