Sylvia Longbridge looked out over the meadows which separate ‘Bishop’s Dingle’, the Church Commissioners’ recently constructed economy-conscious episcopal residence, from the Close and the majestic spire of Salchester Cathedral. In happier days, before Mad Cow Disease and Foot and Mouth, those meadows had been filled with contented cattle. This was the scene which Constable has painted and which amateur watercolourists from local authority evening classes for the recently retired still faithfully plagiarized. But today it gave her no satisfaction. Sylvia knew that it was make or break in the Diocese of Salchester.
The Agenda was at risk. A recent meeting of BSE (Bishops’ Spouses for Emancipation) had left her in no doubt that they looked to her to bring the diocese of Salchester into line. Gay rights, remarriage of divorcees on demand, and a female Archdeacon by Christmas: that was the programme on which she must deliver.
Angela saw that bringing St Anastasia’s, Salcombe Regis into line was an important part of that strategy. Nothing, Sylvia knew was more offensive to the sisters than the Act of Synod. How, oh how, had so many of them managed to vote for it in a moment of lemming-like self-surrender? It meant, effectively, that women priests (and one day, bishops) were still second class citizens – not the equals of men, but merely an optional extra for those who liked that sort of thing.
Worse still, the Flying Bishop principle was infinitely extendible. If Flying Bishops for people who refuse to accept women priests, then why not Flying Bishops for institutionalized homophobes, Flying Bishops for Biblical fundamentalists? Every development in doctrine would require its own separate episcopate. No! Sylvia was clear (and the bishop agreed with her!). The authority of the diocesan bishop to innovate (regardless of scriptural authority or traditional precedent) was one of the pillars upon which the new Anglican ecclesiology was founded. ‘Unity before Truth!’, that was the ticket!
But, in a face to face encounter with the dreadful Beauregard Branscombe, would the Archdeacon deliver? Angela did not trust Harry. He was too fair, too reasonable, too altogether Church of England. The New Order demanded tougher stuff. As she looked out over the sterile meadows she determined that the Parochial Meeting of St Anastasia’s, on which so much depended, could not be left in such weak hands. She would go along herself.
* * *
The day of the Extraordinary Parochial Meeting dawned upon St Anastasia’s with a calm sunny morning. There was a faint mist over the Chyne, and an almost orange glow picked out the cupolas of the church. An unusual number of parishioners attended the 7.30am Low Mass (a votive of the Holy Guardian Angels), and Beauregard met with the Action Team over breakfast.
The plan was simple. Demonstrators would take up their places, lilies of the valley in hand, twenty minutes before the Archdeacon was due to arrive. (The song sheet had been carefully devised to include something for every taste: ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, ‘We Shall Overcome’; ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’; and ‘I Did It My Way’.
The Parish Priest would open the meeting with prayer and then hand over to the Lay Chairman, who would cordially welcome the Archdeacon and invite him to address the meeting. Beauregard himself would occupy a prominent and visible position at the back of the crowded Hall, in the company of his friend, Rev Ribble.
The PCC secretary would address the meeting immediately after the Archdeacon. She would explain the legal position and read a letter sent for the purpose by Mr Ryan Branson, the General Synod’s legal adviser. Speeches from the floor would then uphold the PCC’s stand and a vote not to consider the matter further would be put. The Bishop would be defeated and Resolution C would stand!
The unexpected arrival of Sylvia Longbridge alongside the Archdeacon of Salchester did not, at first, seem to call for a change of plan – though it probably increased the fervour of the demonstrators, whose less than melodious contribution was clearly audible inside the building.
Jimmy, the Lay Chairman and Churchwarden, invited the Archdeacon to speak.
When Mrs Longbridge responded to the invitation there was uproar in the Hall. Some hissed, some cried ‘Shame!’; and a maiden lady from one of the more respectable parts of Salcombe Regis threw her bouquet of lilies of the valley which struck the bishop’s spouse squarely in the face.
Though wholly unrehearsed, that spontaneous gesture acted as some sort of signal. The demonstrators outside ceased their chanting and erupted into the Hall, hurling their own bouquets in the direction of the platform. Jimmy ducked for cover behind a Go-pak table, and so frenzied was the assault that Sylvia was forced to take refuge behind a decrepit piece of scenery left over from a long-past parochial production of ‘Guys and Dolls’.
It was the Archdeacon of Salcombe who retrieved the situation. Before Sylvia Longbridge had time to regain her composure the Archdeacon began to speak. His commanding voice silenced the tumult.
‘I want you all to know’, said the Archdeacon, ‘that I came here against my will. The policy of this diocese about parishes like yours (and many others, for quite different reasons) has made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to continue in the work to which I supposed I had been called. I supposed I was a pastor, someone who nurtured faith and encouraged others. In long years as a parish priest my earnest desire was to help people say their prayers. I am not politically correct, for Christ’s sake, because, for Christ’s sake I don’t have to be. I have only to follow him and to bid you do the same.’
‘I don’t know if Jesus wants women priests (and if I am honest, I don’t; know how you know that he doesn’t) but I am damned if I am going to let our mutual ignorance come between us. I stand with you, and against the oppressive managerial policies of this diocese – not because we agree with each other on this issue, but because this is no way to treat a parish or to treat faithful Christian people.’
The Archdeacon turned to Sylvia, who had emerged from the scenery and was now, once more taking centre stage.
‘It is you, ‘ he said ‘you especially and you particularly, who have precipitated this crisis of faith and pastoral care. And so it is to you rather than to your managing director of a bishop that I now tender my resignation.’
Bridget Trollope is a lay member of the General Synod representing the diocese of Barchester.
of Transsexual Vicars)
A support group for male and female clergy who have undergone gender realignment.
will take place at 2.30pm ,
May 23 2002
in the Julian of Norwich Rooms, Radclyffe Hall
(The Salchester Diocesan
Centre for Meditation)
Salchester SAL3 5GT
The Revd Richard (formerly Prudence) Strong, National Secretary
The Rt Revd David (formerly Dorothy) Winterton, Bishop of Salpuddle.