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'Marching with the Saints': Bishops' spouses connect with New Orleans

[Episcopal News Service, New Orleans] Debbie Konieczny had a mere five days to settle into the role of bishop's spouse when another "first" loomed large on her horizon: the House of Bishops with Spouses September 20-25 meeting in New Orleans.

"I've been floating in the midst of the gravity of the whole experience," she says of the May 5 election and September 15 consecration of her husband of 29 years, the Rev. Dr. Ed Konieczny as the fifth Bishop of Oklahoma.

Anticipating being a 'newby' at the New Orleans gathering felt "daunting," she recalled. "It's not like there's a rule book to help you figure out what to do," added the mother of two and grandmother of two.

Carly Rowe has another word for the experience: "Crazy," she says with good-natured laughter. At 32, her husband, the Rev. Sean W. Rowe, is the youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. And also one of the newest -- he was elected on the first ballot May 19 and consecrated September 8 as Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

"We're still practically newlyweds; we've been married just two years," says Rowe, the former director of Christian Education at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie. "I was just getting used to being a priest's wife."

They traveled to New Orleans a day early "to unwind" and prepare for their first meeting. They arrived safely; their luggage didn't, said Rowe, 32. "I thought, here it is, my first House of Bishops meeting and I won't have any clothes!"

The luggage was eventually retrieved and other anxieties about being the new spouse in the group were quickly resolved.

"I am amazed at the graciousness in this community," Konieczny said. "Coming into this group was intimidating but all that went away in a heartbeat by how sincerely welcoming they've been.

"I painted walls at one of the diocesan building projects, attended a wonderful ecumenical service where I heard some of the best jazz I've ever heard in my life and had Bible Study with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was humorous, thoughtful, insightful. It was something I never dreamed I'd be able to do."

Rowe, 32, discovered a great energy and enthusiasm. "I just didn't know what to expect," she said, "especially because of the age difference. But it's been phenomenal. Everyone's been gracious, receptive, and I'm really excited about living into this whole new role.

"There's a lot of support here," she added. "The Presiding Bishop was at the consecration and that created a lot of excitement. We have a newfound energy in our diocese, we're very small -- 37 congregations -- and very rural and we have a lot of gifts. We're hoping to do a very different kind of ministry."

By Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's estimation, there are at least eight 'newbies' among the 159 bishops meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel near the city's famed French Quarter.

"We've consecrated three new bishops in the past two weeks, three others since we last gathered and elected two more who are waiting to be consecrated," Jefferts Schori said during a September 20 opening Eucharist homily. She encouraged newcomers to let their voices be heard.

The House of Bishops usually meets twice a year, in spring and fall, unless the fall meeting is replaced by General Convention or the once-every-decade Anglican Communion-wide Lambeth Conference. Spouses typically attend the fall meeting, for support and encouragement, to build community, and to recognize their own ministries and gifts.

"The ministry of clergy spouse, and bishop's spouse is often overlooked in the church," says Richard Schori. He ought to know -- he is married to the Presiding Bishop and offered an online opening day reflection to help spouses connect with one another, particularly with those spouses unable to attend.

After several sociological shifts, the roles of clergy spouse and bishop's spouse "are being recognized again," he said. "It helps to have someone to talk to about it."

The spouses' meeting, "Marching with the Saints," included opportunities to assist with hurricane recovery and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and Mississippi, to connect with local church and community activists, and one another, said Ginger Sauls, wife of Lexington Bishop Stacy Sauls and a planning committee member.

Hartford attorney Bob Fawber, 58, said he decided to attend the meeting to offer support for his fiancée, Bishop Suffragan Laura Ahrens of Connecticut.

"It's been different but wonderful," he said adding that "being in the midst of so many women, I've tried to participate. We did a Shaker Dance. I was one of two men who participated in that.

"I remember visiting a Shaker community once in New York a long time ago. I saw something written inside a table drawer in faded pencil. It said 'those who can't hear the music think the dancers are mad.' I felt a little mad myself but I tried to hear the music."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is senior associate for parish life at St. George's Church and Academy in Laguna Hills, California. She is also correspondent for the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Episcopal News Service.

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