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It's 2020 - the year of the first female Archbishop

A fascinating premise and relaxing read, but ultimately mixed results


By Michelle Guinness
Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN No: 978 1444 75336 3
Reviewed by: Jeannie Kendall

At 543 pages this book is not for the fainthearted, and its mere size alone in hardback was a little daunting: in these days of eBooks just managing the size of it proved tricky!

Undeterred, indeed encouraged by the fact that it is after all a novel, I set about it: the result was both pleasing and disappointing.

Let’s consider the pleasing first. The book has an interesting concept: the year is 2020 and the first female Archbishop of Canterbury, Victoria Burnham-Woods, has just been appointed.

The church is in danger of schism within and pressured from without by the rise of secularism. The book tracks her time in office, including murky political machinations aimed at her demise.

It seeks to present her as a well-rounded individual, wrestling with theological issues (as an empathic conservative) and the complexities of family life. It has sections in the present but then goes back to her past, not in order but tracking parts of her story relevant to the current events; an interesting way of storytelling which held my interest.

She is a sympathetic character who comes across as a warm human being doing an impossible job. For someone not familiar with Anglican politics there were moments I was slightly lost, but she has done her best to explain the various roles without it becoming turgid.

Some of the peculiarities of female ministry are covered – I was reminded at one point of a clergy interview I was party to where the question was asked behind the scenes who would do the minister’s ironing (which I have never been asked!) I won’t reveal too much more in case you wish to read the book!

Disappointing? I had to remind myself regularly that this was after all a novel, designed for entertainment rather than great literature. However whilst it is written well enough to keep the pages turning to find out what happened, there was an underlying superficiality in the writing which eventually became frustrating.

Some aspects of relationship dynamics showed understanding, but at other times there was simply not enough depth in the characters and their relationships: for example, the way that both the main character and her husband dealt with sexual temptation bordered on the clichéd. The plot had a few twists along the way, but the ending was very predictable and in the end I was relieved to finish.

A relaxing read, yes, but I could not help but feel that with such a fascinating premise there was a better novel waiting to get out. 

The Revd Jeannie Kendall is co-leader of Carshalton Beeches Baptist Free Church

Baptist Times, 27/06/2014
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