THE LAST CHRONICLES OF SALCHESTER
Parish of Ufton Canonicorum
BEAUREGARD Hereward Branscombe was not entirely sure that he approved of the tactics of the Rector of Cove. Ribble was a sound man, there was no doubt about that. There were, nevertheless (or so it seemed to Branscombe) inherent difficulties in such head-on confrontation with bishops. But perhaps Evangelicals are just like that, he mused to himself.
He had not, he reflected, known many Evangelicals. A priggish girl with pigtails who, at his first proper evening party, had repulsed the advances of the fifteen year-old Branscombe with an armoury of quotations from the Psalms, was probably of the tribe. And then there was the Chaplain of Teddy Hall who had tried in vain to teach him about the eighth century prophets, and whose rooms smelled of pipe tobacco and athlete's foot. On the whole his natural conviviality had, in recent years, kept him out of such company. He was, therefore, on a steep learning curve with Ribble. It was Mozart meets Graham Kendrick; but he was determined to make it work.
'Making it work' meant somehow mitigating the extremism of the Cove position vis a vis the diocese, whilst in no way repudiating it or letting his new allies down. Somehow Beauregard had to explain to Ricki, (who was obviously as innocent of ecclesiastical politics as he himself was of Spring Harvest) what Anglican Bishops are really like.
So it was that late one Thursday evening, in his sitting room on the West Cliff, gin and tonic in hand, Branscombe attempted to explain the facts of ecclesial life to the attentive Ribble.
'Bishops,' said Beauregard expansively, 'are essentially unprincipled. Now don't get me wrong. By 'essentially unprincipled' I don't mean that they habitually beat their wives and say unpleasant things about black men, (though statistically speaking, there are so many of them these days that some of them probably must); I mean rather that they have no reason for theological consistency and every reason against it. Without batting an eye-lid, they potter around from places where vicars pour the leftovers back into the bottle to gilded shrines like mine with Solemn Benediction. The fellow who throws his arms around in your place during 'Shine Jesus Shine' is the same fellow who presides in my sanctuary all dressed up like a Spanish Cardinal at an auto da fé. Their concern, give or take the odd tetchy moment, is simply to keep the show on the road.'
'All this, though obviously distasteful to a man of principle, like yourself, is to our advantage. It is too late now to change it; we must use it. When there is all that pluriformity, tolerance and self-contradiction around the last thing one wants to do is to force the adoption of dogmatic consistency. Given the slightest encouragement bishops will always favour a comfortable fudge - periods of reception, Extended Episcopal Care. We have seen it all. Back off from this business of declaring the See vacant, my dear Ribble, that is my advice to you. Go at it more gently. Give the man room to hang himself Rely on the amazing fecundity of fudge.'
* * *THE GOOD PEOPLE of Ufton Canonicorum were, to tell the truth, somewhat apprehensive when it was announced that their Vicar was returning to the parish after an extended leave of absence. But when the day arrived they turned out in force. The Revd Dick Strong knew his people well. With an unerring pastoral instinct he had arranged that the first service after he returned to the Vicarage (a service at which Bishop Longbridge was to preach) should be a Songs of Praise Pets Service.
To the strains of 'Eventide' and 'Repton' the aisles were packed with villagers eager to set eyes on the new phenomenon in their midst, accompanied by every conceivable variety of domesticated wild-life from gerbils to Doberman pinchers. After a moving reading from a rather sentimental biography of St Francis of Assisi by a girl from the local church primary school, the bishop mounted Ufton's impressive Jacobean pulpit and began.
'Today,' he said. 'is a great day for Ufton, a great Day for the diocese of Salchester and a great day for the Church of England. Many people ask me: 'Bishop, what is this religion thing all about?' And do you know what I answer? I say that's its all about liberation and human rights; about the glorious freedom of the children of God. Now there's a thought for you! From that first dramatic Passover when Moses led those slaves out of Egypt, through that amazing moment at the Council of Jerusalem when the apostles opened the Church to the Gentiles, right up to our own church's courageous gesture in ordaining women to the priesthood, the story has been one of a search for justice and the proclamation of new freedoms. And that is what we are doing here today. As we welcome your Vicar, Dick Strong, back to his parish we are extending to him the love of the Church. By accepting him as he is, we are setting Prudence Strong free, as really as those slaves of old were liberated. The centuries-old shackles of sexual stereotyping have fallen to the ground. Humankind's murky past in Eden has been set aside! We see before us in Dick, what scripture calls 'the New Man in Christ!'
Even Sylvia (who had written the sermon) felt that it was a little over the top in delivery. But if that was indeed the case, the people of Ufton Canonicorum seemed not to notice. In between attempts (more or less successful) at separating their belligerent or over amorous pets, they sang lustily, and never more so than when, after the assembled livestock had received the blessing of their diocesan, the organist struck up as a final hymn 'For he's a jolly good fellow!', which on this occasion took on a new and deeper meaning. Even the Rev Dick Strong's recently acquired stiff upper lip was seen to tremble just a little.
Bridget Trollope is a lay member of The General Synod for the Diocese of Salchester
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