The time is 1965; the place, once again, is the town of Starbridge, whose great cathedral dominates both its physical and its psychological landscape. Charles Ashworth, the Bishop of Starbridge, is a man of great accomplishment and confidence, of enormous power and influence within the Church; a man whose moments of personal crisis have, in the past, only led to deeper levels of spirituality, of certainty and conviction in his calling.
Now Ashworth has assumed the role of defender of the traditions which he sees coming under attack all around him. Obliged to endure a dissolute, demoralized, disordered society, he is nonetheless indefatigable in his fight against decadence. Within the Church he has earned a reputation as a strong, efficient, no-nonsense bishop. Outside the Church, he is known as "Anti-Sex Ashworth, " a name that he insists narrows the scope of his battle, but that he carries proudly nonetheless. He is a man who, by his own estimation, has "purred along as effortlessly as a well-tuned Rolls-Royce": fit, busy, respected, pampered, privileged . . . and steaming blindly, but smoothly, toward the abyss.
A profound crisis of Ashworth's faith begins unexpectedly and with brutal force when his beloved wife dies. Bereavement overwhelming his spiritual equilibrium, his strict morality is quickly revealed to him to be nothing more than a facade. Behind it is a maze of blinding grief and denial, of hypocrisy and estrangement from his sons, his colleagues, his parishioners. Spiralling downwards, Ashworth knows he must find his way out of the maze of his own psyche, and that in doing so he will face the most difficult spiritual test of his life: to acknowledge the absolute truths -both good and bad - that have shaped his past, and may be the only keys to his future.