There is to every entanglement a denouement, as the Revd Sylvia Longbridge was given to saying. And it was the intention of the Bishop of Salchester – and his wife agreed with him – to bring to a head the seething discontents which had afflicted the diocese since their translation.
So Malcolm was in nettle-grasping mood when he arrived at the projected meeting with the Archdeacon of Salpuddle. Harry had been apprehensive from the start about what would be required of him. He knew he was on the Longbridges’ hit list and supposed (rightly as it was to prove) that he would be asked to perform services which would require him to consider his position. But even Harry could not have imagined the drastic and totalitarian nature of the plan which Longbridge unfolded.
There was to be a two pronged attack. ‘This sinister alliance of Anglo-Catholics and fundamentalist anoraks must be smashed’, the bishop began. ‘We will break the back of the opposition in one concerted movement. Now is the time for this reactionary body to be taken over by the forces of light and progress.’
Harry, whose collection of classic movies on tape (Keaton, Griffiths, Chaplin, the Ealing comedies) was famous throughout the diocese, could not help being amused. Longbridge was a small man in many ways, and irresistibly reminded him of the immortal Charlie in his role as The Great Dictator. Little people contemplating world domination are always funny. And Ricki Ribble and the Cove PCC reminded him irresistibly of Passport to Pimlico; there was always something rather winning about ‘underdog bites back’. He could not help wondering how the two movies would meld. He would not, judging from Malcolm’s near-frenzy of enthusiasm, have long to wait.
The strategy, as it enfolded, was global and comprehensive. The PCC of St Anastasia’s, Salcombe had recently been obliged, by the five year rule, to revisit its position under the Act of Synod. On the advice of Mr Ryan Branson, the legal advisor to the Archbishop’s Council, they had placed the matter on their agenda and decided, by the required majority, not to revisit the matter formally, but simply to notify the bishop that arrangements were working well and no change was needed. To Harry’s astonishment Malcolm had managed to work himself into a lather of indignation about this unexceptionable process. It was an affront, Malcolm claimed to the guidelines so recently laid down by the House of Bishops.
‘You will go and tell them that, at the very least, there should have been an Extra-ordinary Parochial Meeting,’ he instructed the Archdeacon. ‘And you will inform them, forcefully but courteously, that I will not even consider extending the present arrangements until they have done so.’ Harry must have looked puzzled, or uncomprehending. But Malcolm was having none of it.
‘And don’t you stand there and ask me why,’ said the bishop. ‘The reason is obvious. If we allow this thing to be settled, time after time, by regular churchgoers we will never get anywhere. Don’t you see that they are all being bullied by Branscombe? The time has come to redress the balance by calling in the uncommitted multitude. They at least will agree with us.’
* * *
The ‘uncommitted multitude’ in the case of St Anastasia’s was a motley collection of students, tradesmen in a small way, shop assistants, taxi-drivers and clerical assistants who lived in the modest terrace houses along and beside the Cove Road. They drank, for the most part in The Regent’s Pavilion or The Red Dragon. In both establishments (and, if truth be told, a number more) Canon Beauregard Branscombe’s was a familiar face.
Canon Beau (and his curates in the distant days when there had been curates) had traditionally been a feature of the local flora and fauna. Even those who found Schubert in F rather more than they could take at 10.00am on a Sunday morning after a heavy night’s drinking, sought them out for the ‘occasional offices’ which fulfil the ministry of the urban clergyman. They had buried and baptised, comforted and caroused; and appeared innumerable times as character witnesses in courts of law.
When he received the letter announcing the Archdeacon of Salpuddle’s intention to meet with his PCC, and the stated reason for that proposed meeting, Beauregard Hereward Branscombe knew precisely what to do. ‘If the b*st*rds intend to call in the demos,’ he proclaimed to his churchwardens, ‘then we will give them the bl**dy demos, and no mistake!’ And his churchwardens knew enough of the situation to know that ‘they’ would not like what they got.
Letters were circulated, action committees formed and street wardens appointed. Under the general slogan of ‘Hands off Annie’s’ (as St Anastasia’s was affectionately know to a populace largely innocent of the Greek language) the campaign took shape. Of course there would be a few social workers and members of the NUT who would attend the sort of open parochial meeting that the bishop demanded, with the intention of altering the parochial stance for ideological purposes. But the plan was subtly to circumvent them by literally encircling them.
Beauregard and his PCC would concede the demanded Parochial Meeting. But when such a body was convened, the parish hall would be encircled by protestors from the local community, bearing bouquets of Lily of the Valley.
Like Church House on November 11 1992 the legislators within would be intimidated by the demonstrators without. Then there would only be the threatened visitation of Emmanuel, Cove to deal with.
Bridget Trollope is a lay member of the General Synod for the Diocese of Barchester.