THERE WAS HARDLY a soul living who could remember a time when Derek Hemp had not been the Bishop of Salchester.

Though learned papers on abstruse topics survived in University archives testifying to a time when he had been chaplain and fellow of Dives College Oxbridge; and though there remained, in Hereset Cathedral, daring and interesting works commissioned from avant-garde artists (in the 1960s), witnessing to his brief tenure as Dean, it was as Bishop of Salchester and doyen of the Catholic Movement that he had made his mark.

Visitor to the Community of the Hanging Pyx; Episcopal Consultant to the Little Sisters of the Lack of Charity; Chairman of the Trustees of Liddon House, Oxbridge; Patron General of the Sodality of Saint Sebastian; Prelate of the Societas Corporis Christi (SCC); and President of the Federation of Catholic Churchmen: he had effectively cornered the market in the extremely High Church. Nothing could be done without him – nothing, that is, which did not, as its prelude, pay deference to his dignity and sagacity.

Imagine, then, the consternation of the clergy of the diocese of Salchester when the announcement was made of his retirement. It was as though the Queen Mother had soberly announced her intention to commit suicide during a dinner at Clarence House.

The chickens were headless for some time. But they were not indefinitely headless.

Faced with an immanent meeting of the Crown Appointments Commission, a coalition was formed of Mother’s Union activists, bright young men with cut away collars and ties from Jermyn Street, and seasoned clerical war-horses with a power base in the South Coast biretta belt. Together they managed an 18-6 majority on the Vacancy in See Committee. They awaited the new appointment with confidence.

The CAC, as all persons know, is a body of Byzantine complexity and Masonic secrecy. When at length it met (at a venue undisclosed even to the wives, mistresses and close dependants of its members) trouser legs were up-rolled, aprons donned and oaths sworn on the crimson-bound copy of the Act of Supremacy sent especially from Windsor for these occasions. Then the serious work began.

The Appointments Secretaries, Sir Humphrey Clinker and Mr Tobias Smollet, with the intimidating gravitas of their kind, doled out anecdote and information about the various candidates whose names had been placed on the lists, with becoming parsimony.

Except for the diocesan representatives, of course, everyone knew everybody named; and sweet was the flow of reminiscence and mutual approbation, seasoned only (as befits an ecclesiastical gathering) with prayer, both fervent and sedate.

A name ’emerged’ (as used to be said in the days before even the Conservative party took to electing its leaders) and that name entered the queue for eventual revelation. It could only be announced, of course, when a suitable feast day for consecration had been selected (St Aethelfrith the Eager); when its glory would be undimmed by association with the announcement of the appointment to the Suffragan See of Tooting Bec; and when the righteous anger of the diocesan representatives had cooled somewhat.

So it was that, on a Tuesday morning in early October, to the evident disinterest of such press as had assembled, it was announced that Malcolm Longbridge was to be the ninety-third bishop of Salchester. People with a Crockford looked him up.

LONGBRIDGE, Michael Edward Athelstan b 45. Man Univ BSoc Sc 65, Caius Coll Cam BA 73 MA 77 Westcott Hse Cam 71 d 73 p 74. Tutor Cuddesdon Coll 73-77; Fell and Dean Clare Coll, Cam 77-82; Prin Hort House, Ox 83-91; Area Bp Nth Circ Rd 92- 97; FD Maurice Prof Fell, Univ Swindon 97-

To Canon Branscombe and others on the Vacancy in See Committee it was not immediately clear how the qualities and experience (extensive though both were claimed to be) of their new diocesan met in any way the diocese’s painstakingly constructed Statement of Needs.

They had asked for a man stepped in the Catholic tradition, with extensive parochial experience and a sympathy with the rural community in which he would be ministering. They had been given an academic with no pastoral experience whatever, who had grown up in the industrial West Riding and who had risen to fame (or was it notoriety) as the Episcopal Chaplain of the Pan-Anglican Fellowship for Same Sex Partnerships. It would be difficult to explain what had happened, he thought, to the chaps on the ground.

A factor in all that was to enfold, however – a factor unconsidered by the Vacancy in See Committee; a factor unconsidered by the Appointments Secretaries; a factor (as he was later to aver) unconsidered by the ABC himself; and a factor (be it also said) as yet unknown to Canon Branscombe) – was Sylvia Longbridge.

The Revd Mrs Longbridge is what is sometimes called an ‘independent woman’. The divorced wife of a former incumbent of Belsize Park, she had first met Michael when he delivered the Desmond Tutu Lectures on Sexual Liberation at the South Western Ordination Course in Bristol. Sylvia was captivated equally by his learning, his easy manner and his obvious prospects of preferment.

Sylvia’s own vocation to the priesthood, as so often happens, had come not long after her separation from her first husband Dominic, who was now the warden of a retreat house in Devon specialising in Celtic Spirituality and aromatherapy.

As events unfolded it became clear that Sylvia’s ordination would precede Michael’s enthronement by only a month. They would go to the diocese of Salchester together, each in a new role: he as the bishop, she as his chaplain and personal assistant.

‘It will be a hard job’, said her mother wryly, when the appointment was announced and Sylvia was staying in Chelsea and making her first dent in episcopal expenses at Peter Jones, ‘ to combine the roles of Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope; not something even Anthony Trollope attempted.’

But Sylvia paid no heed.

Her mother, who was a member of Forward in Faith and worshipped most Sundays at St Mary’s Bourne Street, was someone to whom Sylvia had never paid much attention.

She had grown out of all that Barbara Pym stuff long ago.

Bridget Trollope is a lay member of the General Synod for the diocese of Barchester.