The arrival of a cream laid envelope with a Washington DC postmark was not unexpected at Bishop’s Dingle. The Revd Sylvia Longbridge patted it triumphantly and decided to withhold opening it until the morning post was duly despatched, and she could savour its contents over her mid-morning cup of de-caff.
The Bishop was at one of his many meetings with Archdeacons. By eleven-thirty the Revd Sylvia reflected, if true to form, he would be ‘sharing his vision’ about something or other. And the Archdeacons, if true to form, would be sycophantically agreeing with him (whilst intending to take no action whatever). The meetings, Sylvia reflected, served no better purpose than keeping the bishop harmlessly occupied, whilst the diocese was being capably and efficiently run by her good self.
The meetings also provided something for Archdeacons to do. The ignorance of the average Archdeacon about drains, gutters, flashings, fire-regulations, heating systems, organ building, ecclesiastical architecture of every period from the Saxons to the Victorians, and all the other things of which they were supposed to have oversight was so profound, in Sylvia’s experience, that it seemed a kindness to keep them off the streets and out of difficulties.
Sylvia was in a merry mood as she gaily suspended a few livings, and black-listed the occasional clergy person. It was the practice, in the Diocese of Salchester, to place a symbol (in the shape of a bomb with a lighted fuse) beside the name of anyone whom the bishop’s wife and chaplain thought might be a problem or embarrassment to the current regime. No such clergyperson would ever be re-employed in the diocese. The list, she reflected with some satisfaction, was growing.
The morning passed in this genial way until the de-caff was brought in and the envelope could at last be opened. It was, Sylvia already guessed, from Diocesan Church House on Mount St Alban, the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The letter announced, in the punctilious legal language that Americans so enjoy, what Sylvia already knew: that she had been elected as the diocese’s next Bishop.
‘Bishop of Washington’. Sylvia tried the name on for size. It felt good; it fitted. The only problem was how Malcolm would react. It was, as Sylvia admitted to a confidante afterwards, a mistake to have concealed the Washington candidature from Malcolm for so long.
Generally speaking, Malcolm returned from diocesan Staff Meetings with a spring in his step and a renewed joie de vivre. They were the part of his job which he liked best. ‘What,’ he once asked Sylvia, ‘could be more affirming than such a gathering of the like-minded, intent on the work of the gospel?’
Today was no exception. His plan for a full-scale investigation into institutional homophobia in the structures of the diocese had met with a rapturous reception. The Archdeacon of Abbot’s Binham had gone further and suggested a quota system to ensure the adequate representation of gay and lesbian clergy on the diocesan synod. Malcolm was elated.
Sylvia hoped the archidiaconal bonhomie would work to her advantage. She had rehearsed the matter repeatedly in her mind, There were, she knew, in something so important for her and for her future diocese, only two possibilities: compliance or divorce. She hoped for the former; but would accept the second with few regrets and something between relief and resignation.
* * *
A man to whom it is abruptly announced that his wife is about to become a bishop is at a distinct disadvantage. Short of apotheosis, a bishopric is the last word in ecclesiastical promotion. A pastoral staff in the family wardrobe and a mitre on the bedside table are not to be sniffed at. But two sticks and two hats? – that was Malcolm’s dilemma. Was there, as one might put it, room for two bishops under one duvet? He needed a brisk walk round the Close to consider the matter.
It was late on a dull autumnal evening when Malcolm returned from his peregrination, his mind made up, his future decided.
‘This thing,’ he said, without the slightest irony, ‘is bigger than the both of us. To be called to be the first woman bishop of the capital city of the world’s greatest nation is not only an honour for you; but an honour for me too. Don’t you see Sylvia; this is what we have worked and prayed for? This is our Magnificat moment, when the mighty are cast down and the lowly raised up.’
Sylvia, who had not conceived her impending appointment in quite those terms, was nevertheless relieved. Divorce, she had decided, whilst solving many problems, would not have been an appropriate way to start her new ministry. Malcolm went on:
‘I want you to know, Sylvia, that it will be an honour for me as your husband, to work with you as an assistant bishop in the diocese. I will be there for you, with all my Episcopal experience, to guide your steps and to advise you at every turn.’
Sylvia wondered that anyone should have so little self-knowledge. But she smiled. Malcolm as her Suffragan, she had reluctantly come to see, was the price she would have to pay.
She took up her pen and quietly drafted her acceptance of the only job in the world she had ever wanted to do. Her heart pounded as she ground out the necessary phrases: ‘… it has not been easy … a momentous decision … with great humility … aware of my own limitations … trusting in the abundant mercy of God…’
She folded the paper, put it in its envelope, and held it to her breast for a few quiet moments. She closed her eyes and the room seemed to move slowly around her. It was a strange feeling – at once a feeling of excitement and of great, fulfilling calm. She had done it! She was there! It was as though her whole universe were suddenly overwhelmed with one colour – the colour purple.
Bridget Trollope is a lay member of the General Synod representing the Diocese of Barchester.