‘New Things’ at the Golf Club.

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One can only hope that Brian will insist that Martyn Gibson pay his own drinks bill at the Golf Club. Martyn has been give a mandate on behalf of the owners of the club (BL) to review the business model in the absence of a general manager; he has taken this as giving him authority to make himself thoroughly unpleasant to Kathy (who manages the hospitality) with a glass constantly in his hand. Some of his criticisms are probably justified; Kathy probably has reason to be defensive about a management style that has favoured treading water over actively seeking to develop the business. But some of Martyn’s solutions seem to be brutal and may be counter-productive: will customers continue to eat at a place that offers smaller portions than the last time they lunched there? Do you improve takings by changing the menu without any market research?

Martin is determined to drive down the costs of the enterprise. His belief that there was excessive waste in the operation was belied by the data that Kathy presented to him, so he turned his attention to the staffing level. He has blocked all recruitment (despite Kathy having dismissed the bar manager) and decreed that each shift should be staffed by two fewer workers than has been the case until now. Kathy has the unenviable task  of telling employees that their hours (and therefore their wages) are to be cut. Which means (as surely Martin must know) that those who rely on their earnings to pay their rent or mortgage or to meet other necessary bills have had their lives made much more difficult.

However, Martyn might answer (if he could be bothered to engage with the issue as he adds ice to his G&T), this is a common dilemma for business leaders. Cut staff hours and employees struggle. Fail to cut costs and the business ceases to be viable; before long there is no business and the mortgage-payers are unemployed.

It is clear to the Christian that Martyn has missed something in his analysis. His argument is based entirely on ‘the bottom line’; his only concern is how to prevent the golf club haemorrhaging money or (as we are not told how critical the situation is) how to turn a very small profit into a much larger one. Kathy (whom Martyn derides as a ‘bleeding heart’) is more concerned about the human cost – what these policies are doing to the individuals concerned and to relationships in the workplace.

In this she is in line with a theological approach. In 1991, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical Centesimus Annus. The hundredth year of the title was the centenary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the papal response to the economic and political situation in the late 19th century. As John Paul reminded us, the fundamental consideration in matters relating to the employment of people by a business is the inherent dignity of human beings. This dignity comes from the place that God accorded to humankind in creation and to the image of God which each human being carries.

That dignity is not found in the individual alone but in the community of persons. Work should contribute to that dignity; human beings find their sense of worth affirmed as they use well the gifts they have been given and the resources of creation which have been placed at their disposal. Within that understanding, the profit motive of business is not to be dismissed or condemned. On the contrary: profit is a sign of resources being used effectively and can be an indicator of human beings working together in a way that fulfils their calling:

“The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication  that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that  productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs  have been duly satisfied.”

However, Martyn Gibson take note:

“… profitability is not the only indicator of a  firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and  yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be  humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this  will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency.  In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is  to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in  various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a  particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator  of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral  factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least  equally important for the life of a business.”

(Quotations are from the English translation of Centesimus Annos: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html accessed Aug 25th 2013)

Are things getting better for dairy farmers?

DSCF5531Tony cannot help but be struck by the irony. Just after the Bridge Farm cows are sold, the farm gate price for milk rises. The average price paid by the ‘registered milk purchasers’ is now just shy of 31p per litre. However, for all that Brian may be rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of the profits Borchester Land is set to make from the vast quantities of milk that the new dairy is set to produce, many farmers are still not happy and argue that they need at least 35p per litre both to cover the cost of production and enable them to continue to invest in their operations.

For most people in Britain, the price of milk is not what is paid to farmers but what they have to pay for the ‘daily pinta’. Though in many cases, it’s the weekly 6 pinta from the supermarket. Those residents of Ambridge (probably the silent majority) who buy their milk that way will not have seen a price rise (apparently 4 pints still retail at about £1.25). Those to whom Jazzer is delivering know that value is not the issue. Earlier in the year, Mike reluctantly agreed to Ed’s plea for an increase in the doorstep price. We’re not told what it is, but 80p a pint would seem to be a likely figure. So there is another irony in all this: Ed and Emma’s economic peer group are unlikely to pay (or to believe that they could afford to pay) 80p for a pint of milk.

The ethical issues raised by the price of milk are complex. It is, we might argue, unjust that anyone should be required to produce food for others at a material loss to themselves. If the milk purchasers pay less than the cost of production at the farm gate, that has to be wrong. On the other hand, milk is a basic foodstuff and an ingredient in a number of ways in many products. The price of many more goods than milk, butter, cream, yoghourt, and cheese, would be affected should there be a major readjustment. There is a danger if poorer people had to pay much more for milk products, the diets of their children would suffer. It is, we might argue, unjust that anyone should struggle to buy the most necessary of goods.

Perhaps the root of the disquiet is that we focus on the price as it is inevitable that a discussion of a market issue will. The ethical issue, the justice question, then becomes about ensuring that neither producer nor consumer is exploited and the answer is to be found in a narrow corridor of agreement that suits both. Moreover, there is an implication that mass production is necessary to keep the price low and that which Ed and Mike or Pat and Tony would describe as ‘quality’ is on offer only to the better off. A broader conversation would ask questions about how the supply of basic foodstuffs can and should operate, so that alongside price questions about quality, taste, and farming methods become part of the discussion.

One of the powerful Old Testament images is of the promised land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The implication it that these are the blessings of life for all God’s people to enjoy. The gift of the land accompanied the gift of the Law, the purpose of which was in part to ensure that none of God’s people was exploited and that none went without the necessities of life. The result of keeping the Law was to be celebration in the land that God had given. It is easy to wax lyrical about the delight of golden butter on fresh bread, of cream over fruit, of children enjoying a glass of cold milk. But (unless your ethical decision is to be a vegan) there is a sense that those things are pleasing to God. Whether the price of milk at the farm gate tops 31p or 32p per litre, that’s the real issue.

‘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?

Nic goes to Church

DSCF5104The invitation was offered – Clarrie suggested to her daughter in law that she might like to join her in attendance at the parish church. She hastened to add that she was not ‘trying to convert’ Nic, so what was she trying to do? She simply wanted Nic to experience something of what she experienced in St Stephen’s – an hour of ‘peace’. The vicar would offer a ‘nice’ sermon. And there was a Junior Church so Nic did not have to worry about keeping an eye on her two young children.
There’s a number of things in this that the rural minister will find familiar: the notable absence of any suggestion that the menfolk of the family might be interested in attending worship; the fact that Nic has already been involved in the flower arranging; the idea that church attendance does not demand belief but is about a place of refreshment, like a sort of spiritual spa. All of which, of course, might be equally true in urban contexts also, but is there something about the village church that contributes to this sort of approach? Is the village church there to represent something that is Christian but broader than creedal tradition?
The invitation was considered: with some hesitation at first (‘It’s not that I’m against – it’s just that I only go at Christmas…’). Nic’s hesitation is itself full of meaning; the practice of Christian faith, like some foodstuffs, is reserved for significant highpoints of the year (the festivals) or life (rites of passage). Does Nic represent the 21st century mission field – a generation that is broadly sympathetic to the practice of Christian faith simply because her contact with it has been occasional and (perhaps) she has never thought very much about it?
The invitation was accepted – and the experience was so positive that Nic travelled with Clarrie to Darrington for the service the following Sunday. There are features of this rural Christian community, moving its worship from village to village, that appeal: the friendliness and potential of meeting new friends, the offering of activities for the children, and the ease of participation (which was unexpected). But what seems to be significant is its relationship to the wider community – going to church is a part (though an optional part) of living in an English village. Is this (contrary to some of the claims about contemporary religious practice) about belonging rather than believing? If (as) the story develops, might that change?