‘You’re good together, you two!’

DSCF5183Kenton was judged to be behaving strangely. David feared that his elder brother was about to do something daft; he recognized the signs as those which suggested that the former merchant seamen was becoming restless. Tony (not usually the most perceptive of the village’s residents) deemed it odd that Kenton was ‘sensitive’ in his conversation about the farm. Jolene wondered why he was being so nice when he arranged an early staff handover to enable her to get to the ‘Swishing’. The ‘something’ that he had on his mind became clear when during a busy evening in The Bull he asked Jolene to become his wife. As so often in Ambridge, this was a conversation that was repeatedly interrupted and concluded at a less than convenient moment, but with a resounding acceptance from Jolene.

One of the interruptions was from Lilian, who wanted a shoulder on which to cry about her difficulties at Amside. As her relationship with Matt falls apart, Kenton wants to cement his with Jolene. His hesitation may have had comic effect, but reflected the significance of what he was about to ask. To join the whole of one’s life to that of another human being is one of he most momentous decisions anyone can make.

Jazzer captured the meaning of what had happened when he congratulated Kenton and Jolene, and asked ‘when you’ve finished snogging, any chance of some service?’ Like Matt and Lilian, Kenton and Jolene form both a romantic and business partnership. That’s not unusual in Ambridge, nor in any farming community. Kenton’s conversation with Tony was about what Tony and Pat have built up together at Bridge Farm; he might have observed the same about David and Ruth, or of the late lamented Nigel and Elizabeth. Shula and Alistair may not form quite the same sort of business partnership but their work (his as a vet and hers running the riding stables) closely overlap. With David, Kenton was musing about the partnership that his parents had enjoyed when they were running Brookfield. And whilst Matt and Lilian point to the dangers and complexities of such arrangements, the engagement between Tom and Brenda in part foundered on her inability to be as interested in his business as he was and his inability to show any real interest in her career.

The nature of marriage has been under the spotlight in recent months with the passage through Parliament of the Same Sex Marriage bill. A large part of the Churches’ opposition to this measure has been to do with the way in which the government has ‘redefined’ marriage; one of those concerns is expressed, in traditional terms, as being about the link between marriage and procreation. Of course, the Churches’ understandings of marriage are far more nuanced and complex than that bald statement might suggest; the Methodist Church, for example, implicitly recognizes that many couples marry knowing or presuming that they will not have children. ‘It is the will of God that marriage
should be honoured as a way of life, in which we may know the security of love and care, and grow towards maturity. Through such marriage, children may be nurtured, family life strengthened, and human society enriched.’ (Methodist Worship Book)

None of this is to suggest that happy marriages depend on total commitment to the vocation of one or the other, or that those who share a vocation in the world of work are more likely to enjoy an happy marriage. The days when (for example) the spouse of someone in certain professions was expected to sacrifice her (and it usually was her) career or interests in order to assist in developing those of her partner are (mercifully) gone. But what Kenton’s proposal to Jolene does recognize is the importance of partnership in marriage which might express itself in creative or entrepreneurial enterprise. Christian understandings of marriage are grounded in the theology of creation and in the calling of human beings to be co-creators with God, which is about far more than having or not having children. Whether or not the landlady of The Bull and her partner choose to marry in church, that is what Friday night’s decision represents.

Can Brenda afford to remain in Ambridge?

DSCF5143Brenda has finally had enough of the her job at Amside. She feels that she has been taken for granted for far too long and has snapped, handing in her notice and storming out of the office. It was, she told her brother, something that she should have done a long time ago. In one of the unlikelier plot twists, she had flown to St Petersburg to work for Matt Crawford. As her father put it ‘Russia and Matt Crawford – one would be bad enough, but together…’

The story highlights one of the issues of rural living in 21st century Britain – the difficulty that young people experience in finding employment. Anyone connected with life in a village will be aware of the problem – rural villages are increasingly dormitory communities with little employment; house prices are higher than in urban areas (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/205129/Bulletin-Jun13.pdf – accessed 15/7/13), particularly in villages and hamlets; public transport is in many places expensive and infrequent, whilst the cost of fuel can be higher in rural areas. The recent story in which Pip Archer wrote off her car highlighted how difficult it can be for those dependent on public transport to travel to work or college.

If Ambridge is typical of rural communities, more than a quarter of those living there will now be retired (according to the ONS – op cit). Employment amongst those 16 to 64 will be below 60% (and significantly slightly below that in urban areas and falling whereas the latter is rising), though the official unemployment rate remains low (op cit). It is not surprising that Brenda’s is not the only story of difficulty in finding work (not that she’s yet tried, but awareness of the problem was one of the factors delaying her resignation from Amside). Darryl’s struggle to hold down a steady job was a factor in the collapse of his world.

Brenda also has had nowhere to live since she left the house she shared with Tom. Again, housing in rural communities is expensive and often in short supply. The picture differs from rural town to village; lower house prices in rural towns seem to indicate that those who move to the countryside want to live in smaller communities rather than in the local centres. Elona and Darryl could only afford the house on the Green in which they lived because Elona’s employer (Peggy) subsidised the rent.

What, we might ask, are the theological questions in all of this? It might be argued that there are justice issues about employment and housing, but that’s not quite the concern here. It is not that Brenda, Elona or Darryl cannot find work or an home but that they cannot find those where they want to live. Any or all of them might (and Darryl and Elona do) move to Borchester or Felpisham where the economic circumstances fit theirs more nearly. Is it more than sentiment that causes me to empathize with their reluctance to do so?

Fundamentally, this is a question about community and human relationships. That Brenda is (inconveniently) staying temporarily with her brother, his wife and two children, points us to the family as being at the heart of the issue; that their house is adjacent to that of her father, step-mother and step-sister indicates that this is a family that wants to stay close. Historically, the extended family has been at the heart of many an English village; that the programme is called ‘The Archers’ rather than ‘Ambridge’ says something about this. But the Christian tradition is profoundly ambiguous on ‘family’. Its value as a loving community is affirmed in the Marriage service, in the affirmations made in Baptism and Dedication services, in the emphasis placed on Mothering Sunday and even on Fathers’ Day in many churches. But against that we hear the harsh words of Jesus in ignoring the arrival of his own mother and brothers (Matt. 12:46-50), asserting that his disciples must care less for their family than for him (Matt. 10:37f.), and stating the inevitability of the gospel dividing families (Matt. 10:21). ‘Family’ is clearly not the greatest good.

Love is: agape in 1 Cor 13. What causes some people to be reluctant to leave the places that they know is often the realization that they leave behind a network of those close to them who love them and value them. One of the features of the 18th century evangelical revival (influenced by Pietism) was the ‘Strangers’ Friendly Society’, a means by which those who had to move to a new community in search of work would find hospitality and care. It was an outworking of agape. Whilst we feel for those who have to move away from communities they know well and whilst it seems unjust that some are prevented from living close to their family because (as sometimes seems to be the case) property prices are forced upwards by those with little or no commitment to the place, the more important question is – where are the places that people find themselves valued and accepted? And perhaps for the churches, if those places are not apparent, what is being done to create or foster them?

All cows eat grass

DSCF5171_cropThe new friendship (if that is what it is to be) between Helen and Rob Titchener is across an ideological divide. Helen is wedded to the organic principles of Bridge Farm, where the dairy herd is about to go under the hammer. Rob is the manager of the ‘mega-dairy’ which has created so much controversy. Helen and her family are in the business of creating ‘premium products’ with a traceable provenance: even though they will no longer produce their own milk they maintain that their customers will want to know where it is sourced. Rob’s view is that what the market needs is a secure and cheap supply of milk which his enterprise will supply: ‘not everyone can afford to shop at Ambridge organics’.
At one level the dispute seems simple: Rob is turning farming into an industrial process in which the cows are no more than machines which turn whatever they are fed into milk. They will spend all of their days inside, never apparently seeing the sun or tasting a blade of grass. ‘It’s unnatural!’ But the cows will be housed in clean and airy sheds and will have the best of veterinary attention. It is never in the farmer’s interest to keep an unhappy or stressed animal. As he pointed out to Helen, who is to say that his cows are any less happy than those who spend part of the year outside eating grass but are denied that through the winter?
There are those who argue that in a way Rob’s position is more honest than Helen’s; my vegan friend tells me that she believes that drinking the milk of another animal is fundamentally unnatural. If one’s starting point is that human beings have the right to exploit other animals, then provided that is done efficiently and without cruelty, wherein lies the problem?
Tim Gibson (in Church and Countryside: Insights from Rural Theology) argues that rural theology needs to take account of two relationships – those between human beings and those between human beings and the non-human creation. Does Rob’s position prioritize the first and Helen’s the second? Or is it less simple than that?