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The experiment and adventure of being a bishop’s spouse

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Diego

When Frank Griswold was named Episcopal bishop of Chicago in 1985, there was no job description for his wife, Phoebe, only unarticulated assumptions. After 14 years as the wife of a bishop and 32 years of marriage, she has learned to articulate what she terms the experience, the experiment and the adventure of “living the theology” of a bishop’s spouse.

An early childhood educator when she married, she quit her job when she came home from work one day and found her husband’s dripping wet socks hanging from the shower rack where he had placed them to dry. After moving from an affluent suburban parish to a small rural congregation, she gave birth to two daughters and became involved in the life of the parish -- teaching church school and becoming active in community environmental projects.

Later they would move to a larger, more urban congregation where she began to delve more deeply into her own developing spirituality and identity as a woman of faith, guided by a spiritual director.

When her husband was called to be bishop of Chicago in 1985, they moved again, and she learned, after worrying that she might have nothing to say, that she did indeed have a story to tell. “I described my own experience, my experiments in finding meaning and purpose in my life, and told where I felt most alive and how best to make a difference.”

Her interest in hunger and environmental issues led her to take a position as director of Heifer Project International in Chicago, a non-profit ecumenical development organization that supplies livestock and training to people around the world, particularly in Third World countries. She traveled widely in Central and South America, observing not only the needs of the poor, but also the lives of the women there.

Spurred by communication technology that enables bishops’ spouses around the world to communicate frequently and cheaply as well as the acceptance of women’s experience as a source of revelation, Griswold launched a worldwide conversation about the role of the bishop’s spouse in a paper she presented last year at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops.

The role of bishop’s spouse is ground for theological reflection, she believes, because it presents particular conflicts, decisions and knowledge that help to maintain relationships.

“Both the discovery and the following of God is built on maintaining relationships. It is in human connection that the surprising joy of God is known.”

Today she sees the role of bishop’s spouse as an adventure, involving courage, risk-taking and the ability to listen for the “inner authority” discovered in prayer that enables her to act and to articulate the nature of God learned from the experience, the experiment and the adventure of being a bishop’s spouse:

God is strength when we are tired and must get on the way yet another time;

God is courage when we are asked to speak and have no confidence in what we might say;

God is companionship when we stand alone in a crowd;

God is a caring voice in a dream nudging us to discover and use our own gifts;

God is truth leading us to name the destructive demons in our lives and church;

God is all life, flourishing and flowering in our homes, our communities and our world;

most of all, God is the ever-present and ever-illusive lover who brings us profound joy and gratitude at each turn in the adventure.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999