Michele Guinness on 'Archbishop', conspiracy and women in leadership

Michele Guinness

(Photo: Michele Guinness)

Just in time for this year's Synod, Michele Guinness released her latest book, 'Archbishop'. A tale of intrigue, politics and all things Church of England, the book tackles 'What happens when the stained glass ceiling is shattered'.

Michele bases her fictional story around Victoria Burnham-Woods, who becomes the first female Archbishop of Canterbury. As the Crown Nominations Commission, who finally decides upon her as the best candidate, argues:

"'No, no, no, no, no. The church isn't ready for this.'

"'Why not a woman?' Catherine Cole interrupted, looking round the table with a fiendish smile. 'We would be making history.'"

As is Michele with this, her life's work. A bestselling author, 'Archbishop' is her first novel. Taking 20 years and two rewrites, she has poured all her energy into this massive tale of fiction (standing at 543 pages). Michele is herself a vicar's wife, so I wanted to know how much of the behind-the-scenes intrigue she explores in the book has come from situations she herself has come across…

CM: Firstly, congratulations on an amazing piece of fiction. It really holds the imagination and is a great page turner. Could you explain why it took so many years to write and why you rewrote it?

MG: When I first had the idea over 20 years ago I wasn't confident about my ability to write fiction and, as a journalist, tended to stick with what was safe. But then a couple of years ago, when no one else had picked up the idea, I thought "what the heck! If I don't run with it, I'll never know – and it'll be too late."

The German writer, Goethe, said, "The conflict of faith and scepticism remains the proper, the only, the deepest theme of the history of the world and mankind, to which all others are subordinate." It seemed a while since this theme had been explored in a novel, so it was worth having a go.

I set off to write the autobiography of Vicky Burnham-Woods – again a genre I knew well as I'd written my own – starting at her childhood, as you do. But gradually she developed a life of her own, and, when she became archbishop, the "dark forces" and intrigue surrounding her began to write themselves and even I was surprised at what finally emerged.

When he read the manuscript, Ian Metcalfe, my editor at Hodders, felt that this was one of the major themes of the book. Ian suggested I use flashback for Vicky's past, and I resisted at first, but the moment I began the re-write I knew he was right, that I could sustain the mystery so much better, and also fill in the vital gaps about how she came to be the woman she was.

CM: Synod approved female bishops the same week that your book came out. That must have been very pleasing for you! Do you feel the Church of England has taken a significant step forward in supporting women in leadership or do you think that on the ground there is still a way to go?

MG: The timing was extraordinary – but fun. I think it was inevitable that women would be given complete equality in the leadership of the Church of England in 1992, when they were given the go-ahead to become clergy, and can't understand why it has taken so long.

But, having worked in senior management in communications in the NHS for several years, I have experienced first-hand how the reality on the ground can be very different from the apparent will. Men who profess egalitarianism can still be thrown by actually having a woman boss, and we women aren't always confident about what it means to be a woman in charge, and can resort to playing a man.

Margaret Thatcher was hardly the best role model. But she did have to contend with media comments on her bows, pearls, hair and sex appeal in a way David Cameron doesn't have to do. And indeed, as Vicky has to do.

But added to this, some Christians very genuinely hold a theological view that women should not be the ultimate leader, so there is a great deal of pain yet to come for the Church of England. And for women promoted to senior roles, who will have to live with the fact that some simply will not accept their authority or leadership.

CM: Victoria is an incredibly strong character; full of compassion and empathy for the poor and downtrodden but vocal enough to speak out for justice whatever the consequences. That was obviously intentional – but I liked the fact that she was also vulnerable and we saw her make mistakes and disappear behind closed doors at times to wrestle with her feelings (as well as the immense pressure of the job).

I was also struck by how much she had to forgive those around her in order to fulfil her calling. What comment were you trying to make regarding leadership – both in the church and state?

MG: I wanted to imagine 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? And why are we, in both church and society, so little aware of it that we sometimes show scant respect or regard for those who may be a great deal more spiritual than we are?

That said, how might a woman's style of leadership differ from a man's? Would her priorities be different, as a wife, mother, friend and colleague?

I remember how shocked my colleagues in the NHS were when we were told in a seminar delivered by the son of missionaries, though not a professing Christian himself, that 'servanthood' was the mark of a great leader.

The highly influential book about quality management, 'Good to Great', which has really affirmed my husband in his ministry, also emphasises the fact that honesty, integrity, vulnerability, thoughtfulness and gentleness, the very qualities not associated with the dynamic, all-powerful alpha male Western model, are actually most productive.

In Vicky I had in mind a dynamic, visionary leader who would attempt, nonetheless, to live a Christ-like model of leadership not based on hierarchical structures. Might it be easier for a woman, who didn't have to live up to the accepted model, who wasn't prepared to be competitive and who refused to be the alpha male, who tried, in the context of the horrendous pressures of the job, to work out how to put family and friends first? Inevitably, that means her choices may be seen as weaknesses, that she may have to make heart-rending compromises, balancing love against the toughness that would enable her to fulfil her vision.

Forgiveness stems from our awareness of our own weaknesses and failures. Yet it is horribly difficult, certainly for a woman, to remain in touch with her emotions, yet resist tears as a manipulative tool or as the evidence that she can't do the job. So she does need to say to herself, "Be a man. Don't cry".

CM: In one radio review I listened to, you were criticised for the way you treated sexuality in the book. Victoria is obviously pro women's rights, but is against same sex marriage. Does that reflect your own views, or were you simply trying to set the story into the context of the issues our culture/church is currently wrestling with?

MG: Oh – this was the most difficult issue to write about. I have so many conflicting views within myself, having had many gay friends over the years. On the one hand, my heart goes out to them, on the other I feel, like Vicky, that we have to stay true to certain moral ideals and imperatives, without loving people any the less. And I hope this comes out in Vicky's character. Living within our current culture and going against the grain is always going to be difficult, but as Jurgen Moltmann, Vicky's theologian of choice, says, if church isn't in conflict with state we have lost our cutting edge.

Ultimately, however, I also think we have to stop thinking of the UK church as the arbiter of truth. The African church is by far the larger group within the Anglican Communion and its views count. I couldn't see how it would ever accept a woman leader who accepted same sex marriage as well. So Vicky has to use every ounce of her wisdom and charm to win the African church round to the former, without being hijacked at the start by the latter.

CM: The book is a fascinating look at the history of the Church of England, as well as the relationship between Archbishop and Prime Minister and Archbishop and Her Majesty the Queen. How much of that was purely fiction – and how much access were you allowed to research the reality of those relationships?

MG: My generation has lived through enormous changes in politics, culture and church, and many of the anecdotes in the book are based on fact. But I also had some 'inside information' – my sources prefer to remain unnamed and you'd have to threaten me with death before I divulge. Someone did tell me that Her Majesty likes jigsaw puzzles – so I fed in certain details like that. On the other hand, imagination is a wonderful thing.

CM: Victoria is constantly trying to reunite church and state, to bring the church back to the forefront of cultural life and often it is her ideas that allow the church to help the communities that are at breaking point.

With the increase in demand for Foodbanks, the economic crisis and the freedom of speech debates that are raging (all things you touch on in the book) do you believe that today's church needs to rise up and be everything that Victoria tries to get it to be?

MG: Absolutely. We live in the Medway, the poorest part of Kent, where the divide between rich and poor is really rather frightening. St Mark's in Gillingham, where Peter is vicar, goes to great lengths to serve the local community, with a foodbank, recovery course for people with addictions, CAP money courses, kids' clubs, drop-ins for young people, a cafe providing free tea and coffee, often for people with mental health issues, all with a tiny cubby hole of a kitchen, whilst some of the churches in wealthier parts of Kent can afford wonderful, large modern facilities. So social divide, unemployment, cuts in welfare, grinding poverty, the patronising of the poor and the need for the church to engage in the community are all issues I know first-hand.

But I have also tried to explore the difficult matter of how far the church should allow the government to rely on voluntary organisations, and get away with its responsibility of care. Like Vicky, and indeed, the current bishops, we have to battle on both fronts. And also maintain our integrity as Christians.

CM: There is an underlying plot of intrigue and deception that develops more and more as the story unfolds. How true to life do you think that could be – or is that again something you used as a fictional device? Have you experienced any of that within the Church of England yourself? If so, did you intentionally take it to a much higher level to create a gripping story?

MG: Peter and I have experienced some fairly nasty, vitriolic goings-on behind the scenes during our time in ministry – that I can only explain in terms of 'dark forces'. All sorts of nice, ordinary, 'innocent' Christians get caught up in a web of lies and deception, and act out of character. Strange affiliations are formed. Reason, grace and charity are set aside.

Love and hatred are very close, and the latter, when it rears its ugly head in the Christian context, is always shocking and hard to comprehend. No matter how much you refuse to let it affect you and let go of it, you do find yourself years later still trying to work out the how and why. So sadly, no, this is not merely a fictional device. I think perhaps I needed to write about conspiracy to try and resolve some of our own experience of it.

It would be naive to think that the church, given its potential for changing the world, wouldn't be under attack, from within and without, and that there wouldn't be any skullduggery. There always is when money, power or sex are involved. In fact, one of my 'insider informers' revealed some at a fairly high level.

When I read the biography of Archbishop Robert Runcie I 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 – which is, of course, 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.

CM: The book is set in the future – but only 5 years into the future to begin with. Do you believe that this country could see a female Archbishop within that time? If so, do you think the level of opposition to her would be similar to what you've portrayed in the book?

MG: When I started writing the book 2020 seemed to be a possibility, but that faded with the last rejection of the admission of women to the episcopacy, much to my chagrin. It will come – there are some wonderful younger, women priests out there, and by the time they have enough experience, I don't think the level of opposition will be that intense, certainly not in the UK, but possibly from the African church.

CM: You have written about women in leadership before. Do you think the debate has moved on, or are you expecting to receive (and have you already) the same sort of backlash you have had in the past?

MG: There has already been a tiny rumble, but nothing like what it was over ten years ago, when I was shocked by the response to some of the things I wrote. A lady who was obviously very conservative in background actually said I had shaken her faith. How could the issue of women's leadership have such drastic repercussions?

Perhaps we're a little more robust now, more able to disagree, yet go on loving and respecting each other. That certainly appeared to be the case in the Synod debate a few weeks ago. There are many Christian speakers and writers I admire and respect, but I don't think I agree with any of them 100%. But they always have something to share that stretches and challenges me and enhances my understanding of faith.

As Christians we have so much more in common than our theological differences. And so many more pressing priorities in a world that needs men and women to work hand in hand to bring the message of hope.

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