It is the best of times, it is the worst of times,
it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness,
it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair,
we are all going direct to Heaven, we are all going direct the other way.
Welcome to Lindchester. Are you sitting comfortably? If so, then I assume you are at home, rather than in a pew—or (Lord have mercy!) stuck on one of those beastly plastic stacking chairs knowing you will leave a sweaty bum print whenever you stand for a hymn. Pour yourself a glass of Christmas whisky (a gift from the undertaker, perhaps, if you are clergy). Alternatively, make yourself a cup of that weird spiced Christmas tea out of the hamper your sister-in-law sent. It needs using up. Comfortable?
Then I will begin. I will tell you a Tale of Two Churches. One is the Church in glory, like a bride adorned for her husband; the other—inhabited by the likes of you and me—is the church incarnate here on earth, ankle deep in the mire of the imaginary Diocese of Lindchester. But perhaps, if we catch them in Emily Dickinson’s certain slant of light, we may glimpse a bit of glory around the grubby edges of our characters.
What of those characters? How are they faring? More than a year has passed since we waved them off last Advent. It is Saturday night now. The nice Chablis has all gone. Only the coconut ones rattle round the plastic sweet tub. The last clump of Christmas pudding is clenched blackly under cling film like a fist preserved in a peat bog for 6000 years. We are still telling ourselves someone will eat it. Listen! Can you hear the tiniest tinkle—faint as bells round the necks of nativity oxen on your mantelpiece—of pine needles falling from Christmas trees? Softly falling onto ghastly vicarage carpets, or nice carpets in normal homes, falling with a beetly skittle onto laminate flooring. Falling in churches and shops and bars, too; thickly drifted on the cathedral lawn, where the giant Norway spruce stands. Yes, needle-fall is general across the Diocese of Lindchester, for Christmas has been and gone. New Year has been and gone, too. We wait, lolled on sofas, remote dangling in slack hand, for the start of term, or work, or whatever comes under the heading of real life.
What does the year hold in this best of times, this worst of times; this season of bake-offs and season of foodbanks; this Green spring of muscular theological hope and Lothlórien winter of hand-wringing theological despair? We will peep through many a stained glass window in pursuit of answers. Once again, you will find yourself dogged at every turn. Your narrator will stand a little too close, breathing in your ear and commenting in the manner of an over-zealous cathedral guide who is not content to leave visitors to wander around looking at things by themselves. I will burst out of vestry cupboards, lurch round pillars, and betray my sacred Jamesian office wherever possible. Is this your first visit to Lindchester? Would you like a brochure? Would your child like the animal trail leaflet?
How are those Anglican wings? Hunt in your loft. There they are, behind those plastic crates of the children’s school work, the camping gear, the videos you ought to sling. Give them a shake, and we will mount up, as in days of old. It is dark, but there below is the river Linden, many miles meandering with a mazy motion. There are the water meadows—vast lakes at the moment. Can you just make out the stands of trees, the wooded rises, the unproductive fields not given over to maize? Give thanks for these boons, O people living in towns further downstream. Without them the Linden would be in your sitting room by now. As it is, the Lower Town of Lindchester has been flooded twice this winter.
Where shall we go? To the archdeacon’s you say? Ah, but which archdeacon? There are now two—our old friend, The Ven. Matt Tyler, archdeacon of Lindchester; and The Ven. Bea Whitchurch, archdeacon of Martonbury. A lady archdeacon, no less! We will save Bea till next week (pausing only to report that those scoundrels up in the cathedral refer to her as ‘the little teapot’). There are currently two archdeacons in the diocese of Lindchester, but if the new bishop gets his way, there will shortly be four. Four! The multiplication of archdeacons! A terrifying sign that we are all going to Chelmsford in a handcart.
The town of Lindford lies below us now. Let us bend our joyful footsteps to the house of the archdeacon of Lindchester. Look! There are two cars on the drive these days—the sporty black mini and the knackered old wreck belonging to the archdeacon’s— His what? His wife? Has Jane learned to embrace this title? Did she shake her head and smile indulgently as those cards dropped through the letterbox addressed to ‘The Ven & Mrs M Tyler’?
Let us sneak in and find out. You will see at once that it is a nice house, warm and clean. The archdeacon’s taste has prevailed throughout. This was not hard, as Jane’s taste is for not giving a monkey’s about homemaking. I admit it’s a bit generic, a bit like a show house, for Matt is a pragmatist. There are no upcycled apple crates doubling as bathroom shelves, no kitsch mini milk bottle vases, none of that girlie clobber. And no chuffing cushions. Like most red-blooded Englishmen, the archdeacon can’t be doing with cushions. This is why he has to act as a cushion himself, when his beloved needs something to prop her feet on while lying on the sofa. Which is what she’s doing right now.
‘Yes, but surely you’re owed a sabbatical,’ said Jane.
‘Nope,’ replied the archdeacon. ‘We’re entitled to one every ten years. I’ve only clocked up six.’
‘Can’t you wangle something? I want to apply for study leave next year.’
‘Yes, but I want to spend it in New Zealand. With you. Invent something. Ministerial formation in the Church of New Zealand—bet you need to study that. I’ll tell the bishop our marriage depends on it. Come along, now. Do it for me. Remember the Pennington’s lovely Biblical Bonking book? Quality time. Acts of service.’
The archdeacon sighed. Pity the bishop’s wife had given a copy of their co-authored book to Jane not him. No chance to deflect it tactfully. At least Janey had tired of reading him excerpts every bedtime.
‘Can I get you a top-up?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ She handed over her glass. ‘And then you can come straight back and carry on the sabbatical conversation.’
‘The rules is the rules, I’m afraid. Ten years.’
‘Pah. I bet there’s some flexibility. You could at least ask him.’
‘Fine. I’ll ask him.’ Matt hauled himself up off the sofa. ‘I wouldn’t hold your breath though.’
He padded through to the kitchen in his Christmas socks and got the last of the prosecco. He closed the fridge and rested his forehead against it. Oh Lord. Vexed though the sabbatical question was proving, it was going to look like a cracker joke by this time next week. Which was when he’d probably have to float the suffragan bishop of Barcup possibility…
You will infer from this that our good friend Bob Hooty has retired. The big detached tudorbethan house in Martonbury is vacant. I fear that once again I must trouble the reader with the question of who will be the next bishop. It won’t be as convoluted as the appointment of the bishop of Lindchester, I promise, since suffragan bishoprics are not Crown appointments. That said, gone are the days when a diocesan bishop could simply have a conversation in his club with an old chum from theological college, and appoint him. There will be an advert. I believe the archbishop’s appointments secretary will have names to commend. Then there will be a shortlist and interviews conducted by a panel. Is the new bishop of Lindchester powerless here? By no means. He will get the person he wants, in all probability. It would be deeply inappropriate of him to take that person to one side and confide his intentions. But once Bob’s farewell service was out of the way, it was not out of order for him to enquire, in passing, if he was right in thinking that the archdeacon’s paperwork was up to date…?
Bishop Steve has not been idle in our absence. He has made changes, he plans more changes still. One of his earliest moves was to let the lovely PA Penelope go, and appoint an executive assistant. This was a deeply unpopular move on the Close. Even inanimate objects in the bishop’s office seemed to cry out at the injustice. There was a stage when the office computer inexplicably corrected ‘bishop’ to ‘wanker’ whenever the new EA tried to send an email. Goodness. How did that happen? The bishop also chose not to appoint a new chaplain, on the grounds that he didn’t really need one. This sent ripples of fear throughout the Slope Society nationally. Honestly, if he wasn’t such a nice bloke, everyone would hate Bishop Steve.
Of course, there are those who, unmoved by considerations of personal charm, hate him in adherence to long-held principle.
‘I hate him, for he is an Evangelical!’ declaimed Gene in his Royal Shakespeare Company voice. ‘But more for that in low simplicity, he is trying to merge cathedral and diocesan structures like they’ve done in bloody Liverpool!’
‘Yes, darling.’ The dean did not bother looking up from her book.
‘On the specious grounds that it makes sense and would save money!’
‘What a wanker.’ Pause. ‘Yes darling?’
Yes, Marion is still dean of Lindchester. No change there. She was not the first woman bishop in the Church of England. Nor the second, third, fourth or fifth. Indeed, we are losing track of how many women bishops we now have. Why has she been passed over? Oh, the changes and chances of this fleeting world! Which of us does not long now and then for the rest of eternal changelessness?
There have been choral changes on the back row of Dec. Mr May still sings tenor, but we have a new alto lay clerk. Mr May still breaks hearts, but not deliberately. He breaks them in passing, like someone sweeping ornaments from shelves with a trailing sleeve. Omigod, I’m so sorry! He is off visiting his mother in Argentina at the moment. Actually, I tell a lie, he should be on his way home by now. Tomorrow the loyal Miss Blatherwick will drive to the airport to collect him.
The cathedral clock chimes three. Miss Blatherwick is lying awake. She hasn’t been sleeping too well recently. Just can’t get comfy. Indigestion. Her hand strays to her stomach. She applies her customary self-control and doesn’t go looking for lumps. If you look for lumps at 3am, you will certainly find them. She is a sensible woman. If she’s no better by Monday, she will make a doctor’s appointment.
Downstairs her phone rings where it is charging. A phone call at 3am! Her heart thumps. Bad news. Or a wrong number. Probably a wrong number. But she gets out of bed anyway, puts on her dressing gown and goes to check.
Voice mail. Unknown number. She listens.
‘Miss B? It’s Freddie.’ She hears wailing in the background. ‘Oh God, Miss B, really sorry to do this to you? Probably its all fine, yeah? Only we’re making an emergency landing? So just to say, love you, yeah? Please tell my people, if— Oh God. OK. Gotta give this phone back now. So yeah, I’ll see you, OK? Love love love love love.’