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The first ‘hot totty’ since Augustine?

09 May 2014

Peggy Woodford on an archbishop's story

Michele Guinness
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT654 )

MICHELE GUINNESS sets the theme of her novel about the first female Archbishop of Canterbury in the near future, assuming as a fait accompli that women priests will be made bishops in 2014.

Guinness's heroine, Victoria Burnham-Woods, studied theology at Durham University, where she met almost all the key figures in her later life. Theological college followed, then a curacy, and priesthood in 1994. She becomes the first woman diocesan bishop in 2016, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 2020, because there is a dearth of suitable male candidates at the time. Vicky is clever, tall, and attractive; a press cameraman sums her up as "hot totty for churchwoman".

She and her surgeon husband, Tom Woods, already live extremely busy lives, and Guinness (who is married to an Anglican priest) describes very vividly the extra pressures, stresses, and misunderstandings that arise from the public nature of Vicky's new position at the helm of the Church of England, and its effect on their marriage. Guinness is also not afraid to deal with power: political, financial, and regal. One of the most effective scenes is Vicky's audience with the Queen (now 96), who sharply condemns government proposals that would cause the Church to go down the path of disestablishment.

My main criticism of Archbishop is of its structure. In an extremely long novel of 540 pages, Guinness has chosen to play with the chronology as she tells Burnham-Woods's life story: for example, she narrates events in 2019 followed by 2024, 1992, 2020, 1978, 2020 - and this all in course of the first two chapters. The CV at the end of the novel is the only chronological help given. The cast-list of the heroine's life is, like any priest's, extremely extensive, and, as she rises up through the Church's hierarchy, familiar faces come and go as they do the same.

It would have been invaluable to have a list of the main characters, given the confusing structure. Its absence is a pity, because Michele Guinness has an important and relevant story to tell: of the interaction of the Church both with politicians running the country, and with powerful businessmen, whose political manipulation, and (in some cases) corruption, cheating, and tax-dodging, plague society.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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