The Bishop and I

THE MANY READERS who have no doubt enjoyed Eileen and Andrew Carey’s Lambeth Conference pot-boiler ‘The Bishop and I’ [Hodder and Stoughton, £7.99, ISBN 0-340-65652-2] may be interested in the following – a trifle snatched from a black plastic bag outside the publisher’s office:

Euphemia Proudie – England.

Fact file.

Name: Euphemia Proudie
Date of Birth: November 5, 1804
Husband: Thomas Proudie, Bishop of Barchester, England.
Children: Olivia; Henrietta; Augusta; and four or five sons.

The diocese of Barchester is a quiet rural retreat in South-West England, such as our close friends David and Sarah enjoy in Salisbury. George and I first met Euphemia and Thomas, and their charming friend the Revd Slope (with an ‘e’, as he helpfully pointed out!), at a Lambeth degree ceremony when George was giving Euphemia a doctorate for her contribution to the women’s movement.

Since then George and I have been to Barchester several times – where George opened the Barsetshire Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue, led by our dynamic friend Dr. Jon Bunce (whom we first met when he was lecturing at the General Theological Seminary, New York). By a strange coincidence it is located in some defunct charitable institution with which one of Jon’s ancestors had been associated! Jon has a really charming house!

George often sees Thomas in the House of Lords, where, of course, he is an ardent supporter of New Labour. I particularly value Euphemia’s gentleness and pastoral concern, and her involvement in her diocese.

Funnily enough it was only after Thomas and Euphemia accompanied George and me on one of our exciting Anglican Communion trips (to central Borneo actually), that I really felt I had got to know her. Euphemia, it turns out, has a genuine affinity with cannibals and head hunters; and one of the things which both George and I want to celebrate about the Anglican Communion is that wonderful rapport between people of very different cultures!

Euphemia Proudie.

‘I could write a whole book about being the first woman to be both a bishop’s wife and an Archdeacon!’ writes Euphemia. ‘Of course, it was just an accident of history; someone had to be first! But it resulted in a good deal of loneliness and heart searching. There was a lot of rancour among my colleagues, who somehow seemed to think that I had a special influence over Dr. Proudie and the policy of the diocese – though nothing could have been further from the truth.’

Euphemia has had problems, too, as a result of the intrusion into the diocese of an investigative journalist called Trollope. (George and I have also been the subject of unwelcome attention by writers of various kinds!). But if this ‘Trollope’ put Barchester on the map (which he certainly did), it was a rather twisted and partisan impression which he gave of it (according to Euphemia).

She was very hurt at the time, but, as those who know her might well have expected, she has put all that behind her. And indeed, in these modern times, the diocese is much changed from the days of Archdeacon Grantly and Prebendary Stanhope. There are six Archdeacons and four suffragan bishops now. As the senior Archdeacon, Euphemia chairs the Episcopal Team, in the absence of Thomas (who remains an invaluable supporter of the government in the House of Lords).

‘He has not been in the diocese much at all recently,’ says Euphemia. ‘The bishop thinks that he is indispensable at Westminster, and I agree with him. At present, I am pleased to say, he is shepherding through the Upper House such essential proposals as the reduction of the homosexual age of consent to fourteen, and the new moves to impose punitive interest rates on the student grants of those who get less than a ‘2:1’. Thomas and I have always been great supporters of education and the Universities.’

Euphemia herself (though not, of course, university educated) is in much demand these days in the central councils of the Church. She is a member of the General Synod, and chairs ABM’s Working Party on Collaborative Ministry, for which a life-time’s experience in the diocese of Barchester has adequately prepared her. And she has gained a whole new, nation-wide audience from her challenging contributions to ‘Thought for the Day’.

Yet in all this Euphemia does not loose sight of what really matters. ‘My heart is where it has always been – in the day-to-day life of my diocese,’ she says.

Does she aspire to be a bishop herself? Euphemia blushed when I asked her. The woman who has done so much to assist other women to ascend the slippery pole of ecclesiastical preferment is the soul of modesty when it comes to herself. ‘I would have to pray and listen to the Holy Spirit a lot before I could answer that one,’ she says coyly. ‘And, in any case, my instincts tell me that the time is not yet ripe’.

Euphemia tells me that many of her own interests have altered over her years of patient, selfless ministry. Once ardent in her support of the Sabbath Day Observance Society, she is now known as a pioneer of the move to take Sunday services to the very heart of shopping malls. (Indeed it was Euphemia who contributed the telling phrase ‘Glory to God in the High Street’ to George’s famous Asda Sermon. Thank-you Euphemia!).

I know you will agree with me when I say that in Archdeacon Proudie, Bishop Proudie has a doughty supporter and devoted help-mate.

‘I am sure,’ Euphemia adds at the end of our interview, ‘that your readers will want to know what finally become of Mr. Slope.’ And certainly we do! It appears that after the death of his wealthy widow, and another couple of unsuccessful attempts at matrimony, he discovered his true sexual nature, exchanged ‘Obadiah’ for ‘Garry’, bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and become an honorary curate of St. Botolph’s, Aldgate.

Euphemia’s Prayer.

Father-Mother God,
we just want to lift our diocese up to you.
Watch over Tommy our Bishop,
and help all the senior staff of the diocese
to pull together as a fully integrated team.
Guide our forward planning,
and maximize our outcomes.
Bless all our strategies for mission
in this decade of evangelism.
Too many people in your church, God,
are narrow, bigoted and set in their ways;
help them to loosen-up, listen-up
and adapt themselves to change. Amen.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.