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.

In which the Church of England does itself no favours

It has not been a very good week for women in the Church of England. Actually, let me rephrase that… it has not been a good week for anyone in the Church of England. Their synod met to decide whether women priests could be bishops or not. They voted not. Well, actually they voted yes, but because they needed 2/3 in each house and didn’t get the majority in the House of Laity, it fell. Of course, it was a silly vote to be having really because if you allow women to be priests then there really is no argument against them being bishops. Some fundamentalists will argue that the bible speaks against women as leaders in the church, although quite what a priest is if she’s not a leader is beyond me.

Now we in Scotland have already addressed this issue. When the ordination of women went through our Primus at the time was Richard Holloway. He was a kind of ‘take it or leave it’ kind of guy. Support women or leave. And a handful did. A few more stayed and grumbled a bit and one or two went over to the Ordinariate recently but you could count them on the fingers of two hands really. In England they weren’t brave enough to say ‘like it or lump it’ and they allowed flying bishops and all sorts of panderings to those who couldn’t accept women in the church. It led to some awful situations and a hideous concept known as the theology of taint. I can’t even bring myself to explain what that means.

So this week the Church of England has found itself in all the newspapers and on every talk show. For all the wrong reasons. It has appeared to be completely irrelevant and out of date. People who don’t go to Church are bewildered at those who do. Why on earth would you go to a place where such inequality exists? (And let’s not start on the gay issue.)

I used to be against the ordination of women. When I first joined the church it was one of those bells and smells ones where Father knows best. Father told me it was wrong and I believed him, like many others. You see, I didn’t think for myself or read anything – I just accepted that Father told the truth. Perhaps there are still people who believe the same because ‘Father’ told them.  But in time I changed my mind. I read and I listened and I met women who happened to be priests. And I couldn’t really say that the Holy Spirit had not called them. How could I? How could I say to them that they must have imagined it? I mean, there were some seriously holy women out there. Of course, talking to my friends was all the more difficult but in time it all became well, all manner of thing became well.

This week I didn’t sign the petition which was going around before the vote took place. I didn’t sign it because it would not have brought about an equal footing for women bishops. Now that the vote has failed, I am sad. I am sad but in a way I am also hopeful. Hopeful that this time the vote will be reconsidered and that all shall be well. This time it needs to be exactly the same.

And perhaps the Church of England, and all churches, will look at how they elect their Lay Representatives. I know in our own church the same person has done it for years. Nobody else wants to do it. Nobody else wants to sign up to a job which requires going to Synod and Area Councils. I don’t know why – I would have loved to do it when I was new in the church, but was too frightened to stand against a man who’d been doing it for donkeys years. When I came back to this Area Council after being away for five years, it was the same people who were Lay Reps for the churches. And if you look around you at Synod you will see that the average age profile of those lay representatives is certainly well over 60. Perhaps we need to be a bit more careful in future when electing our representatives. We only have ourselves to blame. (Our own Lay Rep is lovely by the way, if she’s reading this!!)

This week I pray for all my friends south of the border. I pray for all those women who are in positions of leadership already and who might have been considered suitable for nomination.  I pray and I weep at the unholy mess.

Leaving Alexandria

Like the rest of the Scottish Episcopal Church it seems, I have just finished reading Richard Holloway’s memoir Leaving Alexandria.  And what a sad and moving read it was too. Chris has this to say about it over at Blethers.

+Richard was my first bishop – the bishop who confirmed me, and then months later remembered me by name. I can’t tell you what that meant to me, and what a gift that is for any clergy person to have. (I know this because I never forget a face but names escape me constantly.) He was funny and outrageous and just what I wanted in a bishop. But on a memorable Good Friday he came to our wee church to do the 3 Hours and he wept and I’d never seen a priest weep before. It had the most profound affect on me.  He was approachable and not at all remote as I’d imagined bishops would be. So when people criticised him, and some folk in our church did, I’d always defend him. I’d defend him because I’d seen his humility, his struggle, his passion. But I never imagined what struggles were really going on beneath that mitre. That’s why this book has been such a shock and why I find it so sad. I just wish someone could have fixed it, so that he didn’t have to go through that.

+Richard was probably the reason I am a priest too. You see, for many years I was against the ordination of women. The church I went to was pretty much unanimous in that and ‘Father knows best’ after all.  I didn’t question – I just accepted what I was told. A dear friend at church, Robin Angus, was often called upon to speak on radio in the argument against the ordination of women and I was very much of the same opinion. But then +Richard ordained Jane Millard. I met Jane at a Cursillo weekend shortly after and I loved her. And I heard how Robin Angus had crossed the floor at that Synod and given her his father’s missal. Robin said that he was an Episcopalian and as the Synod had voted in favour of women then he must accept it.  He wouldn’t be an Episcopalian otherwise. That’s when I too started to question the status quo. (Not for myself at that point – that came much later.) That’s when I started to read for myself. That’s when I heard about Affirming Catholicism and listened to +Richard and Jeffrey John speak about a catholicism which was not precious and ritualistic for the sake of it, but passionate and daring and aware of the power of great liturgy to transform. It was +Richard and other clergy who changed how I felt about my faith and who made me take the leap from being self-employed to working for a Christian charity with homeless people. And then my path to ordination began in small and hesitant steps.

Had I known that +Richard was going through so many doubts himself about his faith, would that have changed things for me? Quite possibly for I hero-worshipped him. But it was his faith that, despite my background, I could indeed be a priest that transformed things for me.  And later when I heard that he was starting (as we thought then, but now know it was going on much longer) to doubt then I understood. As I understood it, it was the church structures that he was doubting and I could relate to that. But I was at the beginning of my journey and determined to fight for the cause.

On page 300 of his book, +Richard talks about the SEC at that time and this would be the time when he was inspiring me most. I was at university by now, doing the BD, and had just discovered Liberation Theology. +Richard says:

Mission statements were part of the rhetoric of the time, and the one I dreamt up for the Scottish Church seemed to sum us up, though it probably only summed up my own wishful thinking: ‘We are the Church for people other Churches won’t take in.’

Oh my goodness! Isn’t that a church that makes you want to be a part? And I did and then one morning, very early in the morning, I got a phone call from +Richard to tell me I had been accepted to train for the priesthood.  And then months later he asked if I’d like to house-sit for him. He and Jeannie had been invited to South Africa to spend time with Desmond Tutu, and as their wee dog was rather elderly at that time they didn’t think he’d last if he was put into kennels. I had been homeless and was at that point staying in a flat in Hyvots – a not terribly salubrious part of Edinburgh. So for my son and I to go and stay in the Bishop’s house at the West End to dog-sit was really a hoot.  I mean, what other bishop would do that? Don’t you just love him?

This has been a fascinating book for me. As Chris says, when you know the characters involved it makes it all the more special.  When I was house-sitting for him I learned that he kept notebooks full of quotes, prayers, cuttings and from that time I started to do the same. I see that he did it for use in his books for he is a master at recalling the perfect bit of poetry, or movie reference, for any occasion. There are many books that I have read because +Richard quoted from them, although I do still struggle with the poetry.

I do know one thing. I need to read this book again. I need to try and understand his journey better. And I’d love to know what his church should look like.