Archbishop: A Novel By Michele Guinness

Posted at 07:59am on 9th November 2017

Another superb choice of fiction - so my Readers' Group and I enthused when we met yesterday evening to discuss it. One or two of us confessed to having found the first chapter somewhat overwhelming: a plethora of names, unknown characters and big words. But with that behind us, the remainder of the story was a feast of contemporary conflict and enlightenment, seeded with humour, with which we couldn't fail to engage.

Using scenes which are contemporary, futuristic and flashback, Michelle takes us through the life of Victoria (Vicky) Burnham-Woods. Following the fulfilment of Vicky's childhood dream to be priested, she then questions whether becoming a Bishop is more about management than discipleship and, when the role of Archbishop of Canterbury is ultimately bestowed upon her, whether there will be room for her private life with husband Tom and daughter Alice.

With so many issues to address, I suggested to the group that we divide them into five themes (quotes from the book are in italics).

  1. Gender Equality v The Subordination of Women
  2. What constitutes Church?
  3. Personal Discipleship i.e. Service
  4. Media Hysteria & Public Expectation
  5. Homophobia: The Christian Voice - or the Quelling of It


God is neither male nor female we are reminded when Vicky recalls an RE lesson at school. 'So will the church ever change its mind and let women become priests?' she asks, and smiles as she envisages the fight before her.

It hardly seemed possible to us that it was a mere twenty-five years ago that the question of female ordination was settled in the UK. Vicky watched the vote which lasted five and a half hours. It resorted to a typically fudged fall back. Any parish could legally refuse to have a woman. And, as one member of our group reminded us, that has happened in the Church in Wales and, even as recently as 2015, in the very church I once attended as a Sunday School pupil in Wallington, Surrey.

Was there any truth, we wondered in Vicky's query: 'Mr Pargetter, you seem to be under some illusion that women can be so pastorally minded, we aren't up to the rough and tumble of leadership.' Following discussion, we concluded that this male view of women was somewhat contorted and that the issue of leadership was less to do with gender than it was with personality. In other words, some women, such as Margaret Thatcher, might surpass some men in their leadership qualities. Regardless of gender, we all have different gifts. When it came to the matter of whether women failed to put themselves forward, we felt that this,too, was only part of the story.

With the question of whether a woman would do the job differently to a man, Michele's humour came to the fore. 'Combine sermon preparation with the hoovering, you mean?' Vicky replied when interviewed by the press. She continued with the following observation: 'Women have certain freedoms that a man might not. You saw how easy it was for me to take a child on my knee. Much harder for a man.' She was immediately assailed with the accusation that she might be advocating a paedophile's licence. 'We must do everything to protect children. But we must also encourage fathering,' she responded robustly, defending the belief that men in caring, professional roles, like teachers or nurses, must be released from the fear of contact with a child.

With so many children growing up without a male role model in the family, it was, we all agreed, an issue, that needs to be tackled.


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