Devastation or a wonderful opportunity?

Charlie Thomas interrupted Ruth and David’s discussion of important issues (the premature ejection of the English soccer team from the World Cup) to initiate a conversation about even more vital matters – the most appropriate use of agricultural land. With breath-taking arrogance and insensitivity, Charlie suggested that the proposal to construct a road through Brookfield ‘needn’t be the end of the world’. thing for the Archers. Food processing or energy generation might provide more profitable uses for land which will be distinct from the more traditional dairy farm on the house side of the road. Ruth articulated the difference in philosophy that this comments revealed. Charlie appears to believe that the purpose of farming is simply to make from the land all the money that he can. Ruth and David believe that other considerations may be of greater value – the preservation of the beauty of the countryside, the best interests of the village, the importance of inheritance.

It is, of course, impossible to either party to be dispassionate. Charlie is employed (as he said) ‘to optimize’ the Borchester Land estate. He is, as Adam as well as David and Ruth have noted, in his belief that that this optimization is a good as well as a necessary thing because is ultimately serves the end of feeding a growing world population.  In the other corner, David and Ruth struggle to separate their reasoned approach to agriculture from their emotional attachment to the place they call home. Jill protested when she went to see Charlie that she was not being ‘a nimby’, but it is her back yard and a place that holds many memories for her that is under threat.

Can we see these questions in isolation from each other?

The debate throws up a number of theological questions and ‘God in Ambridge’ may well return to others of these in time. The one that the conversation in The Bull highlights is about the use of land. Where do human beings stand in relation to the ground on which we live and from which we draw our food? Is it simply, as Charlie seems to imply, there to serve our purposes? Or is it, as David and Ruth appear to believe, land with which we have a more complex relationship? The Biblical narrative would point us to the latter view. The use of the word ‘Adam’ for human beings suggests a relationship with the soil.

To be or not to be in Ambridge

ImageHow could he say that? How could he think that? Perhaps the most shocking moment of last week’s Archers was one of Rob’s outbursts when he declared that he didn’t ‘want to live in bloody Ambridge’. It was, of course, of a piece with the rest of his simply appalling behaviour and the hyperbole of a man who is struggling with a mixture of fear, guilt, and indecision. But the idea that he did not wish to live in the idyllic community that is Ambridge would be stunning to the many followers of the programme. How could he?

Of course, those who have lived in a village like Ambridge will be all too aware that the suburbanite can create a picture of Elysium that bears little relation to reality. Would I really want to face the inquisition of Susan when I went to buy my paper? Or to risk being late for appointments as I drove slowly behind one of Shula’s horses or David’s tractors? Or to be bullied by Lynda into donning tights to take part in her panto? It is to state the obvious to say that there are disadvantages as well as benefits to living in a small community and that the appeal of village life is greater to some than to others. It is also obvious that a community like Ambridge is not for everyone an easy community of which to feel a part. Many who have made their home in a small village will know what Rob’s wife is experiencing. Jess feels that she has to try (and maybe is trying too hard) to be accepted.

But Rob’s petulant utterance was not about the drawbacks of living in a village like Ambridge; he would be quite happy to reside in another small community provided that it was not the one in which his (former?) inamorata also lived. That is a reason that he needs to keep hidden, so he avers that there are other motives for moving – to reduce Jess’ commuting time or to put some distance between himself and his work. They are all ideas which suggest some dislocation between the different parts of his life and point us to the real issue at the heart of his unfortunate statement.

Christianity (as is most apparent in this week) is a religion of Incarnation. The carols and readings of Christmas are about God becoming human in a particular time and place. That he did so gives that time and place particular significance. So (as far as the security situation will allow) pilgrims will gather in Manger Square tonight to celebrate that here Christ was born. That does not detract at all from the universality of the Christian message. On the contrary, it affirms that just as one place was blessed by divine presence so any place can be blessed by divine presence. And that one place was and is not perfect: the Bethlehem in which Christ was born was under the shadow of violence, with a people who were oppressed, and a population who lived in fear. The Bethlehem of today may not be very different.

So our imperfect places – our towns, villages, neighbourhoods – are the places where we are. They have particular significance because of the particular (if ordinary) circumstance of our being there. And they are the places that we often love. Those who live in rural communities are sometimes inordinately proud of the place of their birth or their current abode because it is the place where they belong. It has a preciousness that it does not have for others and other places do not have for them. That is part of what it means to be human – to belong somewhere.

Another part of what it means to be human is to feel a sense of alienation at times – a sense of not belonging somewhere (perhaps of not belonging anywhere). There is a spiritual aspect to that which Christian writers since the time of the Fathers have interpreted as a consequence of sin; Adam and Eve were exiled as a consequence of their disobedience. Christian converts will often talk about their experience as an homecoming. So the sense of belonging somewhere, of loving the place where one is, can also have a profound spiritual dimension to it for the Christian when one says that this is the place where God has called me to be, physically and spiritually.

What Rob’s lamentable outburst reveals is a profound sense of dislocation in all sorts of ways. The Christian who loves Ambridge has to feel deeply sorry for someone who has brought that on himself.

 

Who let the dogs out?

DSCF5581Over the weeks that this blog has been silent, the story of Ed’s antipathy to dogs has slowly built to an horrible climax. The killing of Baz is only the latest episode in the epic-like saga of fraternal hostility between Ed and Will. Were this a Greek tragedy, one shudders to think was the conclusion would be.

But the circumstances that led Ed to pull the trigger and bring sorrow to his nephew (and stepson) go back some weeks. Convinced, on far from certain evidence, that the neospora in his herd that caused some cows to abort came from dog faeces, Ed embarked on a campaign (for which, after David’s experience of a dog worrying his sheep there was some sympathy) of encouraging dog walkers to keep their animals away from his stock. The campaign became increasingly hysterical (though even Lynda was persuaded not to walk Scruff on Grange Farm any longer) until the moment when, in failing light, Ed shot Baz as the trainee working dog set off after an hare.

Was Ed to blame? Will thinks that it was a deliberate act; Ed protests (with his father as his witness) that he did not know that it was Baz. The listener is somewhat perplexed by that focus: can farmers really shoot dogs that are presenting no immediate danger to their beasts? The dog presumably belonged to somebody who was going to be devastated when an apparently unhinged dairy farmer executed their pet.

Baz, of course, was not a pet, but it’s a word that points us to the heart of the issue. What is our relationship with the animals who share our lives? That Ed proposes to atone for the act by buying George a puppy suggests that he is utterly confused. He does not keep animals in order to be emotionally attached to them. His cows do not provide him with something to love; that Vicky treats cattle in that manner annoys him; his poster campaign suggested that he had little sympathy with those who kept a dog for companionship and the joy of walking in the countryside. But for many people animals are not commercial property. Pet owners are (by and large) pet lovers. Farmers (by and large) cannot afford to be sentimental.

The question of our relationship with the animals who share our lives was one to which the hagiographers frequently returned in the saints’ lives of the early mediaeval period. Cuthbert came out of a cold sea to have his legs dried by otters; Benedict shared his meals with a raven; Antony asked the wild beasts nicely not to eat from his garden and they desisted. The message is clear: at our best, at our most holy, we live in co-operation with the animals. There are hints of the vision of Isaiah 11 where the lion lays down with the lamb behind these stories; Isaiah paints a picture of a world with its primeval harmony restored. Not only do animals live in peace with each other, but human beings and animals live together without either threatening or fearing the other.

Perhaps the pet owner is sensing just a little of that; the dog who returns at its owner’s call and is eager to please gives us a glimpse of a better world. The dog that is allowed to worry sheep or to defecate on a dairy farm points us to the selfishness that mars our relationships not only with each other but with the whole of creation. The death of Baz is a part of the tragedy that afflicts not only the Grundy family but the whole of creation. The joyous moments that all animal lovers experience with their pets point us to a peace that might even, one day, reconcile Will and Ed.

Forgive us our sins…

Joe’s 92nd birthday ends in pain as he stumbles at Grey Gables and breaks his wrist. It quickly becomes clear that part of the cause of his fall was a piece of loose carpet, a realization which sends Eddie up to the hotel to threaten to sue Caroline ‘for every penny you’ve got’.

It is an understandable reaction the emotion of which is clear. An old man is in great pain and Eddie and Clarrie will be all too aware that elderly people struggle to recover from broken bones. Unsurprisingly, Eddie is angry. And the weeks do not diminish the anger; on the contrary, Joe’s spirit seems to have been broken by the fall and Eddie is clearly worried that an old man is losing the will to live. So, partly through his anger and partly through a determination that fight should not go out of the Grundys altogether, Eddie persuades Joe to reject the offer of £1500 compensation from Grey Gables’ solicitors. He is determined that the Stirlings ‘owe’ for the accident and that he is going to ‘make them pay’.

It’s easy to criticise Eddie. Has he not remembered that not very long ago health and safety officers launched an investigation into an outbreak of e-coli at Bridge Farm which concluded that Clarrie was responsible for contaminating the ice cream the sick children had consumed? He was not trumpeting the importance of ‘making someone pay’ at that point. Accidents happen; people make mistakes. Christians perhaps instinctively resist the ‘blame culture’, deleting the messages that mysteriously appear on their mobile phones telling them that ‘our records show that you were involved in an accident that was not your fault’, lamenting the prevalence of adverts from ambulance-chasing law firms on daytime television, and wishing that we had not developed a ‘litigation culture’. And Christians find a theological rationale for the instinct in the central act of Christian prayer – the Our Father. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Do not sue us, as we refuse to sue those who offend us.

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At the heart of Christian understanding of that prayer is the fundamental belief that all are the children of God and therefore live in relationship with each other. What was broken that night at Grey Gables was not just an old man’s wrist but a complex of relationships. Caroline is Will Grundy’s godmother (and has been generous in that role over the years); Oliver is Ed’s landlord (and the one who helped to get him out of trouble when he was convicted of theft). But we cannot forget that the land Ed rents from Oliver is Grange Farm which Joe and Eddie held from the estate in the days when it was owned by Caroline’s first husband (Guy Pemberton), a tenancy they later lost. The relationships between the Grundys and Caroline have always been across a social divide. The Grundys have always struggled to make both ends meet; Caroline has a cut glass accent and aristocratic connections. Throughout the years, the Grundys have pointed us to an aspect of community life in Ambridge which sometimes is expressed as benefaction and gratitude and sometimes as inequality and resentment.

The Lord’s Prayer asks that Our Father forgives ‘our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ after the petition ‘give us today our daily bread’. The prayer is not disconnected; to be generous in forgiving might be a lot easier when daily bread can be taken for granted. Perhaps inarticulately, perhaps even erroneously, Eddie’s anger causes us to reflect that easy forgiveness may leave injustice unchecked.

DSCF5547Darrell Makepeace is sleeping rough. Since the break-up of his marriage to Elona, he has had nowhere to call his home. He has stayed at the shelter for the homeless in Borchester (The Elms) but is reluctant to return there as he has been attacked by some of the other clients. He wants to maintain contact with his children; they are less keen on seeing him. So he has returned to Ambridge and is to be seen sleeping in the bus shelter or slipping in and out of The Bull to use the toilets.

The two people who are most aware (or at least most concerned) about Darrell are Shula and Neil, both pillars of St Stephen’s who are engaged in raising the £30,000 needed to repair the organ. It is Shula who voices the question that many a church member finds herself asking: has the church got its priorities right? Does God want Christians to raise money for musical instruments whilst God’s children have nowhere to sleep at night? Alan sympathises (and shares her concern) but argues that the church cannot simply solve Darrell’s problems; he needs counselling in order to get his life back on track.

Darrell is a casualty of the recession; he has not found it easy to find work on construction sites. But he has also been the author of his own misfortune: in part because he made what would seem to be the right moral decision in refusing to deal corruptly for Matt Crawford and in part because he then returned to crime with the dog-fighting ring. Darrell gives the impression of being a weak character; someone who finds it difficult to say ‘No’ and in recent days to be someone who easily becomes a victim. In common parlance, Darrell is ‘a loser’.

But there’s a startling resonance that Christians can’t escape hearing in the Darrell story. He is, as he keeps reminding us, a man with a trade, a skilled craftsman, a joiner. This carpenter has nowhere to lay his head. We are reminded of the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew in which Christ invites us to see him in the Darrells of this world. The meals that Shula and Neil offer, the concern that they express, and their desire to do more are rooted in this deep Christian understanding. But Darrell is difficult to help.

This storyline invites us to reflect on a complex situation with which churches all over the country (though less in rural than in urban areas) have wrestled for generations: how does the Church serve those in whom we are asked to see Christ given that there are limited resources and that those in need demand to be left to solve their own problems? It is a question that draws on a number of elements:

There are Darrell’s relationships. Neil is a friend who talks about his concern for Darrell more in terms of friendship than of faith. Elona (from whom Darrell has only recently separated) does not appear to know of his predicament. Given his evident inability to take responsibility for himself, who is responsible for Darrell?

There is the nature of 21st-century British society. Darrell’s story is not unique. Unemployment and marriage break-up are two factors that can often lead to poverty. Those who’ve worked with the homeless will know that it’s commonly said that most of us are only two bad decisions away from sleeping on the streets. The safety nets of the benefits’ system don’t always catch those for whom they are intended. What is society’s responsibility to the likes of Darrell?

Shula points us to the Church. Valid though his points are, Alan clearly recognizes that Shula has put her finger on an uncomfortable truth: it is easier for the church to raise £30,000 for an organ which only the much-maligned Valda can play than it is to provide a bed for Darrell. Christians would argue that the church in this instance is not the diocese or St Stephen’s’ PCC; the church is Neil and Shula, the Christians who offer the sandwich or the shepherd’s pie. Yet we are left with Shula’s question: doesn’t the Church want to take responsibility for Darrell?

Finally, there is Darrell’s autonomy. If the Church exists to reflect the love of God, it does so following the pattern of a loving parent who allows God’s children to make their own mistakes. The gospel story is of all-powerful love that became helpless. The listener who feels for Darrell and who shares the frustration of Shula, Neil and Alan is sensing something of the divine pain.

‘Jewellery Classes’

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Truth is in short supply at Bridge Farm. Helen has devised an alibi to continue her adulterous relationship with Rob; she asks her mother to babysit in order that she might go to a jewellery class. Strangely, she failed to foresee the obvious question that her mother would ask about this fictitious craft group: what was she making? Pushed on this she bought a cheap item from a craft market, with which Pat is so impressed that she is urging Helen to enter some of her work in the forthcoming flower and produce show.  ‘O what a tangled web we weave….’

Helen and Kirsty are now engaged in fabricating artefacts sufficiently poor to quash any idea that they might be exhibitable, though Kirsty gets carried away by their success and proposes entering the show after all. Kirsty is in the extremely uncomfortable position of being an accessory to this deceit. She is torn between her friendship for Helen and her apparent (though unvoiced) conviction that the affair with Rob is wrong and likely to end in unhappiness. Rob, meanwhile, is also lying, presumably, to Jess, his wife.

Meanwhile, Tom is being economical with the truth. He has overstretched himself in the production of ready meals for Bellinghams, whose sales of the products are falling. The result is a cashflow crisis. Kirsty advises that he seek help from his parents, but Tom’s attempt to broach the subject with his father goes badly. So hostile is Tony to the expansion that Tom has begun (partly because he discerns the hand of Rob behind it) that Tom ends up denying that there is anything at all wrong in the business. Extraordinarily, embarrassed to admit his failure that he tells Kirsty that all is well.

It is hard to see how those now caught in Scott’s web can extricate themselves. The result (unless all the lies are somehow undiscovered) is almost inevitably a breakdown of trust. Even should all pan out without repercussion, Helen and Tom seem certain to be damaged by these episodes.

One of the first theologians to wrestle with the ethical question of lying was Augustine of Hippo. In his treatise, On Lying, Augustine explored a number of scenarios in which for a number of reasons people tell untruths. Some of these, he concedes, are not intended to harm others and do no harm to others. However, they harm those who have been deceitful. He distinguishes at one point between those who (like Helen) lie in order to practice deceit and those who (like Tom) do so to avoid unpleasantness. But Augustine excuses neither: “to the persons who tell these lies, they do much harm: to the former sort, because they so desert truth as to rejoice in deceit: to the latter, because they want to please people better than the truth.” (On Lying 18).

Augustine’s central idea throughout the treatise is that lying is to be avoided because it damages the soul. To 21st century ears, that might sound overdramatic; but as the stories of Tom and Kirsty, Helen and Rob, and Pat and Tony progress, we may well see that the tangle of deceit leaves the relationships and the individuals concerned damaged in their own and each others’ eyes. 

‘Were the cows alright?’

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Rob takes a rather different view from Martyn about the importance of keeping his employees happy. He has taken care over the quality of their accommodation and is busy trying to make their lives easier by arranging with the village shop for them to have a convenient and reliable supply of groceries. He is gearing up for the time when he and his staff will be working hard in producing milk.

Milk production, of course, needs cows and for some reason not fully explained, the cows have been sourced from Eastern Europe. One disadvantage of this transaction came to light when one of the trucks conveying the animals broke down in Germany. A place was found where the cows could rest and they arrived in Ambridge 24 hours later than planned. Not the start that Brian had hoped for, especially as Martyn Gibson was there to ask how much money this hiccough had cost BL.

The delay did give Rob and opportunity for a clandestine meeting with Helen. Her question was not about the dent in the profit margin but the welfare of the animals. Rob assured her that they were fine. He and Brian appear to have adhered to all the relevant regulations; the animals had lost condition when they finally arrived, but, as Rob predicted, they soon looked better. But what, we might as, would have been the concern if they had not been? That the animals had suffered in some way? Or that their efficiency as milk-making machines was damaged?

It is a question that points to the heart of the debate about the mega-dairy. Do human beings have the ‘right’ to use animals as we please in order to produce what we need (or desire)? Or do animals have ‘rights’? And if so, what are those ‘rights’?

These questions have been extensively discussed by the theologian Andrew Linzey. Linzey argues persuasively that Christian theology needs to take seriously the idea that animals have ‘rights’. He locates this understanding in an overriding concept of the generosity of God. Creation is a gift of God the ultimate purpose of which is to delight the giver. In order that God’s creation might continue to delight God, God invests Godself in creation, imbuing it with purpose, and ultimately becoming incarnate in order to draw creation back to Godself: ‘For God so loved the world…..’ Unlike some theologians, Linzey rejects an anthropocentric interpretation of the gospel; humankind has a special place within God’s purposes, but it is not a place from which the rest of creation can be treated as unimportant or simply existing for the benefit of humankind. For human beings to inflict suffering on the beasts with whom we share the planet is to abuse the generosity of God which brought the world to be in order to give God glory.

Linzey’s arguments are complex, detailed, and developed over many publications (and are poorly represented here). The language of ‘rights’ is not one that all Christians accept, but the central point has to be one that no Christian (nor any theist) can ignore: wilfully to abuse the created order is to deny the goodness of God. Not to keep dairy cattle in conditions that ensure their well-being is a form of atheism.