Justice for clergy wives, myth or reality?

The text below has been formulated and submitted by the author to the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, for discussion at the 13 October 2010 public debate on: “RAINBOW NATION:  MYTH OR REALITY?”

Slave Lodge : Proposed question for public debate held by the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre 13 Oct 2010   

Has the liberal notion of a Rainbow Nation clouded the path to gender reconciliation?

In the last month Desmond Tutu has been quoted in the press with the following comment, which serves as an appropriate opening thought for the need for the church to heal itself and speak the truth on internal gender justice issues: 

“Can we commit ourselves to virtue before its political triumph when such commitment may lead to ostracism from our political allies and even our closest partners and friends?”  Desmond Tutu 2010.  

I wish to pose my question on the injustice meted to clergy wives constructively, and that is difficult to do.  It must be posed in the context of the narrowness of a view of the Rainbow Nation which confines itself to western liberal humanist gender commitments.  The Rainbow Nation will always be a myth as long as there is a group of people without a voice.  Gender reconciliation becomes a reality only when the truth can be spoken.

It is clear that the mainline church has rejected the African customary notion that women are owed a duty of protection from men who are not their husband.  The church has played a pivotal role in South Africa’s new dispensation and it is fitting that the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre should raise gender issues of infrastructural injustice that breed in the church.   This may appear a narrow issue, but it is not.  The impact of the church’s understanding of how wives should be treated is very far-reaching and filters down through numerous church leaderships, influencing the entire nation.

Religious leaders regard themselves as being mediators for God and this is a powerful assumption.  As with all vested power there is inevitably the potential for abuse of those without power in such a context.  Women married to religious leaders are in a position of acute vulnerability when a clergyman begins behaving badly.  They are conditioned to believe it is wrong to publically criticize their husbands, as it will undermine the witness of the religious community.  This makes their suffering invisible. 

The existence of this problem is swept under the carpet by clergymen in much the same manner as the paedophilia issue.   The Christian liberal humanist platform has lobbied extensively for gay rights and the rights of female clergy, but has failed to lobby for the rights of women at risk due to their marriage to a religious leader.  This results in the disempowerment of the person who knows the religious leader best, namely his wife, and dangerously encourages the will to power amongst clergymen who are in a position of considerable moral influence.  As a rule mainline churches offer no representation in their national bodies for clergy wives as a class, and scant protection for their personal financial security or privacy.

Those wives who are in trouble generally suffer in silence and their problems are kept hidden from the eyes of congregants.  Nevertheless no clergy couple who has ministered for over a decade will be unaware that there are regular divorces due to infidelity, dishonesty or sexual aberration on the part of clergymen.  In Africa many clergy wives function as unpaid employees of the church, taking on numerous onerous obligations.  Despite this most mainline church pension schemes completely cut the rights of a divorcing clergy wife, irrespective of the grounds for divorce. 

 The mainline church as an institution generally pays the pension benefits that accrued during a clergy wife’s years of married service, to a subsequent spouse who is widowed, even if the second marriage was of short duration and began as an adulterous relationship.  The message is clear that the church gives rights to clergymen, and any benefits which may accrue to a clergy wife are charity, which the church is under no legal obligation to offer.  Religious leaders are subject to the principles of ubuntu and their character is created for good or ill by the institutions and people they serve.  Infrastructures such as these result in a national moral hazard.

Church divorces are frequent and behind closed doors they always become part of the church leadership discussion agenda.  South Africa abounds with unregistered African customary marriages where the only protection wives have is the sense of moral duty their husband might feel.  In this context male church leaders are influenced by the church’s approach to treatment of wives.   Men used to see it as their duty to provide a safety net for women within the family, either under the lobola system or due to a personal set of values.  Today liberal humanism sees feminism as the way forward, teaching that women must be empowered to empower themselves.  However, wives are often completely incapable of protecting themselves and need the help of infrastructure which must, in reality, be entrenched on their behalf by men of integrity.

The failure of the religious community in its treatment of clergy wives is in direct contradiction of a functional African customary understanding of the need for men to protect women.   The malignance of this aberrant religious influence can now easily be seen.  Male family members seldom step forward to protect wives in those unregistered customary marriages in which a husband is not fulfilling his duties to his wife.  The church promotes western civil marriages, while at the same time failing to entrench the protections that respect for a functional African customary system would support. 

It crosses my mind that now that Desmond is retiring from public life it might be time for Leah Tutu to take up such a cause.  I believe from those who know her personally that she is a very gracious lady and, no doubt, has a wealth of experience regarding clergy wives.  In Africa a name is a calling.  First wives in unregistered customary marriages – who find themselves unloved – are in need of a champion.  The church’s understanding of the rights of clergy wives provides fertile ground for airing what the moral stance of the nation should be regarding the protection of women within patriarchal structures.  As unpalatable as it is for those of us who are able to take a feminist stance, women are still the weaker sex.  The rainbow symbol is a reminder that God keeps his promises.  We need to keep faith with those who silently cry out to us to keep our promise to respect, protect and promote the dignity, equality and freedom of married women at risk in religious institutions that claim to have as their brief the reconciliation of the world with God.


11 October 2010