The Last Chronicles of Salchester
A MONTEREY Episcopal Church hosted yesterday one of the first same sex marriages in Northern California, when English bishop Malcolm Longbridge united Ethel Jarman and Deirdre O'Mallon at Holy Communion Church, 2849 South Ocean Drive. Said 55 year-old Bishop Longbridge: 'I have waited all my life to do this'.
THE REVD Richard ('Ricki') Ribble, Rector of Cove, was relaxing before the monthly joint meeting of the Alpha Course Committee and the Worship Team. It had been a long and exciting day. The morning had been spent preparing his addresses on Nehemiah for the Young Enquirers' Group. Then there was a working lunch with Cindy, his wife, when they talked about the Marriage Preparation Seminar (which they ran together, with help from a local GP). That was followed by an afternoon talk on Psalm 119 to the local branch of the Gideons. He had then buried two of the former inmates of the Glad Tidings Home for Senior Citizens and returned for a well earned cup of cocoa.
Ricki normally opened the post straight after his morning reading from John Stott. But the passage had been particularly deep that morning and he had perforce abandoned his routine. 'Improve the shining hour' he admonished himself as he tore open the envelopes. They were, for the most part the usual stuff: an advance notice of a Gospel Rally in Central Hall Westminster accompanied by a choir made up entirely of recently converted WWF Wrestlers in lycra leotards; a selection of trial software providing the full text of the Westminster Confession in seven modern languages (with an optional CD-Rom of Calvin's Institutes); and a letter from the Rural Dean detailing crematorium duty for the next three years. Only the last envelope held for him even the remotest interest.
Mysteriously post-marked 'Pasadena', it proved to be a series of newspaper clippings about a service which had taken place almost a year before at the Church of the Holy Communion, Monterey. There it seemed two ladies (the secretary and treasurer respectively, of the Pan-Anglican Fellowship for Same Sex Partnerships) had undergone a form of marriage. The celebrant of this curious rite- there could be no doubt of this, the photographs were of good quality - had been the retiring Episcopal Chaplain to the Fellowship, Bishop Malcolm Edward Athelstan Longbridge.
Ribble was motionless for a moment, as the full significance of the event sank in. Then he was nearly shaking with rage. This was it! This mountebank, this charlatan, this bishop had only recently brazened his way through the fireside chat with the ABC at which he promised to uphold the document 'Issues in Human Sexuality'. And he had known all the while what had transpired in Monterey the previous summer (and how many other times? Ribble asked himself) in plain contravention of it all! It was clear to Revd Ribble that something must be done, and in an anger suddenly calm and purposeful, he began to contemplate what that something might be.
It was at the very moment
when his conscience had determined upon action that the telephone rang. To his
immense surprise it was Beauregard Branscombe, the Vicar of St Anastasia's,
Salcombe and priest in charge of the suspended livings of SS. Felicity, Perpetua,
Lucy, Agatha and Cecilia.
* * *
THE REVD Prudence Strong was a homely woman in her early fifties who, after a successful career in gentlemen's hosiery had decided to devote the best years of her life to the service of the Church of England. Prudence was much loved in the village of Ufton Canonicorum, where, as Rector and chairperson of the WI, she had established herself as a key figure in community life.
But the Revd Strong had a wider influence. Dean of Women's Ministry in the diocese of Salchester, and a Proctor in Convocation, she was (as Sylvia Longbridge had flatteringly remarked at one of the new Bishop's 'Getting-to-Know you' drinks parties) a role model for all in women's ministry.
As chance would have it, her path and that of Bishop Malcolm had crossed before. Whilst Longbridge had been Principal of Hort House, Prudence had been enrolled on a non-residential training course at Latimer Hall. He had taught her ethics (though if truth were told, personal commitments - he was courting Sylvia at the time - had not really permitted him to fulfil all his tutoring obligations). So when she asked for an urgent interview, Malcolm told Sylvia to juggle the diary.
On the morning of the interview, Rev Strong decided to leave her car at the park-and-ride and take the walk through the Close, alongside the Cathedral and under the ancient mulberry tree, where Wesley himself was said to have preached, to the gatehouse of the Palace. She needed to think; for Prudence truthfully had no idea how Bishop Longbridge would react to her news.
The bishop was geniality itself, and after a few pleasantries about Ufton Canonicorum (which Malcolm had looked up on the map preparatory to the visit) they got down to business.
'This', said Prudence, truthfully , 'is far from easy for me, so I shall not beat about the bush. I have, bishop, come to a momentous decision in my life.'
Malcolm, whose pastoral experience, though slight, was enough to know that momentous decisions spell danger, pulled himself upright, wishing he had chosen a less relaxed chair for this particular interview.
'Throughout my life, 'said Prudence, her lower lip trembling with emotion, 'though I don't want you to think it has been a life devoid of love, affection and personal fulfilment, I have felt that something has been missing.'
Malcolm, sensing an impending declaration of a vocation to the episcopate, relaxed somewhat.
'At first I had no idea what it was; but for years now, twenty or thirty years I suppose, I have known in my heart of hearts precisely what it was. I have for years, bishop, been a man trapped in a woman's body.'
To his eternal shame (as he was later to reveal on 'Thought for the Day') Malcolm's first reaction was not compassion for Prudence, and a burning desire to put this injustice to rights, but a stunned awareness of what a hot potato she had just dropped into his episcopally inexperienced lap. My God! What would the Sisters say? (He hastily checked the intercom to be sure that Sylvia was not listening in.) And what would the Press say? And what would the Archbishop say?
There is no stopping a woman who has just told one her darkest secrets. Prudence, her face flushed with excitement, went on.
'So I have decided to have the operation. At last I will be able to fulfil both the vocations of my life: to be a priest and to be a man.'
Malcolm could not later recall in any detail how he had ended this strange and traumatic interview. Somehow he had managed to get Prudence out of the Palace without an embarrassing encounter with Sylvia. As soon as she had gone he rang Church House.
The Legal Adviser to the General Synod, Mr Ryan Branson, was a master of laconic charm. He also knew canon law backwards, and seemed completely unphased by Bishop Longbridge's revelation.
'The situation, bishop', he replied , 'is an interesting one - one, which, if I may say so, I have somewhat been anticipating Canon law,' (he gave the little dry cough which so often marked his judgements) 'is not much help on occasions like this. Canon I of Nicea, of course, is quite clear about castration; but this, I fear, is an eventuality unenvisaged by the Fathers, who, if I may put it this way, seem to have been more concerned with subtraction than addition.'
Bridget Trollope is a lay member of the General Synod for the diocese of Barchester
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