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?

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