A Church of England bishop is boldly going where no prelate has gone before – by blasting off to visit the International Space Station.
The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, will become the world's first 'Episconaut' when she is launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral by NASA later this year as part of a new church initiative called 'To Eternity And Beyond'.
The plan envisages the eventual formation of 'Extra-Terrestrial Dioceses', firstly on the Moon, and then on Mars – and Bishop Mullally's rocket trip is the first step towards the fulfilment of those long-term ambitions.
'We've planted loads of churches in London over the last few years,' Bishop Mullally explained. 'We were discussing where to set some up next, and Pete Broadbent, my Willesden colleague, said, "Well, the sky's the limit" – and that's when I realised that it didn't have to be!'
'Far out, dude!' she added dreamily, while gazing wistfully heavenwards. 'We gotta get down in the groove and reach up for the stars. May the force be with you.'
Her trip is being sponsored by Wippell's – the clergy shirt maker – and the rocket which blasts the Bishop into space will be emblazoned with their name and slogan, 'Clerical Outfitters and Church Furnishings since 1789', on the side.
Bishop Mullally will be conducting a range of scientific experiments on the Space Station, researching the effects of weightlessness on a number of key clerical tasks such as signing marriage registers, scattering ashes, and – for Anglo-Catholics – wafting incense via a thurible.
'It's important before establishing our first churches in Lunar Diocese One with any settlers on the moon that we know how reduced gravity is going to affect these everyday clergy jobs,' the Bishop said.
However the plan has drawn fire from Anglican traditionalists who have said they feel unable to accept the episcopal authority of women bishops, especially one orbiting at a height of 254 miles above them at a speed of 17,130 miles per hour.
As a result, conservative Bishop of Maidstone Rod Thomas revealed he was in discussions with Virgin Galactic to launch a space capsule – provisionally called 'Nazir Ali One' – which would carry his Bishop's crook into a higher orbit than that of the International Space Station, thus maintaining male headship at a greater altitude.
Meanwhile, Bishop Mullally has already begun simulating the effects of weightlessness by jumping into a swimming pool wearing full vestments, including a chasuble, and is reported to have successfully bobbed up and down for several minutes last week while repeatedly shouting 'Beam me up Welby!' at full volume. She was later winched from the pool using a special hoist mechanism on loan from NASA.
She has also been simulating the nauseous feelings which often accompany weightlessness by reading the entire proceedings of General Synod for the last 25 years while hanging upside down from her kitchen door frame at home. 'Some of the reports actually make more sense that way, it turns out,' she commented.
While in orbit, Bishop Mullally will be carrying a number of high-tech gadgets designed by boffins in the science labs at Church House, Westminster. These are designed to protect her should the International Space Station be invaded by hostile extra-terrestrial life-forms as yet unknown to humanity. They include an exploding Prayer Book, bishop's crook with concealed laser gun, and an emergency escape pod disguised as an extra-large mitre. 'We think we've got everything covered,' said Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, head of the church's little-known Ecclesiastical Self-Defence Force.
'I can't wait to be blasted into space at a launch speed of 418 meters per second,' Bishop Mullally told our reporter, before adding: 'Oh baby, fly me to the moon and back.'
If all goes to plan the bishop will launch into orbit this October and return to earth in 2021 on April the first, a year today. Our reporter has been temporarily suspended from duty while some details of this story are further checked.
Happy April Fools Day everyone!
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister @Baker_David_A