Fuzzy thinking on obeedjunt wives


1950s obedient wife in kitchen watched by smiling husbandAbout this time of year a decade or so ago, I had the pleasant experience of being in Dublin, staying at a small family hotel in St Stephen's Green.

Returning very late one night after the conference dinner, I found an old man — almost certainly the grandfather of the family — presiding at reception. The foyer and lounge areas were silent and empty, so I decided to use this quiet opportunity to send my wife a fax — to let her know I was okay and to check if all was well with her.

So I asked the venerable receptionist if he'd mind if I sent a brief fax to Australia and was surprised when he said no, it was not possible.

'Y'see,' he said, 'we haven't got the facility.'

Politely puzzled, I pointed out that there was a fax machine on the filing cabinet behind him.

'Well, now,' he said amiably, 'I thought that was one of those pho-to-copiers. But in any case, I'm sorry but I can't work them — the pho-to-copier or the fax.' He announced this with smiling conclusiveness. As far as he was concerned this was, sadly and regrettably, the end of our negotiations.

'But I can work the fax,' I said, 'and if you let me have a sheet of paper, I'll just write a quick note to my wife, send it off and you can put the cost on my bill.'

'Well,' he said, extracting a sheet of paper from its pile next to the fax machine, 'it's an amazing world we live in. To think your wife will be hearing from you in the blink of an eye.'

I nodded my agreement as I wrote the note then switched on the fax machine, fed the paper in and keyed in the number. Within seconds, the machine started that whirring, stammering process — advancing the paper in fits and starts — with which, in the early days of faxing, we became excitedly familiar.

The old man stood close by me, watching intently.

'Would she be seein' that right now?' he said, as the paper went through and the machine fell silent. 'Would she be readin' it while we stand here?'

Roughly calculating the time difference, I explained that she'd probably be at work in her study, with a cup of morning coffee to hand, and the fax machine on a side table would start chattering out its message as we spoke.

Judging from his stunned expression, he was about to utter more amazement when the machine began spitting out the transmission report with that same machine-gun rattle.

'Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, she's answerin' you already. She must be an oncommonly obeedjunt woman.'

To this staggering proposition I could only smile enigmatically, thank him for his help and wish him goodnight. But as I made my way up the creaking stairs to my room, I pondered this matter of 'obeedjunce'.

The Reverend Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, has been pondering it too. In the Sydney Diocese's draft new prayer book, it is suggested brides be invited to 'love and submit' to their husbands. It's an invitation not a stipulation, but many who've entered this debate have asked what is the nature of the quid pro quo here?

Well, Jensen argues that 'the biblical teaching is that the promise made voluntarily by the bride to submit to her husband is matched by the even more onerous obligation which the husband must undertake to act towards his wife as Christ has loved the church'.

More onerous perhaps, but more evanescent too, much less graspable, less unmistakable than the promise to obey — as it was — or now, to 'submit'. When the man and woman walk out of the church duly joined in holy matrimony, the bride who has agreed to submit has to start submitting. Her husband, on the other hand, must, in his treatment of his new wife, emulate Christ's love of the Church. Fuzzy?

On being invited to 'love, honour and obey', my wife chose to love and honour. Even way back then, in those comparatively benighted 20th century days, she was right to claim that — quite apart from her own strong and serious objection to having her obedience enshrined in the ceremony — if she'd vowed to obey, the guest congregation would have dissolved into unseemly and gravitas-shattering laughter.

This would have been partly because they all had a lively, personal appreciation of the truth that she was emphatically not 'an oncommonly obeedjunt woman'. But it was also because the social, political, cultural and moral tides of those times were flowing strongly against the idea of women being submissive because they were women — in marriage or anywhere else.

As we settle into the second decade of the 21st century, those tides are set and ineluctable, even if they encounter here and there obstructing reefs and crosscurrents.

Jensen's article, 'Men and women are different, and so should be their marriage vows', was originally pointed out to me by my wife. On the morning after the spirited domestic discussion it engendered, I considered reminding her that she had once been pronounced uncommonly obedient and that, accordingly, I could reasonably request that she bring me breakfast in bed.

I didn't though. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Peter Jensen, marriage



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Existing comments

The best response to Sydney's new marriage vows is an amused disbelief, just like that of Brian Matthews. On Q&A Jensen pleaded several times for open-mindedness and rational debate, on both the marriage and the gay issues - but he sounded as if he had closed his mind to rational debate.
Rodney Wetherell | 14 September 2012

I watched Q&A last Monday - because I saw the promo informing me the Archbishop Jensen would be on the panel. And I was both heartened and dismayed, heartened that Bishop Jensen was able to invite Australians to hear and see beyond the media reports of the proposal for the inclusion of the said 'submit' in Anglican marriage vows, and dismayed, at panel leader (actually you must admit he is more a manipulator) Tony Jones continually cutting off Bishop Jensen in his answers. Bishop Jensen was very open in his remarks and was expressing that willingness to dialogue that Christian leaders are most often disparaged for not extending. In the light of that I would suggest to Brian Matthews that parody may not be the best means of promoting a valid response to what Bishop Jensen is proposing.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 14 September 2012

Thanks for your article, and for the lightness of your touch on a matter that might have some people's blood boiling. I have been thinking about L.P. Hartley's wonderful line, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' Yes, they do, but as you suggest, with your reference to 'obstructing reefs and crosscurrents', although most of us in Australia have moved on, the past is among us and all around us. Yesterday there was a report of two little girls in NSW being subjected to genital mutilation. Also all over the news were reports of violent demonstrations against American embassies, particularly in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, where the Ambassador and three others were killed. The excuse for the violence was a 'blasphemous' film made by someone who may or may not be American. In Pakistan, the blasphemy law still stands with the death penalty for anyone who is deemed to have said anything about Allah or The Prophet that might not be 100% enthusiastic. In Australia, we still have bishops and cardinals protecting pedophile priests. And, thanks to your article, we now know that we still have at least one Anglican bishop contorting his precious intelligence in an attempt to get women to submit to men.
Kate Ahearne | 14 September 2012

This made me smile Brian - thank you! That person I'm married to is a big fan of the 20th century TV series "Rumpole of the Bailey" and took to calling me 'She Who Must Be Obeyed'. I rather like it :)
Pam | 14 September 2012

You are a wise man to refrain from making that request, Brian. Thanks you for taking us to St Stephen's Green and a more rational view of marriage and 'obedience'.
Barry G | 14 September 2012

Thanks Brian, your words are in common with the commonsense thought of the Australian populace in general. In keeping with blogs though, here are two quibbles. When a bride uses ‘love and submit' in this proposed liturgy it is not an invitation, it’s a vow, it’s what she says she will do until death parts her from the fellow opposite. Also, the person pushing for submission is not The Reverend Peter Jensen, he is The Most Reverend Peter Jensen. Being a Sydney Anglican though he has probably dispensed with being addressed as “Your Grace” long ago and, easy-going democratic fair-go fellow that he is, will respond to Mister. Or even, Peter. That’s commonsense.
PHILIP HARVEY | 14 September 2012

Peter Jensen must understand that his comments are, not only outdated, but offensive, to both sexes, in the extreme. He can not be unaware that his pronouncements foster domestic abuse and misogyny, and, as such, should be vigorously challenged and, yes, Fr Mick Mac Andrew, parodied, to ensure that no man should feel entitled to demand submission from his partner for and in life. The very last thing Jensen is is "open-minded" - his
Michelle Goldsmith | 14 September 2012

My mind submits to Brian's way with words, as my wife once did to mine. The discussion in recent years on the nature of marriage has been unproductive, in my view, because those of us engaged in the conversation cannot, or will not, agree on a definition of terms. On top of that some of us believe in the ongoing creative action of a benign deity, while others believe that the female being rising from a single cell is the spearhead of evolution and makes god unnecessary. As a young man I subscribed to the view that monogamous indissoluble marriage was the end product of social evolution which Christianity accepted and raised to the level of a sacrament. Interestingly there were to be exceptions viz the Pauline and Petrine privileges. But having observed what I call the pathology of marriage ie marriage problems, breakdown and divorce, I am not so certain. Christian churches, including the catholic church, may have to take the blinkers off (One blinker being - God's will is that marriage is an indissoluble union)and recognise that given the variety of human personalities not everyone is given the grace of an ideal marriage.
Uncle Pat | 14 September 2012

Fr Mick Mac Andrew: Many people have commented that Bishop Jensen was interrupted rudely many times on that Q&A. Interestingly enough, I have seen a pie chart showing the relative amount of time taken by each panel member. Bishop Jensen spoke for longer than both women on the panel combined: perhaps it was necessary to interrupt him in order to have something approaching a conversation.
Jonathan Shaw | 14 September 2012

Re Pam's comment I too, when in supermarkets, mouth tjr eotfd Dhr Eho Must be Obeyed, but do so silently to avoid a bash on the head.
Alan | 14 September 2012

I'm praying that Peter Jensen comes back as a woman!
Jo dallimore | 14 September 2012

What I find especially interesting in this debate is the analogy with Christ and his church: taken to mean the vicars of Christ ie the Bishops, on the one hand, and the rest of us and mainly the " the laity " on the other. The DEAL is that the people in authority (Bishops/husband) make all the decisions in good faith, conscientiously and scrupulously for the good of the Church/wife, and indeed with the aid of prayer and the holy spirit etc. The other party agrees to live in accord with those decisions, accepting the authority in faith of those put in command by divine intent. However... this essentially feudal arrangement sits very poorly with modern "man" and society, whether religious or not...as Cardinal Martini might say, it is many years beyond its use-by-date. It is no longer acceptable to the vast majority of people who now want discussion, sensitive listening, engagement, involvement, and ultimately some equity in the power over what they hold important in their lives. This gap in thinking is a huge problem for conservative clerics whether in the Catholic or reformed churches, but ultimately there will be only one outcome. The only question is what institutional destruction will have occurred and how much blood is on the floor, before cultural and intellectual reform happens.
Eugene | 14 September 2012

Actually Eugene, I’m not sure that Peter Jensen is really thinking about bishops much at all. Yours might be a lay Catholic’s perception of what is going on this debate, however Jensen’s theology, like his ecclesiology, is about a million miles from anything called Catholic, in any sense of the word. The husband is Christ in this happy domestic arrangement because he takes on all of the heavy duties and heavy duty decisions and must suffer in a way few of us mere mortals can imagine. While the wife, who is happy, submits to this shining example of sacrifice and unending love. This is in her role as the Church, as spelt out in Ephesians. Simple really, when you are a simple Bible-believing Christian. You also have to keep in mind that Jensen is one of the few Anglican bishops in the world who doesn’t really believe in episcopacy. This might seem baffling to a Catholic, but it’s also pretty strange to Anglicans. It’s doubtful if Jensen thinks that bishops are the vicars of Christ, any more than anyone else is, but especially men and especially married men. Those poor old long suffering husbands, they have all the luck!
REPLY TO EUGENE | 14 September 2012

Eugene, you are a prophet.
Let those of you with eyes/ears/brains, heed him!
Uncle Pat | 14 September 2012

Am I crazy in thinking that this little outbreak of wacky Sydney conservatism relates to the appointment of a woman bishop in nearby Canberra and Goulburn?

They really are letting the side down/dropping the ball (pick your favourite sporting metaphor, and run with it) when they're held up to ridicule in a Catholic publication. Given that the Catholic church is also a *tad* retrogressive on some issues relating to women.

But the ridicule (done very gently here) is well deserved.

Now I have to go and obey my urge for more wine.
Penelope | 14 September 2012


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