Why do we read fiction? Some read to savour the pleasure of carefully crafted words and sentences. Others read for the experience that Alan Bennett describes so beautifully in The History Boys:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
Most books we read fall somewhat short of these ideals but they can provide an insight into a new world and help us to see things from the perspective of another. Because of this I have often thought it would be good to have more fiction that reflects the experience of the Christian life. This is a difficult task and one that not many have attempted with any great success. We have some remarkable allegories from John Bunyan and C.S.Lewis, and some outstanding nineteenth century writers produced poignant and sympathetic portraits of church life although most were engaged in throwing off biblical Christianity. Apart from Marilynne Robinson who has received critical acclaim for her trilogy centred around the life of a Calvinist pastor there is a void in modern realist fiction about the Church written from a Christian perspective. So I was pleased to be asked to review a new book that attempts to fill that void.
Michele Guinness’s book ‘Archbishop’ may not suit those with a literary bent but it does immerse the reader into a very particular world, the world of the Anglican ‘evangelical’ and for this reason may be worth reading. It is written by an insider who knows about the machinations of the Church of England and examines them from parish to synod. A realist fantasy it charts the rise of Vicky Burnham-Woods from theology student to Archbishop of Canterbury in 2020. Her story is played out through a series of flashbacks that as a literary device has mixed success.
Despite the premise that this is about the first female Archbishop of Canterbury, women’s ministry is not the dominant issue. The gender debate is presented in rather cliché terms with conservative evangelicals being stereotyped as misogynists who build a whole doctrine on just one text (1 Tim 2:12). There is even a group called ‘React’ - which must surely be based on ‘Reform’ - which is presented as being very ungracious and somewhat bullying (to see ourselves as others see us!). Vicky is a feminist who wants no limits on her career but does not want to compromise her femininity and as a result is often conflicted in her family relationships particularly in her marriage. She is unsure how to love and support her husband whilst simultaneously following a calling that he is sympathetic to but does not share wholeheartedly. This portrait will not please ardent feminists who have already complained on twitter about the novel’s conservative portrayal of women despite its central premise.
Guinness is conservative regarding homosexuality. In places she shows a lot of sympathy towards gay characters although the storyline concerning her lesbian friend does fall into a negative stereotype despite the eventual reconciliation. A lot of her characters are rather flat and hard to distinguish probably because she was too ambitious in her scope. The issues range from persecution of Christians, gay marriage and the refusal of the Church to conduct same sex weddings, the proposed disestablishment of the Church, lay leaders officiating communion, and the African Churches response to a female Archbishop. Added to this was alcoholism, adultery, medical negligence, cancer, financial corruption and media slurs. The cast includes a gay Labour prime minister who brings in anti-proselytization laws to be succeeded by a Muslim Conservative and a corrupt Tory Secretary for Health. Vicky Burnham–Woods confronts both political parties and tries to stand up for the oppressed in a non-party political way (although the frequent negative references to Margaret Thatcher betray a left wing bias). As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this novel is not about women’s ministry but what some evangelicals consider ministry should be: in Vicky’s words ‘the bible speaks not so much of our going up to heaven, but of our task in bringing heaven down to earth’.
This novel attempts to reveal the heart of someone who believes it is crucial to demonstrate God’s kingdom by fighting oppression, powerlessness, injustice and the discrimination of poverty. Vicky’s ministry proves its relevance through setting up social housing, credit unions, family support clubs, food and furniture banks, advice and job centres, and childcare support through Christian entrepreneurialism. The ultimate achievement of the Archbishop is to provide an alternative welfare system through the church – The Well. At one point the fact that this might be at the expense of the spiritual is raised but not resolved.
In the novel Vicky’s relationship with God was lost at times; instead pragmatism and religion took over. I found myself shouting at the book saying – pray about it! It was particularly sad that prayer and scripture were not at the heart of Vicky’s marriage. Her main influence was her mentor who directed her to the theologian Jürgen Moltmann; it is the theology of Moltmann, with frequent references to the mystic Evelyn Underhill that underpins the whole narrative.
If people outside of the Church read this it is not a great advert for the life of faith or the gospel. It presents Christians with their flaws and the Church as corrupt but is not good at showing the transformation that the gospel brings. The Church’s mission is predominately portrayed as the need to bring social justice to our world. Michele Guinness has said she hopes her book will give readers ‘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’ and it may spur some on to social action. But for me this book exposes a Church that has lost confidence in proclaiming the message of first importance that Christ died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Having said that it probably represents the desires of a branch of the Church quite accurately. I am still waiting for a novel that will faithfully present 21st century conservative evangelicals without cliché - if that is possible.
 Alan Bennett, The History Boys. Faber & Faber, 2004. p56