George Austin has a dream

The excitement of the final episode of Pop Idol was such that, as we awaited the result, I fell sound asleep. And as I slept I dreamed a dream, a dream so fantastic that surely it could not be reality.

At first I was a fly on the wall at Lambeth Palace as the committee appointed to consider the report by Baroness Perry on the workings of the Crown Appointments Commission began its deliberations. It was a small group – a bishop, a feminist icon (not the bishop but rather a woman clergyperson who did hope one day to wear the purple, and so had a vested interest in the committee’s conclusions), a token traditionalist who was also a clergy wife, a liberal evangelical, an Affirming Catholic, and a final member who by pure chance happened to be young, black and unemployed. And of course the Archbishops’ and the Prime Minister’s appointments secretaries. In other words it was a typical Synod committee.

All seemed to go well until the members began making suggestions of action to counter the devastating criticisms made in the Perry Report. The two secretaries began to look more and more uneasy and in the end could hold back no longer.

‘I think we must make clear from the start that we will allow no changes in the present system, not even the most minor.’ There was a moment’s silence and then the episcopal chairman asked nervously, ‘But sir, surely that is what we are here to do?’

‘I repeat, there will NO changes.’

Dealing with dissent

Members were already shuffling papers and opening briefcases, waiting for the chairman to end what now seemed a fruitless exercise. They had not, however, taken into account the presence of the traditionalist clergy wife, a veritable Mrs Proudie who knew that nothing she said could damage her husband’s hope of preferment since there was no point in him having any such hope.

‘Did I understand you to say that you would not allow any change?’ Her voice rose along with her anger. ‘May I remind you that you are civil servants? Servants. It is not for you to allow or disallow anything this committee decides.’

The bishop had gone white at the gills, and the other members looked on in horror at her presumption. Even Oliver Twist would not have asked for a second helping from the appointments secretaries. However the man from No 10 had a secret weapon – a security button in the top of his biro, to be pressed in just such an emergency.

Almost at once the door was flung open. It was the Archbishop’s secretaries for Ecumenism, Dr Raymond Doyle, and for Anglican Communion Affairs, Canon Bodie, who, unbeknown even to Dr Carey, were in reality undercover CI5 agents. The formidable Mrs Proudie was quickly escorted, protesting vigorously, to the Palace dungeons.

‘I think we should take a break for coffee,’ said the bishop, as if nothing untoward had happened. It was his solution to every crisis and this time it proved to be his great mistake. For when the committee reassembled, he found that he was faced with a mutiny. Mrs Proudie was right to object, it was not the Secretaries’ business to say what could or could not be discussed, and the members were not prepared to be dictated to by civil servants.

Turning Tables

The PM’s secretary reached again for his biro, but during the break it had been carefully concealed in the feminist icon’s bosom. This time it was the bishop who pressed his own panic button, hidden as is customary in his pectoral cross. There was another surprise for the committee as the door was smashed from its hinges. Enter Dr Bill Beaver and Ms Badger from the Church House Communications Department, this time to take the Secretaries into custody. They had been undercover for many years for just such an incident.

‘I always thought I somehow knew you,’ said one of the members. ‘You’re Dempsey and Makepiece.’ ‘We sure are,’ replied Dr Beaver, as the Secretaries were quickly bundled out to a waiting car to be driven away to the Church House interrogation room.

There was a deathly hush. As always when he was at loss to know what to do, the bishop called for a time of prayer, and again it was a mistake. For the Affirming Catholic suddenly broke the silence with an excited cry, ‘I have had a revelation.’ He blushed a deep red as he remembered that as an Aff Cath he was not supposed have revelations.

But there was no going back. ‘I think we must do it like Pop Idol,’ he stuttered.

* * *

There were some 9,000 candidates to be auditioned from the initial response that came after the announcement of Dr Carey’s retirement, and it was not too difficult to reduce these to a manageable number. Many were automatically excluded since there have always been two clerical categories – those who can become bishops and those who cannot. For the latter, twenty years ago it was those who had attended the wrong theological college. Now it is the ones who are of the wrong sex and those out of step with the liberal agenda.


Then priests with parochial experience were told they would not be recalled for further auditions, as were deans, having already won the consolation prize of a cathedral. That made the number of candidates a more realistic 107. These all happened by pure coincidence to be diocesan and suffragan bishops, and with the exclusion of most of the latter, together with those diocesans too near retirement, the interviewing panel only had about twenty names to consider.

Oh, yes, the panel. Here the Church really moved into the twenty-first century. It was chaired by Simon Cowell, notorious from Pop Idol, and included as well Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Anne Robinson of The Weakest Link, and finally, perhaps the most exciting choice, boxer Mike Tyson to give an international input. Such people do not come cheaply, and their individual fees were negotiated by agreement, relating them to the benchmark of the average annual working costs of a bishop.

Anne Robinson quickly dispatched Richard Chartres with a dismissive, ‘You ARE the Strongest Link – goodbye!’ Rowan Williams soon followed. ‘So you’re a theologian? Are you a good theologian? You’re an archbishop already – why do you want to move to be archbishop elsewhere? Had enough of Wales? How would you do theology if you went to Canterbury? Wouldn’t it be a bit like asking David Beckham to become president of the Football Association and telling him he couldn’t play football if he did?’ Williams bowed his head and took the Walk of Shame.

Show-stopping performances

When the number had been reduced to ten, the panel had decided that the candidates must demonstrate they possessed the necessary archiepiscopal skills. As a starter, each preached a sermon on a text of his own choice, and one on a text chosen by Rabbi Neuberger. Ecclesiastes 10 verse 1 proved to be a considerable challenge: ‘Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour.’

‘Have you ever preached a sermon before?’ Simon Cowell asked one hapless bishop. And another, ‘What made you let your name come forward at all?’ It was little wonder that by now the Sunday evening TV audience had reached record levels for a religious programme.

Then there were the more practical tests, situations vital to the proper exercise of the post. Would they cope with dining with the Queen? A banquet was arranged, with Mike Tyson standing in for Her Majesty (since the women members of the panel felt they would be typecast), and hidden cameras watched candidates attempting to choose the correct knife and fork, passing the port in the right direction, and so on, just as in the choice of the twelve apostles.

Ordeal by Media

They were invited to face Jeremy Paxman, imported for the occasion, in a mock-up of the Newsnight studio. Top marks went to those who refused the invitation, closely followed by candidates who cleverly answered questions that had not been asked. James Jones entered into a proper discussion with Mr Paxman and was of course immediately excluded.

There was a Bank Holiday feel to the psychological assessment. The remaining candidates were taken to the Thames estuary where each had to take out a sailing dinghy for an hour’s trip. Rocking the boat was naturally a no-no, but the clever test was whether or not the candidate attempted to steer the boat in a particular direction rather than letting the prevailing wind do the driving.

There were written tests, assessments, interviews, until two candidates remained, to be voted on by those in the audience at home who had been included in the new statistical assessment of Church of England attendance – occasional Sunday and weekday worshippers, those who had taken keep-fit classes in the Church Hall, youths whose interest in the Church was such that they regularly used the churchyard for smoking pot or for encouraging their girl-friends to bring babies for baptism, and so on.

* * *

Back to the Future

On the evening of the vote, the secretaries held a small drinks party at No 10 for Bodie and Doyle, their agents at Lambeth, and for Dempsey and Makepiece, doubly undercover as security at Church House but also secretly under the secretaries’ ultimate command. After the result had been announced, they bade farewell to their guests and settled down to a final whisky.

‘Well, it was a risky strategy, but it paid off,’ said one.

‘Yes,’ replied the other. ‘The Church of England actually believes it was a full and fair election, and we got the man we had decided upon in the first place. They really thought they were going to beat the system.’ They laughed contentedly.

Then I woke up from my dream. What whimsy we mortals dream of! Of course, I know there is no favourite candidate of the establishment, that the two Secretaries would not forbid the review group the right to change the system of appointment, that a potential archbishop would be considered primarily on his spirituality and enthusiasm for mission. The things our minds do in sleep!

Even so, I’m not sure about Dempsey and Makepiece – could that be reality intruding into fancy? Especially as the very week this article went round the editorial board, Dr Beaver announced his move to pastures new. If inadvertently I broke his cover I can only say, ‘Sorry Bill – it really was just meant as a joke.’

George Austin is a writer and broadcaster. He was formerly a member of the Crown Appointments Commission