With serendipitous timing highly-respected writer and speaker Michelle Guinness has just released her new novel, ‘Archbishop‘, which centres around the appointment of the first female leader of the Church of England in the near future.
How did you come up with the plot for this novel?
I first had the idea over twenty years ago, but it felt too big to do and I wasn’t sure I could. Then, a couple of years ago, when no one else had thought of it, I said to myself, “What the heck. This book is asking to be written, so why not try You’ll never know if you don’t.”
In the end, the plot really wrote itself. I’m more of a journalist than a novelist, and always found plots eluded me. My original idea was to write a fictional autobiography of Vicky Burnham-Woods and her journey to the top, but when I offered it to Hodder they felt it had potential, but was a bit flat – and so did I …eventually! So I re-wrote the whole story with flashbacks to her past struggles, and suddenly I saw that mystery and suspense was beginning to build around her, and I understood much more clearly how the intrigue would grow, why a certain group might want to shaft her, and who they were. I hadn’t even known myself, and I remember actually gasping one day when I saw what was emerging. Once the plot had evolved I virtually re-wrote the book again to tighten up the storyline and the characters.
So it’s been like delivering an elephant. Looks like it, it’s so big. Two years of work.
Do you think there will still be significant resistance in the Church of England to a woman as Archbishop?
It depends what you mean by “significant”. I think once the C of E has made alternative arrangements for those who don’t agree with women bishops and the vote is through, things in the UK will quieten down somewhat. We have still to see how the African church (the largest group now in the Anglican Communion) will cope with it as they are very convinced about male leadership and a very important part of the C of E. I have tried to tackle that issue in the book. Any woman archbishop would have to handle it very sensitively – and with a certain amount of flair. But I’ve also explored a little how some will react, particularly those who think they are completely egalitarian, when there is actually a woman at the top. Apparently the all-male House of Bishops is still like a gentleman’s club, so some adjustments will have to be made – are being made, as several “high flying women” have already been attending since the last negative vote.
Buy ‘Archbishop’ for just £13.99 (RRP £16.99)
There are some disturbing conspiracies in your book – in reading them I hoped they were a fictional device! Do you think there would be such ‘dark forces’?
I do, actually. Peter and I have come up against some fairly nasty conspiracies in one or two churches during our ministry, so tortuous and disturbing that I can only explain them in terms of “dark forces” It would be naive to think that the C of E, which is an institution like the NHS or any other at basic level after all, employing all sorts of people of faith and no faith, didn’t have some rather dark stuff going on from time to time. In fact, my “insider informer” told me about them. I read the biography of Archbishop Robert Runcie and was horrified at the way he seems to have been “set up” for a fall, his wife being one of the weapons used against him. Again, a theme in the book, where Tom, Vicky’s husband, finds himself the centre of hostile media attention. So I do pray for Archbishop Justin. Who, by the way, was virtually unknown, when I wrote the book, as Rowan Williams hadn’t yet announced his resignation. But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the book is fiction.
Now that it looks like Synod will approve women bishops your book is pretty timely. What do you hope it will contribute to the debate?
I’m amazed at how timely it is. Extraordinary. What I wanted to imagine was the impact of the complexities and insane pressures on those who lead the church as they would come into play with the very different dimension of a woman in a role not filled by a woman before, in an institution not fully reconciled to it. What would the cost really be – for her relationships, for her?
I’m very aware that some might suggest that the flawed nature of her character is somehow comfort to those opposed to the ordination of women. I hope it’s a comfort to anyone open and honest about their struggles, trying to live a life of integrity. The church badly needs that kind of vulnerable leadership – from a man or a woman. And I hope that Vicky will convince the reader that a woman is not only able to demonstrate that kind of strength and courage, but may actually be a necessary role model, if, unlike Mrs Thatcher, she manages to guard her essential femininity, and isn’t tempted to be a man – which Vicky is determined to do.
The role of women has been a recurring theme for you in your writings. It must be 16 years since ‘Is God Good for Women’ was published. How do you look back on the reception to that book?
When the first of the women died, (Ruth, the first woman commander of police in the country) I was so glad I had written a kind of tribute to her, as she was so exceptional and I wanted her legacy to continue. She gave permission to the men to cry, she said. Actually, the book was very well received, particularly by those outside the church – always my preferred readership!
It was when I wrote Woman, the Full Story that I got some serious flack and found myself denounced on the internet by the protagonists of women in leadership. It made me sad, as surely, whatever our views, we should be able to discuss them face to face in Christian charity, and agree to differ but remain in fellowship because we have so much more in common. Maybe we’ve moved on and Archbishop won’t rattle too many cages. We’ll have to wait and see.
One debate has been centred on the impact upon relationships with other churches from women in the episcopate. Do you think this should be a consideration in these debates?
Everything should be a consideration when it comes to Christian unity, but on the other hand, as denominations we differ in our views on so many things, so fellowship cannot be an excuse for inaction. The C of E would never adapt to culture at all (and Vicky has her run-ins with people who cannot cope with modernisation), if we didn’t face our disagreements honestly, but then proceed with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. We’d end up a little more like fundamentalist Islam. Change is always difficult – but necessary.
What do you hope people will take away from the novel?
Firstly, I hope they find it a really satisfying read. It’s such a pleasure in life. But then, I hope they’ll also be stimulated and challenged by Vicky’s extraordinary character, her faith, her resilience, her courageous fight for justice, her ability to work through her feelings and forgive. Ultimately, it’s a book about reconciliation and redemption. Perhaps it may help some of us find a new confidence in our ability to contribute to the breakthrough of the kingdom of God into a world that so badly needs that kind of hope and light.
Buy ‘Archbishop’ for just £13.99 (RRP £16.99)