What happens when the stained glass ceiling is shattered? Well, now I have an idea. I’ve just read Archbishop by Michele Guinness. And what happens is a frighteningly plausible prediction of the UK, a decade or so from now. One where a terrorist atrocity gives an atheist prime minister a reason to implement draconian anti-proselytising laws – which result in prison sentences for ordinary Christians who ask their neighbours to a baptism. This may sound far-fetched, but we are already part of the way there. But the author writes about other, more subtle and even more likely, future changes. How would you feel about the idea of cashless benefits? You may think – great, stops scroungers spending their money on booze and fags. But should the government intervene in what people buy? Should they say, in effect, you can have bread, but not sugar, condoms, sanitary towels or nappies?
One of the key plot points involves a run-down housing estate being brought up by developers and turned into high-price apartments. The people who lived there find that the money they’ve been given, as part of the compulsory purchase, is insufficient to buy one of the new apartments, nor even a reasonable flat nearby. And the promised ‘social housing’ has not materialised. As a result, dozens or hundreds of people have become homeless. This is actually happening to an estate in London: residents have been brought out, only to find that they cannot afford to live in their now-upmarket home area.
In Michele’s novel, the new archbishop, Victoria Burnham-Woods, and thousands of unsung church volunteers become a real force for social justice and change: marching on Whitehall, setting up foodbanks and chemist banks, becoming the key providers of justice and welfare. But in the midst of the battle for Vicky to persuade the government to implement charitable and fair policies, to care for the tent-cities of homeless people that have sprung up, to revoke the anti-proselytising laws, and to inspire and energize the church to help the helpless, someone is undermining her efforts and relentlessly trying to discredit her, by, for example, leaking to the press that she has purchased a black satin basque. (Imagine that – the archbishop wearing sexy underwear!) The plot is mainly about who and why.
There are some flaws: I feel there is too much detail on Vicky’s career, as if the author is writing an autobiography, not a novel. This slows it up too much. Vicky has a flaw and a secret, as you’d expect, but they turn out to be trivial, in my opinion. I’d like her more if she made more mistakes. But it’s still worth reading, and if you are a female vicar, this might discourage (or maybe encourage!) you from aiming for the highest post in the Church of England!
Caveat: this is a long novel, 500+ pages, with a complex interleaved timeline. I might have got some of the details in the review wrong, as I am writing this from memory – and the book is too long and complex for me to find the paragraphs that I am referring to. It would be tricky to read on an e-reader: it is one of those books where you need to skip back several chapters to find out ‘just who was so and so?’ Or write yourself a cast list as you go.