The Spousal Incantations

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The rapid proliferation of blogs written by clergy spouses has caused a great deal of alarm among the faithful, for, if they are to be taken at face value, they reveal the clergy of the Episcopal Church to be impudent, childish, and unforgiving. It is our suspicion however, a suspicion based on many examinations of the authors of these blogs, that the reality of the scenes reported is often opposite of that implied; indeed, words said by Clergy are often put into the mouths of the Spouses and vice versa, this being done, more often than not, under the guise of writing satire.]

“I am more than irritated,” said the Rector of St. John’s to his attentive spouse.

The said spouse knew immediately that something would have to be done.

Roman priests, lacking spouses, are wont to stay in states of agitation. Occasionally, if lucky, a Roman priest will engage a housekeeper who has wit and wisdom to set him on the straight path when he “goes off the rails,” but this is not the commonplace, and more often than not Catholic housekeepers patter silently through the rectory equating not only cleanliness to godliness, but silence to safety. In an Anglican or Episcopal household, a married priest may rely on the subtle persuasion of the one who has heard him snoring through the night these many years. While his parishioners may see him as a representative of the heavenly court and lavish fond admiration upon him, the spouse, having seen him in his wrinkled and tortured pajamas at dawn after a night of fitful kicking, otherwise known as “wrestling with the angel,” apprehends him as something else altogether, and that something else is a man: unruly, petulant, and in need of subtle interrogation, interrogation that is often not accomplished with words but with glances. Marriages are, of course, built on love, trust, faithfulness, and charity; they are also, as any successful spouse of a clergyman will agree, built on incredulity. While the common perception of the need of clergymen to wed is that a spouse provides companionship and, for want of any better word, consortium, the truth is that most clergymen lack common sense and need, on an almost daily basis, fine tuning in the art of Shepherding the Sheep, Consoling Sinners, and Examination of Conscience.

So, appropriately, the Rector’s spouse looked admiringly at the Rector and said nothing.

“I think it likely that you will also be enraged.”

Affecting a gaze that implied admiration and devotion, the spouse said, again, nothing.

The document in question was an invitation to a retreat for Diocesan Clergy and it was addressed by a Very Reverend to his Colleagues. 

“You see,” said the Rector, “‘to my Colleagues!'”

The spouse shifted the spousal gaze from one of fascination to one of poignant curiosity.

“In it, we are told that this year spouses are being invited to the retreat!”

The Rector’s spouse knew that all would be made clear if the Rector were allowed to hold forth for just a bit longer.

“Well, don’t you see? You are to be invited by me–not by the Very Rev., the Deans, and the Bishop. You are expected to follow me to Traverse City and walk a respectful five paces behind me like an adoring 18th Century Japanese bride.”

“Oh, I doubt that is true. I’m sure there will be cups to wash,” said the spouse with a tilt of the head that employed not sarcasm but  a playful engagement with the indignation of the Rector.

“If that weren’t bad enough,” the Rector continued, “The retreat is to be led by a Roman Catholic Sister of the Order of Preachers.”

There it was. Since these were modern times, the Rector’s spouse inferred, not only was the retreat to include “partners” as well as spouses, but to be conducted with ecumenical insouciance as well.

The spouse looked at his husband and  asked, quietly, “And?”

“Well, it’s outrageous! The first invitation to gay spouses and “partners,” which is not in any way a direct invitation, is for us to come and be instructed on how to have an integrated and wholesome family  by a representative of a church that defines our very natures as being ‘ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.’ Not only are we to be instructed by a representative of a church that spends untold sums and unlimited manpower on denying us our basic civil rights, but one who couldn’t possibly know anything about the business of waking up every morning to the groaning and bad breath of a member of either sex!” Now he was sputtering. He was undoubtedly still not over the sting of recently being referred to as “a practicing homosexual” by the local Roman priest in a debate at the University about Equal Marriage. The Rector had managed, against all odds, not to respond by calling the priest “a nonpracticing heterosexual,” but that brief moment of piety had not brought any relief to his simmering sense of having been insulted.

“I have stated my objections in an email to the Very Rev.” He proffered the draft of the outraged electronic epistle. It was brief and to the point and ended with the righteous declaration that he would not be attending.

In every clergy marriage there comes a time when clergy learn to submit to their spouses the volatile emails they are about to lob. How many personal computers have been damaged by the fury of the finger slamming the button that effects the sending of explosive emails can only be guessed, and so for the sake of preserving the home’s computers and routers, anything that slows the process down to the “gentleness” that Paul exhorts us to acquire helps to maintain the serenity of the household economy and possibly the tenure of the priest.

“I see,” said the spouse. “Are you absolutely determined not to go?”

“Absolutely. Do you think I am wrong?”

“No, I would never think such a thing. I wonder though…”

The spouse let silence speak what might be injudicious to say in a volatile moment.

“You wonder if I should go and make my objections known there?”

“That depends…” said the spouse, allowing the voice to fade into silence.

“Depends on what?”

“Well, whether or not there is any other business to address at this conference.”

“The Episcopal Church and the Diocese have never offered support to clergy spouses! It enrages me.”

What support did he mean? Did spouses need the church to convince them that they were victims of ecclesiastical contrivance? That they were isolated parish by parish, cut off from communication with each other except at occasional events, swift and furious confirmations for example, where the spouses might exchange recipes while putting away the silver.

“Given the chance to gather under any circumstances we might find the opportunity to recite the Spousal Incantations. That would be something.”

It was important in these transactions for the spouse to say something completely incomprehensible to his or her beloved. The idea is to get the priest or deacon off balance for a moment just in the way a child in a tantrum can occasionally be rescued by a parent looking out the window and saying, “Oh, look! An African Nimbob jumping in the sandbox!”

This is not to say that the Spousal Incantations are not real. There may well be no such thing as an African Nimbob, but there is a general sighing and gnashing of teeth that all clergy spouses master after a mere two years of their beloved’s parochial attachment, and in that sighing and gnashing the Spousal Incantations are discernible to one who has discernment, though this is never the clergy.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: One diocesan clergyman’s wife, convinced that the Incantations could be found in the 1928 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, had been so distressed by being unable to find them that she had suffered a breakdown and had to be sent for a time to the Dominican Republic to do missionary work, which work consisted of moving trash piles from the back streets of the town she visited into large trash receptacles that awaited a never appearing removal. Seeing the futility of her work, the wife sighed and said Some Very Bad Words, and was healed, for the Spousal Incantations, though she had not found them, had found her.]

Little is known about the Spousal Incantations except that if they are repeated to anyone not married to a clergy person shock and awe ensue and something always “has to be done.” Spouses do not repeat them to each other, not by way of instruction, inculcation, or indoctrination. As it has come to be understood by the Listening Committee that the Anglican Communion assembled at Lambeth so many years ago, the Incantations are transmitted in “sighs too deep for words.” The Listening Committee, loath to disband, simply scheduled no further sessions of listening.

“You mean you’ll snicker behind our backs,” said the Rector.

“I very much imagine that we will.”

“What will you snicker about?”

“Well, that is a secret. Mostly we just want to keep you on your guard, to imply that we know something you don’t.”

“And do you know something that we don’t?”

“Many, many things.”

“Name one.”

“Well, for instance, that there is no way you will ever resolve the complaints about the music.”

“But we’ve resolved that! We’re going to have a Contemporary Service at 11:30 after the Traditional Choral Eucharist at 9:30.”

“I can’t imagine how you can continue being a Rector without having read both Dante and Machiavelli,” said the spouse.

“Are they the source of the Incantations?”

“Well, yes and no. They definitely define the parameters of the Incantations. An understanding of Italian City State Wars at the time of Dante and of The Prince’s best application of mental agility is very helpful to the proper recitation of the Incantations and sorting out church music, but they are in no way necessary. Do you really believe that two services will stop the parochial battle over hymns and praise music? Certainly sooner or later the bass amplifiers of the praise band will blow a fuse that governs the electricity to the organ bellows. And then there will be the battles over who gets what singers.”

And here the spouse sighed a sigh too deep for words and smiled sweetly.

Yes, it was true. It was frustrating to be invited to a clergy conference without being invited by the conveners. It was frustrating to be invited to hear a Roman Catholic who represented a church that participated in what, to the victims, appeared to be hate.

“But is it any more frustrating than having a parishioner tell you, after you have published your recipe for Coconut Divines in the parish cookbook, “Board of Life,” that you must have stolen the recipe from her grandmother?”

The Rector laughed.

“Yes, it is more frustrating. It’s damn frustrating.”

And they smiled at each other.

“What do the Spousal Incantations mean? What do they say?” asked the Rector.

“Have you also not read The Cloud of Unknowing?'”

“No. I always mean to, but I never do.”

“Well, you shouldn’t worry about it. Theology makes bad priests.”

“I’m not sure theology is good for anyone.”

“Exactly. That’s why we have the Spousal Incantations.”

The crisis had been averted. But the Rector would spend several days wondering if there really were things the spouses said privately to each other, if the clergy were being judged and found wanting, and if, if exist they did, the Spousal Incantations took their power from principalities, dominions and thrones. No matter, the house was peaceful.

A few days later, the spouse said, “Look here. The Very Rev. has listed himself as being available to perform same sex weddings in case our state suddenly has them mandated by the Federal Appeals Court.” He pointed to an “Equality in Our State” website that listed possible times, clergy, and locations of  County Clerks willing to offer marriage licenses should the law require them to do so.

“Is that because you recited the Incantations when Andrew’s wife stopped by last week?” Andrew was the Rector at another St. John’s 20 miles down the road. All the parishes in the Diocese were named St. John’s.

“Absolutely, dear one. But even so, I am inclined to give the Very Rev., the Deans, the Bishop, and the poor Sister, OP, a break, aren’t you?”

“Well, I suppose so. If you promise to behave in Traverse City and follow me at a respectful five paces.”

“I wouldn’t think of doing otherwise.”


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