The ‘Siege of Cove’ was a gift to the local press. The ‘religious affairs correspondent’ of the Cove Mercury was one Gerald Fitzsimmons Anderson, a failed schoolmaster who willingly doubled as cricket correspondent and recorder of charity suppers and garden fetes. Imagine, then, his excitement when copy of his was gobbled up by national dailies and he learned that, in the company of the legendary Bill Deedes, he was to encounter the lovely Victoria Combe. Perhaps even Ruth Gledhill would take time off from ballroom dancing to give Cove a whirl!
But credit where credit is due.
The events in Cove were not the invention of Anderson. They were not some last ditch attempt to achieve journalistic notoriety. They were the brainchild of the Bishop of Salchester’s wife, chaplain and personal assistant, the Revd Sylvia Longbridge. She it was who dreamed up a scheme (and the bishop agreed with her) which would impose upon the recalcitrant Coveites a visitation from their diocesan, in the fullness of his righteous indignation.
The Salchester constabulary (whose Chief Constable was Area Moderator of the staunchly evangelical POJ (Police Officers for Jesus)) were suitably advertised of unfolding events, and arrived outside Emmanuel Cove well in advance of the bishop’s ETA.
Emmanuel, Cove, it has to be admitted, is not a building of any beauty or distinction. ‘Rather like a modern sports centre, ‘ said Ricki to Beauregard. ‘How fortunate your are, dear boy,’ replied Beau. ‘You might have ended up with something which looked like a modern church.’
It had the advantage, however, of being eminently defensible. When the bishop, replete with chaplain/wife, two archdeacons and a rent-a-crowd of diocesan officials, arrived to force an entrance, and celebrate the Holy Communion against the wishes of the incumbent and PCC, it was a relatively easy matter for the churchwardens and sidespersons to hold the doors and refuse admission. A scuffle took place outside the ladies lavatory between a sidesman and the Diocesan Secretary. The Registrar was manhandled in the narthex. But it was clear that admission would not be granted.
Bishop Longbridge, taking account of the six burly police officers who were watching for any further infringements of public order, decided on a policy of pastoral withdrawal.
As chance would have it there was, adjacent to the church, an NCP car park which was virtually unoccupied. After the payment of an appropriate fee it was there that Mrs Longbridge set up the card table, candlesticks and chalice which facilitated the episcopal celebration by her compliant husband.
Malcolm (if truth be told) had no heart for continuing what he saw to be a futile and counter-productive gesture. But Sylvia would hear nothing timorous or faint-hearted. They were, she proclaimed, enacting the gospel on the streets of Cove. ‘When there was no room for him in the inn,’ she declared in a moving sermon, ‘he was content with a stable. When locked out of one of his churches by bigotry and homophobia, our courageous bishop has imitated his Master. A stable was good enough for Jesus of Nazareth, and a car-park is good enough for Malcolm Longbridge.’
Gerald Fitzsimmons Anderson was taking it all down. At a pound a word from the Daily Mail he could not afford to miss a trick.
* * *
Canon Branscombe was spending a quiet Saturday morning reviewing his extensive collection of press clippings relating to the Bishop of Salchester, his wife and their friends. They were, he decided a media-friendly bunch. Beauregard particularly enjoyed excerpts from the diocesan free newspaper Bishopric. (It was, of course, regularly accorded an additional consonant in the standard orthography of St Anastasia’s.)
Bishopric is a fine example of the ‘merry japes school’ of ecclesiastical journalism. Here nothing goes wrong and the sun always shines. It is true that present editorial policy tends to paint a sad picture of the diocese and its common life in the divisive days of Derek Hemp. But since the advent of the Longbridges, all has been sweetness and light. Pictures of the happy couple dominate every double page spread, as they go about the Salchester countryside uniting people into one happy, forward-looking family.
The coverage of the Cove incident was no exception. Adjacent to an article describing the fun which had been had at a fancy-dress party in aid of the Pan-Anglican Fellowship for Same Sex Partnerships (which the Revd Sylvia Longbridge had attended as the Scarlet Pimpernel) was a cheerful article and a jolly photomontage. Revd Sylvia’s sermon was quoted in extenso, and a vox pop was aimed at demonstrating that there were significant numbers of the regular congregation of Emmanuel who had forsaken the church for the car park because they wanted ‘to receive the ministry of their bishop’.
Branscombe knew otherwise. But it was as well, he reflected, that the few present had done so, since the Bishop of Salchester’s diary was made up two and a half years in advance. It was unlikely that they would have the opportunity again for some time.
The national press was rather less enthusiastic.
The Daily Telegraph had an editorial on ‘the Anglican disease’ which concluded, witheringly: ‘The fault lines of the Anglican Communion now extend from Maryland and Denver to suburban Salchester. Dr Carey has only a matter of months before his retirement to get to grips with a situation which may well cast a shadow over his whole archiepiscopate, leaving a muddle of mammoth proportions for his hapless successor.’
The Times was less negative: ‘The lively diversity of contemporary Anglicanism was demonstrated at Cove Salchester yesterday.’
The Church Times followed up a news item of the ‘siege’ with an in depth interview with Sylvia Longbridge in which she was portrayed as a tireless worker for sexual and gender equality in a Church riddled with institutional sexism and homophobia. ‘Until negative attitudes have been eliminated from our Church,’ the article concluded, ‘struggles like those presently rocking the sleepy Diocese of Salchester will become more and more frequent. The Church of England needs more women like Sylvia Longbridge.’ To her husband’s chagrin the article did not mention the bishop.
The Church of England Newspaper had a front page picture of the Cove car park with the caption: ‘Bishop Michael Langrish and his wife Gloria at a recent controversial celebration in Grove.’