Queen in her own parish and among the congregation who attend her husband's church, the clergyman's wife is a woman with considerable power. If she be of strong personality, taking a deep interest in the work of the church and the parish, she will soon find many women ready and anxious to help her and to follow her implicitly in all her undertakings. This fact alone makes her life by no means easy, even apart from the difficulty that, in most cases, the income from the living is out of all proportion to the many demands upon the rector's charity.
The rector, or vicar, or curate - whichever he may be - and his wife lead the way in attending Divine service. He arranges the services very much as he likes - many clergymen now believe that too many services cannot be held for the worship of God - and she attends all she possibly can. First with her must come the fact that she belongs to the church as much as her husband. Domestic and social work come second, and she must set the example to the women of the parish in conforming to the services of the church. Unless she be ill, even the coldest January morning must not deter her from being present at the early celebration of Holy Communion. Her husband can never speak sincerely about this sacrament if his wife is not one of the most constant worshippers at the altar.
A clergyman's wife can very often do more for the spiritual welfare of the parish by her regular attendance at church than can her husband by his sermons.
The real life and energy of a parish depend entirely upon the character of the clergyman and his wife. If they are lethargic, the parish quickly becomes so too; if they are earnest and hard-working, the parish will soon follow their lead.
With the clergyman's wife these church duties - the parallel of her husband's - have the prior claim. Connected closely with these are those usually called "parochial duties." It is on the woman that a large share of the arrangement and organisation of the parish work falls. Her husband has always so much to do, visiting the sick, and taking services, that she necessarily feels she must relieve him of it - or the greater part of it. The mothers' meeting, and other work for mothers, though possibly managed by some of the workers in the parish, is under the direct supervision of the rector's wife. Temperance work, girls' Bible classes, needlework guilds, mission work, all must have the support and occasional help of the rector's wife. The decoration of the church at festivals has always been considered entirely the woman's affair.
For important festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, when there is a very great deal of decorating to be done, the clergyman's wife has to be in the church or hall - if there are any preliminary preparations - from early morning till late at night. Most probably, on one day at least, she will invite all the workers to tea at her house, and, perhaps, a few to lunch and dinner.
The question of hospitality is usually a very serious one in a clergyman's household. There are so many occasions when the clergyman's wife feels her energetic workers do deserve a cup of tea, and knows she ought to supply that want. The rectory, she determines, ought to be looked on in the light of a shelter and a refuge by all the parishioners. Just as the church is always open for spiritual help, so she feels must her house always be open for material help. This unselfish determination, of course, entails a great deal of extra work, for she will find that people take advantage of her "open door." Not only is she ready to welcome those she knows, but any strangers who may find their way to her.
It has often been my pleasure, when inspecting the church of some country village, to be welcomed with absolute trust by the clergyman and his wife, and entertained to tea and dinner in the most genial manner. No one appeals to the clergyman's wife in vain, whether it be for information of the history of the church or for hospital tickets. With infinite patience, she sifts* out innumerable stories of poverty and distress. She is anxious to help any in need, but she is just as anxious not to encourage begging and hypocrisy.
The onerous work of collecting funds for church restoration often falls on the clergyman's wife. There are very many villages, and even some towns, in Great Britain where the churches have been allowed to get into a bad state of disrepair. The present generation of clergy have resolved to alter this, and, whenever possible, these beautiful old churches have been restored.
Most villages are very poor, and unless there is some wealthy person living there who will give a large donation, the money for restoration is exceedingly difficult to get. Very often the clergyman every year will devote a part of his none too large stipend for this purpose. I know a village, the birthplace of a famous naval hero, where the church has been almost entirely rebuilt by the efforts of the rector and his wife. When they were given the living, twelve years ago, the church was in ruins. To-day the church stands beautifully restored, and the debt of 15,000 incurred has been quite paid off. The rector naturally had not the time for such extraneous work, but his wife accepted it as only another of her duties. During every summer for many years she took parties of visitors each day over the church for a small sum, and afterwards arranged tea at the rectory. All the money earned in this way went to the restoration fund. This is only a single instance of extra and brave work being almost entirely carried on by the clergyman's wife.
The wife of a clergyman has a high social position. All clergy, with very few exceptions, are college trained, of good family, and, as spiritual advisers to rich and poor alike, they claim a position equal with the most well-to-do and best-born of their parishioners. In London, where each person makes his own circle of friends and acquaintances, the rector's wife has the entry into all classes of society. In the country she is considered one of the most important women in the village. She is the leader of the village society, and it is customary for her to take the most prominent place at all entertainments.
In a cathedral town the clergy and their wives make quite a social circle by themselves. It used to be said, though the defect is fast being remedied, that this circle was the most exclusive of all society circles. The "Close people" stood apart, as if of another world. Now the "Close people" mix freely with their neighbours; this is helping very largely to broaden the outlook of the once "narrow-minded cathedral townspeople." A rector's wife accepts the bishop's wife as her superior, and gives way to her in any little matter of arrangement in her parish, even as her husband does with regard to his bishop.
The last, but by no means the least, of the advantages of being a clerygman's wife is the position which belongs to her children by reason of her husband's profession. A clergyman's daughter or son is always welcomed everywhere. This fact of birth is always of help and benefit to them.