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Keeping them grounded in reality of Incarnation

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Diego

When Episcopal Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, suffragan, or elected auxiliary, in Washington, was consecrated in 1992, a friend sent her husband David “Dixie” Dixon a pair of purple socks. Dixon, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, accepted the gift in good humor. After all, he’s been married to a priest since 1982 when his wife was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.

Although husbands of bishops were in the minority at a recent meeting here of the Episcopal Church of the USA House of Bishops, the role of the bishop’s spouse in the Episcopal tradition may provide a window into the future if the Vatican ever decides to reverse its ruling that married priests and women priests are verboten.

Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, made a deliberate effort to include the episcopal spouses in the six-day meeting Sept. 16-22. “They keep us grounded in the reality of the Incarnation,” he said during a closing news conference at the end of the conference. “Left to our own devices, theology can get thin and angular. Our friendships with other couples, even those with whom I may have differences, have been an enormous resource for the whole community.”

Mary Williams, married to Bishop Huntington Williams for 50 years, chaired the planning committee for the 135 spouses who accompanied the bishops to San Diego. “Bishop Griswold made it clear,” she said, “that our perspective was invaluable in the discussions” -- discussions that revolved around three principal issues: racism, world debt and homosexuality.

Williams, like many of the bishops’ spouses, has a career. She is an independent consultant in organizational development. One of her current clients is a large suburban Catholic parish on the East Coast.

She and Bishop Williams have four children and 10 grandchildren, and she remembers the early years when she sat in the pew with the kids while her husband presided at the Sunday liturgy. Once her husband was consecrated a bishop 11 years ago, a new set of challenges presented itself to the couple, challenges that demanded hard choices and a determination not to allow the church to consume the marriage and the family.

“There’s a tremendous loss of community when the episcopal appointment comes,” Williams recalled. “We travel extensively, often together now, but every Sunday it’s a different church. We’ve all had to learn how to build community within the community of bishops and their spouses, and with longtime friends, and how to manage the shifting boundaries between independence and togetherness.”

For Gretchen Kimsey, wife of Bishop Rustin Kimsey of eastern Oregon, her job as a Catholic school pre-kindergarten teacher has helped nurture her own sense of being a person, not a role. “We still get introduced as ‘the lovely wives’ on occasion, but we’ve learned to be gracious about it,” she said.

“Our diocese is huge, and it was an unfamiliar jurisdiction for us, so that was a lonely, difficult time,” she said. Today, she jokes about being the driver as the couple travels to the far-flung parishes of the eastern Oregon diocese. “I am another set of ears for my husband in his ministry,” she said. “Sometimes people will say things to me they might not say to the bishop. Bishops receive a lot of glory. I think we help them stay grounded in the midst of all that.”

“The bishop is the pastor of the priests, too,” she added. “I know that personnel problems, behavior problems of priests, weigh heavily on Rustin and that he can’t share that with me, but I’m aware of the toll it can take on him.”

Lynette Williams, wife of Bishop Arthur Williams Jr., suffragan of the diocese of Ohio, said, “I think they see Arthur as a whole person,” when asked about the impact of a spouse on the ministry of a bishop. “He doesn’t seem as scary to others when people can see us as a couple. I see my role in keeping the boundaries -- when to say, ‘Whoa, way too much has gone out.’ ”

Williams was teaching at a Catholic high school when her husband was named a bishop a year after their marriage in 1985. “I knew that something was going to have to give, and it was my job.” She keeps her hand in teaching, however, by tutoring.

“It’s up to us to say ‘time out,’ ” Barbara Payne, the soft-spoken wife of Bishop Claude Payne of the Houston/Galveston diocese, said. Married for 44 years, she and her husband now spend more time together than ever. “The children are grown. We cared for our aging parents before they died. We travel to two churches each weekend, and I can’t sing in the choir anymore, but it’s been a very rich experience I wouldn’t trade,” she said.

Aida Alard, wife of Bishop Leo Alard of the Houston/Austin diocese, said she believes the ministry has brought them closer as a couple and closer to the people. “Our daughter has a learning disability, and I couldn’t believe the response we got when we shared that with people. We learned so many others were struggling with it. It was very liberating.”

Alard said she believes her husband is a better bishop because of her. “It’s a lonely job,” Bishop Alard said as the bishops and spouses prepared to board tour buses following a Sunday picnic in the park across from the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul. “Aida is my companion, my sojourner,” he said. “She makes my ministry more meaningful and brings me back to reality.”

“There’s no doubt they live a very defined existence,” the Rev. Jane Sigloh, newly appointed chaplain to the spouses, said. “When your spouse adds bishop to his or her name, it’s an entirely new turn in the road for them as ministers of Christ. I remind them that they don’t vow to give up fun, that they have to find a way to be public figures and private persons at the same time.”

Sigloh, now retired as rector of a church in Charlottesville, Va., helps the spouses develop what she termed a covenant spirituality -- bringing together the covenants of baptism, marriage and ordination. “I help them to see the episcopacy as an opportunity -- not a duty -- to express the love of God made manifest in all those vows. You’re given a text and you work within that word.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999