In which Ruth is really disappointed with a new book

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from someone at Radio Scotland asking if I’d like to review a book for them and then appear on a show with Richard Holloway to discuss it. Bit of a no brainer, really. Free book. Chat to +Richard. What’s not to like? Especially as the book is called Archbishop by Michele Guinness, set in the future when the first female Archbishop heads up the CofE. Wow! Sign me up now!

The book arrived some time later and was the size of a small country, or a coffee table at least. And none of your big print rubbish either. This woman has written a novel to beat all big novels. So I took it on Retreat with me and settled down in my reclining chair in my cosy wee room and… promptly fell asleep. This happens on retreat, I’m told, until you’ve caught up with all the lost sleep you’ve suffered since the last holiday. Sometimes you read absolutely nothing at all but sleep for 4 days! In my case, it lasted about 24 hours before I managed to keep my eyes open for more than a page or two. That was when the anger kicked in.  My wrath kept me awake, oh yes. For this book was not what I expected at all. Your dream of the first woman Archbishop? Strong, witty, self-deprecating, feminist, liberal, charitable, pastoral … you see I’m describing myself here.  Joke! Well that was not to be this Archbishop, oh no.

The following review contains spoilers to the story so don’t read if you don’t want to know that she resigns in the end. Oops! Sorry!

The book is set in 2020 although there are flashbacks as we discover, bit by bit, Vicky Burnham-Woods’ journey to priesthood and up the slippery ecclesiastical ladder. Her predecessor is found dead in a hotel bedroom with a pair of ladies’ underwear, not his wife’s. Oh dear! Stereotype Number 1 (and so it went on). Then the Committee for Appointments can’t find a suitable replacement and put her name forward as the wild card. Men are against her. Women are against her. Her family are none too chuffed either. In fact, the only person she seemed to really get on with was the Queen in a most unbelievable storyline ever. (Yes, it was the current Queen but in her nineties and still going strong.)

She is a conservative evangelical who is anti-gay and understanding of the huge number of priests in Africa (now by far the largest part of the Anglican Alliance) who will struggle with a woman in authority over her. She immediately tells them she won’t ever do that. Throughout the book lines of Scripture pop up ‘as if highlighted in yellow’ or the Bible falls open at just a perfect verse from time to time to guide her.

She is outspoken and is a great supporter of the church offering social justice and she spends a lot of time fighting the Prime Minister and government over this issue. As a result the Govt passes a law to end religious proselyting and the church almost has to go underground. Of course, this makes it more popular. Vicky calls a Strike and really it all got so unbelievable that I cringed.

Then there is the relationship she has with her husband, Tom the Consultant. She takes on the job of Archbishop aware that it will mean more time away from her lovely handsome husband but promises to make time for him. Yeh right. If she couldn’t do it as Bishop, it ain’t ever gonna happen when she’s up on the next rung. Then yes, you guessed it, he has an affair. Then yes, you guessed it again, she nearly does – until a verse from Scripture flashes at her just at the right moment. Forgive, forgive. Resignation on moral grounds. What a heroine! Oh and we mustn’t forget the cancer thrown in to make her weak and vulnerable.

You’ve guessed I didn’t like it. I didn’t like her. I didn’t like the kind of priest she was. I didn’t agree with her theology. I thought the story was a bit Mills and Boon. There were far too many caricatures of CofE clergy: the jealous and caustic Anglo-Catholic; etc. I’m afraid I just kept thinking what a very different (and best-seller) this book could have been in the hands of Susan Howatch, Joanna Trollope, or Catherine Fox.

Mind you, it will sell. Twitter tells me so already how many clergy have purchased signed copies last week presumably because it was on sale near where Synod took place. And perhaps some will love it. It was Michele Guinness’ first work of fiction. I won’t be looking for the next one.


PS Oh you want to know how the radio interview went with Richard HOlloway? Awful, thanks for asking. Just awful. Nerves got the better of me, my mind went blank, I stuttered and stammered and couldn’t remember a thing about it. God bless the dear Editor Carol who managed to salvage enough for it to be okay and for me to not feel quite so sick. So why am I still waking at 2am with the perfect and witty reply to +Richard’s questions? Bah.

Sinking into ecclesiastical despair

I usually look forward to getting the Church Times. Usually I browse it on a Saturday but often it has to wait until Monday before I can open its pages and see who’s doing what to whom in ecclesiastical circles. This week it took me down, down, down into the depths of despair. There was little within its pages to make you glad to be a member of the church.

There was a report from the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly which I suppose might have lifted my heart, reporting as it did on the continuation of the moratorium on accepting people in same-sex relationships into ordained ministry. It seems that it was a good debate, dealt with sensitively.  Sadly, on the same page, there was a report about an email sent by Colin Slee, now deceased, about a vile meeting regarding the selection of a bishop in which the Archbishop of Canterbury lost his temper, people were in tears, and Jeffrey John missed out once more. It seems that the Church of England process for electing bishops (well, its not really election is it?) is not terribly healthy and makes me feel decidedly queasy.

A few pages on and I came across an article on Clergy Stress carried out by St Luke’s hospital. Stress and anxiety were cited as the most prevalent reason for sickness absence in a survey. It is a stressful job and sometimes you do feel as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. It can be isolating, lonely and exhausting. Thankfully I have some really good clergy friends who empathise, sympathise and will share their hilarious stories at the drop of a hat. But I wonder why we don’t cover more about this in CMD and Clergy Conferences.

Over the page and I see an evangelical pastor is slating the Richard Chartres’s royal wedding sermon. This American visitor to our shores complains that it didn’t preach the gospel. (He was speaking to a Men’s Convention – grrr.)  He is unhappy that the Bishop didn’t talk about sin, about repentance, about the Lordship of Christ. I just despair when I read stuff like this. You know, if we can’t respect one another in the Church what hope have we got of earning respect from others?  And no, I shall never ever preach on sin and repentance at any wedding I take.

In my temper I almost overlooked the wee snippet that said that Religious Hate Crimes have gone up in Scotland by 10%. Sigh.

On the facing page there is a picture of an alarming looking man who looks like he’s sitting on an electric chair at a medium voltage and he turns out to be Harold Camper, the radio evangelist who told us all the Rapture was going to happen last week. Why do we even give column inches to this kind of nonsense?

Scotland didn’t make an appearance in Margaret Duggan’s map of Britain again.

Then we get on to the two big main articles: one on Walsingham and the other on Women Bishops. (I could hear my teeth grinding at this point.)

Walsingham is always a sore point for me. A place of pilgrimage and peace for many and a place of hurt and pain for others. I don’t want to delve into this more closely or I get a pile of hate-mail, but being a priest who happens to be a woman means that I won’t go there until I am permitted to celebrate Mass.

The Guide on Women Bishops covers the same old arguments and again I thank God that I don’t work in the Church of England. Some women bishops interviewed talk of it being a non-issue, and about being accepted for who you are in their own countries. Alongside those stories of affirmation there are the tales of the most shocking behaviour at the last Lambeth conference, about being called names, being sent to the spouses group several times, about 100 bishops walking out of a talk on women and human rights, and about not feeling safe. This is absolutely shocking. Disgusting. That this behaviour goes on in Britain in a church I am in communion with. I think not.

So I’ve folded up the Church Times and put it in the recycling bin. Let’s hope something more positive can come from it now.