A clerical detective story by PDJ Aymes

Hardly anyone could remember the death of an Archbishop of Canterbury in office. Those who like that sort of thing were consulting precedents for a suitable ceremonial. Should it be in Canterbury or at St Paul’s? Should there be a service of Holy Communion? Was this, or was this not, an occasion to get the Book of Common Prayer out of moth balls? What about prayers for the dead? Should the Prince of Wales represent the Queen?

Whilst the liturgists were arguing amongst themselves like urban guerrillas, Canon Frazer Guildenthal, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Anglican Communion Affairs, was considering the international dimension. The Papacy was sending a curial Cardinal, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was sending the Archbishop of somewhere. There would be a strong deputation from the Porvoo Churches (suitably attired like Christmas trees). The Free Churches would be adequately represented. Most important of all, the Primates of the Anglican Communion had been invited. Their meeting afterwards would be an opportunity to test the water and pressure the Prime Minster about the new appointment.

But Frazer was not a happy Canon. Archbishop Hugh had died only four days before his scheduled retirement. The Crown Appointments Commission had met, two names had gone to Downing Street and been duly leaked to the national press. The first name on the list was the Most Revd Hamish McTaggart, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the second the Rt Revd Roland Bane, Bishop of Glastonbury.

Hamish was a man much loved by his countrymen and a scholar of international repute. His volume of the late eighties suggesting that Athanasius was more heretical than Arius had been received with universal acclaim. The darling of the now almost forgotten Loughborough Conferences, he had once been the white hope of the Catholic Movement. His marriage to Heather, a well-known feminist theologian and author of Mary of Magdala, Chief of Apostles had moved him on. By the end of the 1990s he was a firm advocate of the remarriage of divorcees and a member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. By the end of the decade he had abandoned the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation and the Bodily Resurrection.

In the spirited press campaign which traditionally led up to the leakage of names, however, Hamish’s ‘friends’ had repeatedly asserted his firm faith in the Apostolic Succession and the Real and Substantial Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. He was, claimed Junia Apostolos, chairperson of WATCH, ‘incredibly orthodox’ about everything he had not already forsaken. McTaggart was 49 and twenty-one years from retirement.

Bane was an older man – what is sometimes (but for no real reason) described as ‘a safe pair of hands’. He had only seven years to run. He was genial, intellectually undistinguished, middle church and middle brow; indistinguishable in fact from half the bench. Cynics even hazarded a guess that the PM was not entirely averse to the leaking of the names. He could, as a result, treat the entire Anglican Communion as a ‘focus group’, and decide on the viability or otherwise of Hamish (who was the PM’s choice as well as that of the CAC). Then, if the furore was too great, he could appoint Bane, leaving McTaggart with a safe and comfortable fourteen years to run when his turn came round.

* * *

Melhuilish and Whelan arrived from Tel Aviv unaware of the death and quite oblivious to the frenzy of activity which had overtaken Guildenthal and his kind. It was the front page of the Guardian outside Victoria tube station which revealed all to the Commander. ‘Archbishop dies – successor rumoured to be Atheist.’ As she read on she realized that all thirty-eight suspects in the Case of the Missing Quadrilateral would, in the next few days, converge on London for obsequies such as the Anglican Communion had never before witnessed, and for a conference which would probably seal the fate of that strange institution for good and all. From New York and from Yokahama, from Quito and from Wellington, across the globe they would come, and, in the robes of Tudor England, officiate at the funeral of a butcher’s son from Streatham.

As she entered the flat her operatic partner was seated at the end of the sitting-room on his exercise bicycle, wearing a pair of white plimsolls and little else. He was obviously pleased to see her. Melhuilish threw her bags down in the hallway and went straight to the fridge. Chardonnay in hand, she placed a firm kiss on Ben’s forehead.

‘All thirty-eight of them will be in London in five days time’, she said.

‘All thirty eight of whom?’ asked Ben, whose grammar was excellent, but whose twin obsessions of music and rugby left him little time for working at a permanent relationship.

‘All thirty-eight suspects in the Quadrilateral affair’, the Commander replied tetchily.

‘Oh them!’ exclaimed Ben. ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if they were all guilty? You know, like something out of Agatha Christie.’ Eve was not amused.

Whelan arrived back in Maida Vale, cast his crumpled beach shirts and dirty white socks into the machine, and switched on ‘Newsnight’. Paxton was leading a discussion between Philip Ranting, Chairman of Reform and the ubiquitous Junia Apostolos. Apparently the leaking archbishop would divide the Anglican Communion about gay sex. On the contrary, Apostolos was affirming, he would be a breath of fresh air, a uniting force. He would lead Anglicans confidently into the twenty-first century.

Whelan reached instinctively for the remote control and hopped channels. It is a useful rule of thumb when dealing with the media, he reflected, never to listen to anything you know anything about. When you do know something the ignorance of the presenters and researchers is all too dispiriting.

Whelan was beginning to think that he knew quite a bit about Anglicanism.

There would, he was certain, be no split. This was an institution that could accommodate itself to almost anything. And while it argued about what people did under their duvets, essential doctrines were imperceptibly ebbing away. It contained men of principle, of course. But they were weak, for the most part; and none of them held the reins of real power.

The autodidact in him encouraged comparisons with the end of Roman paganism. Like the gods and nymphs of some abandoned Hellenistic villa, the doctrines and myths of Christianity would soon be mere decorating accents. The agenda would have moved elsewhere. That was bound to happen the moment anyone agreed to regard their own religion as just one among many. He thought of the people next door who had bought a couple of icons in Crete to set off the stripped pine. Nothing, Whelan knew, would draw him back to the faith of his Methodist youth. That was another country. But he also knew decay when he smelt it.