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.

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‘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.