Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 24th Jul 2016 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

My sermons during July are based on books. Earlier in the month I spoke about Paul Mason's recent book entitled Post Capitalism, but today I shall be speaking about a quite different book: Addlands by Tom Bullough. This recently published, and much acclaimed novel concerns rural life, not least the huge changes that have taken place in the countryside during the twentieth century. How change has moulded society, and how this in turn has changed all of us.

He talks about rural life in all its eternal details, but also about the messiness of family life and about its divisions and conflicts. He mentions how society is loosening its bonds with the land, and how there is an inherent link between language and landscape.

In a delightful and rather haunting way, he reveals how through our ancestors, we're all to a greater of lesser extent, historically rooted in the land. He reminds us that for centuries the countryside has been marked by intense and exhausting agricultural labour, and how in years past, many died through sheer physical exhaustion.

Addlands is a tale of blood feuds and momentous revelations, about the great dramas that often simmer beneath the surface of everyday life. It is focused upon a story about two generations of the Hamer family working on their Farm. It explores their many characters; for example, Idris, a stubborn, strong, a man devoted to the plough and the Prayer Book, but haunted by the Great War. It brings alive the intricacies and tensions of rural life.

I know something of this, because for eleven years I was Vicar of a rural town at the foothills of Dartmoor in Devon. During my time there, the National Park Authority made recordings of local farmers talking about their life on the moor, about its dramatic beauty, wildlife and the cultural heritage of its landscape and inhabitants. A landscape largely created and maintained by generations of people whose lives are deeply entwined with a wild and beautiful place.

Their accounts reflect an emotional and spiritual attachment to some very special places, and talk about the influence of the local church in their lives. I also recall some horrific scenes that came with farming: the BSE infection (mad cow disease) with around 4.5 million cattle slaughtered, and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 with over 10 million sheep and cattle killed. Tragically, during that time a number of farmers also took their own lives.

The countryside, often seen as idyllic and pastoral, can be very, very different for those who make their livelihood from the land. Tom Bullough's book, is all about this sort of life.

The complex Hamer family live on a large homestead in Radnorshire, Wales, but also live with a tortured secret. Idris, the unbending patriarch and tyrant of the family, is a man suspicious of any change. Etty, his indomitable wife, is a woman born into a world unequipped to deal with her. Oliver, their only son, is a junior boxing champion turned hellraising local legend.

As much as the book is about birdsong and beauty, its also about closing time brawls, a harsh existence, and a defensive conservatism. One of its great strengths, is in the clear truth of its language and the sheer humane depth of its inquiries. Its a beautifully written book which quickly unfurls and gives us a glimpse of raw, hard rural life.

It doesn't overlap much with the rural idyll of 'The Archers', but it does grapple with the messiness of ordinary life, and touches on the place and relevance of faith. Without spoiling the story for you, I would like to take the theme further by making the connection between such rural life and the role of the church in deep rural areas.

Not many realise, that just like any depressed inner city, poverty and deprivation are rife in Britain's rural communities, and on the whole the serious social difficulties of people living in the countryside are largely ignored. From my experience of rural ministry, the invisibility and isolation stemming from rural poverty is compounded by a lack of understanding around social exclusion in rural areas.

In 2004, the Church of England published a very good report Changing Rural Life that actually makes a lot of sense, and lists what I believe are the typical features of a well- functioning rural church.

It speaks of the Church as incarnational, in other words reflecting the Christ who lived among us through its involvement in the local community. As unifying, reflecting the Christ who broke down barriers that divide by being open to all. And as open-doored, making people feel that it is natural to come in and belong.

It also has the following characteristics: A celebratory feel, providing appropriate opportunities for people to mark important moments in their lives. A light structural make-up, not being tied to doing everything that other churches do. A culture of nurture and growth, providing opportunities for people to grow and develop; and not least being a spiritually growing people with prayer and worship of God at their heart.

In other words, the Church at the heart of everyday life, giving a clear vision of what it can be in the future. This describes the Church rooted in prayer and worship, and open to everyone.

Such a Church exists to serve others precisely because its alive with the spirit of the one who came into world to serve. At times this vision may seem a million miles away from our frenetic and often complicated lives, but Tom Bullough's novel reminds us that the dynamics of rural living are often fundamentally different from city living.

Here in London we have most things on our doorstep, thousands of things all going on at any one time. In the deep countryside most things shut at around 4pm. After that, there isn't much to do but visit the pub, but as Tom Bullough says, that's a place where everybody already seems to know everybody else's business.

This novel reminds us that a Christian presence in every community is more than just tradition, its the heart of English Anglicanism. The very latest Church of England 'mission shaped' report on faith in the countryside, published last year, speaks of ministry and mission in the rural church as being highly demanding of energy and imagination.

Growth is certainly being slowly realised, but much more remains to be done. We do well to remember that The Church of England in the countryside is ultimately defined by its commitment to being a church for everyone, living out its vocation to be a Christian presence in every small community.

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