Grandmother and girl

Reflecting on Things
That Only Grand-Mothers Know

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Ms Josephine Griffiths

For many years I have been aware that my generation, today’s elderly grand-mothers, are an historical curiosity, a kind of bridge generation such as had never been seen before. Our childhood was spent under a firmly patriarchal regime then, when we had barely reached adulthood, everything changed. We found ourselves with one foot in our predictable, familiar everyday world while the other was tentatively trying to find a place to land in a foreign and often disturbing world.

This is my tribute to a dying breed, a generation of women of sixty odd years ago whose contribution to the world has never been applauded neither has their pain, striving and sacrifice been acknowledged. They are the women who by their ordinary effortful lives facilitated the momentous shifts in human consciousness that allows the young women of today, their grand-children, to enjoy the freedom of choice about their lifestyles and their careers which the young could not imagine being without.

The way these women coped was truly heroic. They suffered the sudden erasure of what they thought were indelible rules for life, along with the demolition of all their certainties. They maintained their commitment to motherhood, to doing the best by their husbands and children. This dedication and its significance for the generations that followed deserves to be valued and celebrated.

And there is one small, specific section of women of that generation who have a particular kind of story to tell.


Being both a grand-mother and a clergy wife, and as my generation is steadily decreasing as age takes over and dementia or death makes memories fragile or eliminates them for ever, I thought it might be a good idea for social/ecclesiastical history to make a few notes about clergy wives in the olden days!

The weird thing is the olden days aren’t all that ‘olden’! Only 50 years ago, as the rector’s wife one didn’t, publicly use the term ‘unpaid curate’ but for most of us it was a fair statement, except that, for many, it left out an important aspect of the case. This was the fact that if one were devout one was honoured to be doing the Lord’s work in this capacity, so the role was vocational even though it had no public or official recognition as such.

Slings and arrows over the years tended to erode the glory of the first fine careless rapture. The stringency of living and bringing up a family on a meagre stipend; being beholden always, needing to prove oneself grateful for any kindnesses or handouts and bearing the brunt of any complaints, these were everyday realities of rectory life. One’s inadequacies were underlined by well-meaning ladies of the parish who dropped in with scones, chocolate cake or such-like; “I know how you don’t bother to bake, dear, and the Rector does so enjoy my cakes”; or an evening meal “which I know is the dear Rector’s favourite and you don’t like to cook it for him”. Any older clergy wife who took it on before the feminist movement began to change perceptions and expectations would have stories to tell of the shames, disappointments and unkindnesses of parish life.

Senior women, wives of elevated clergy, who had worked their way through, or accepted the limitations, could be quite strict and dogmatic about how the ‘novices’ should behave. For example, being chastised by an Archdeacon’s wife for buying new material to make children’s clothes when one should dress them adequately from the op-shop; or again, meeting very strong disapproval for painting a room in the old rectory to brighten it up a bit. These are small examples but a constant barrage of such abuse was very wearing.

Again, before the women’s movement took hold, the unpaid curate expectation meant it was frowned upon to the point of prohibition for a clergy wife to go out to work. She was perpetually a dependent, never, unless she had private means, a truly independent woman. The psychological implications of always being dependent went unaccounted while she lived a life of perpetual indebtedness, being undeserving, necessarily grateful and, worst of all, carrying the guilt for feeling resentful and for longing for more of life’s comforts. The underlying belief of how one should be is decidedly evoked in a famous prayer from St Ignatius Loyola:

Teach me Good Lord
To serve thee as thou deservest
To give and not to count the cost
To fight and not to heed the wounds
To toil and not to seek for rest
To labour and not to ask any reward
Save that of knowing
That I do thy will

If that is what you ‘know’ God expects of you, and your faith community, and maybe even the general public are in accord with that view it would be hard not to carry some guilt for feeling thoroughly fed up with life from time to time!

The playwright Alan Bennett captured the situation remarkably well in his “Love among the lentils”, a creative monologue of a downtrodden clergy wife. It pictured an extreme case, for sure; few women took to alcohol and most were too exhausted and felt too dowdy to engage in extra-marital pursuits but the sense of overwhelm, of being defeated by circumstances one didn’t know how to change, with this many women would identify. Not clergy wives exclusively, certainly, but for those women there was the extra burden not only that of the unreal expectations laid on by the church but the inner sense that this was the will of God.

This is the pattern of ‘clergy-wifery’ to which my generation are the last witnesses. Never again will clergy wives be what they have been expected to be since the clergy gave up celibacy. Now there are ‘clergy-husbands’ whose roles, I am sure must be very different, possibly not connected to the parish at all. The women I am thinking of didn’t enjoy an option in that area; not to have been seen in church would have caused a stir and maybe even questions asked at vestry!

All this feels such a long time ago but I believe there is immense value to be gained by observing, listening to and recording what is in the process of becoming extinct. However sincerely we applaud that extinction we lose a great deal that is significant to present understanding if we neglect to register what is passing. We are at a crucial point in the long, the very long story of human evolution; but of course, we are not at the end, the road goes ever onward. But there is kind of terminus, the road has taken a sharp turn; we can’t go back and we can no longer actually see how things were. Only the grand-mothers know.

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