The Last Chronicle of Salchester

 

SIR HUMPHREY CLINKER looked out from the window of his Downing Street office on that corner of Horse Guards Parade which had been his view for twenty-five years. His retirement party, though a modest affair at the Athenaeum, had been more emotionally taxing than he had expected. He looked at the manicured lawn and raked gravel, and pondered.

In a quarter of a century, as Prime Minster's Appoinments Secretary, Humphrey had appointed to every bishopric in the Church of England. Indeed, as he quietly assured himself, the modern Church of England, with its Jims and Toms, Dicks and Harries was largely his creation. From 'Thought for the Day' to 'The Epilogue' his boys had been the public face of the People's Church.

These were, of course, necessarily unspoken thoughts. He could never, never say as much - except to the closest of confidants. It would be as inconceivable as the head of MI6 publishing circumstantial Memoirs. But, behind the elaborately constructed facade of a free and wide process of consultation, he had, for over twenty useful years, exercised a patronage substantially unchanged since the days of the Stuart autocracy. How sad then, at the very end of his stewardship, that people were making such an unseemly fuss about the Salchester appointment!

Sir Humphrey had paid but scant attention to the controversy over women priests, which he (rightly) saw as primarily theological. He was of that school of churchmanship which thinks that theology engenders enthusiasms which are thoroughly un-English. He had little sympathy with either side in a debate which he considered quite superfluous. The doctrine of the Church of England, he was given to saying, is what Parliament says it is. And that is, or should be, the end of the matter.

Still, it would have been wiser at the time, he told himself, to have checked up on Longbridge's wife. It made one look careless, not to have known something like that. Then again, it was hard to see how it could have made any difference in the long run. Malcolm was down for a diocese, as sure as eggs are eggs. Sir Humphrey did not see why there should be such a commotion about which diocese it was.

He looked at the headline from The Telegraph: 'Bishop's Wife and Chaplain Sponsors Conference on Goddess Theology'. There was a quote from Sylvia's first husband, about circle dancing in Belsize Park, and a swingeing attack by someone called Branscombe. The bishop, of course, had been unavailable for comment. Apparently a group calling itself 'Reform Salchester' was demanding the diocesan's resignation; and an 'alternative chapter' of clergy was organising a rival conference on 'The Holy Name of God', and calling on the Dean to make the Cathedral available for it.

It was obviously going to be something of a cause celebre.

* * *

SALCOMBE REGIS, as everybody knows, is the principal town of the diocese of Salchester. Its Regency terraces and vast nineteenth century churches are the pride of the county; its Grand Hotel (once the home in exile of a disgraced Romanov) is an architectural extravaganza famed throughout Europe.

The great churches of Salcombe ('the seven sisters', as they are locally known) were the creation of one remarkable man. The Revd Horace Berlioz was the son of an immigrant weaver, who made good - made his fortune, indeed - in the shoddy trade of the West Riding of Yorkshire. It was money from the mill in Heckmondwike which had taken young Horace to the oldest and finest of the nation's universities, where he had fallen under the spell of Dr E.B. Pusey. Forsaking the austere faith of his Huguenot forefathers, Horace had become an Anglo-catholic of the most uncompromising kind. When he inherited the millions laid up for him by his diligent father, he embarked upon a programme of building which in its extravagance exceeded even Thomas Beckford. Salcombe was provided with seven handsome churches, which represented every style of Christian architecture from the Byzantine to the Roman Baroque - and had an aggregated seating capacity of nine and a half thousand.

Whereupon, his life's work completed, Horace promptly died of glandular fever, leaving the patronage of his Salcombe parishes to be exercised by his brother Virgil, a leading Theosophist, his heirs and successors, from their estate in Gran Canaria.

From the study of his parsonage on the West Cliff, Canon Beauregard Branscombe looked down over the town he loved. But even the last gleam of winter sunshine on his own modest basilica (an exercise in the style of the cathedral in Salamanca, but on a larger scale) did not accord him the usual satisfaction. Branscombe was an anxious, perhaps even an angry man. He held in his hand the advertisement for a day conference sponsored by The Revd Sylvia Longbridge. The Conference was to take place in the once elegant Salcombe Assembly Rooms, now fitted out by the local authority as a Clinic for Alternative Therapies.

So it had come to this. In the very town where Berlioz had sought to give honest burghers a taste of the heady brew of Continental Catholicism, the wife (and chaplain) of a bishop of the Established Church was peddling a religion which owed more to the late Aleistair Crowley than it did to the faith of the seven ecumenical councils.

Branscombe could not remember ever having spoken to the Rector of Cove. Emmanuel, Cove was a parish, in his view, so low as to be subterranean. But he knew the time had now come to pick up the telephone to Mr Ribble, and forge the alliance which would bring ultimate discomfort to their diocesan. Fr Branscombe was determined to fight this thing. To fight to the last flying buttress of St Cecilia's, to fight to the last cupola of St Agnes's, and to fight to the last gilded statue (one hundred and thirty two of them to be exact) on the alabaster reredos of his own St Anastasia's.

And it was not an idle threat. Behind a facade of Anglo-catholic aestheticism, Canon Branscombe hid the fact that he had been a prop-forward in the most successful Oxford fifteen in the first half of the century. He had blood to spill as well.

Bridget Trollope is a lay member of the General Synod representing the diocese of Salchester.

 

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