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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
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.