At “Spirit of the Countryside” five years ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave a sermon to the Countryside.
Nearly 1500 people gathered at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire on Pentecost Sunday for a service at which Archbishop Rowan preached, followed by a picnic lunch and live music. Throughout the service, symbols of the countryside were brought to the altar to thank God for his gifts: sheaves of corn, a freshly baked loaf of bread, a shepherd’s crook, water and flowers. Children participated in the service by singing, dancing, playing hand-bells and leading prayers, and the Archbishop delivered a special Prayer of Blessing of the Farming Community.
This Sunday, Dear Readers, I thought I’d post you a copy of the Archbishop’s sermon as it is still pertinent today and elucidates on matters this magazine discusses day in day out. As always I wish you a peaceful and blessed day. Here is a copy of the sermon, below:
“It’s a real delight to be able to join you for this very special occasion, and I want to thank you for your welcome. Bishop John, thank you very much for making us all feel welcome here. And I hope that those outside [of the marquee] are not perishing of heatstroke already – I promise I’ll try not to go on too long.
When Bishop John was talking about the prayers for rain that he’d been offering earlier this year, my mind went back to one of the stories I grew up with in Wales about that. A little chapel in the Welsh countryside, where there hadn’t been any rain for a long time – the farmers were getting very, very worried, and the minister offered a very, very earnest prayer for rain one Sunday. Sure enough, all through the next week it rained as if it was going out of fashion, and there were floods and all sorts of things. And the next Sunday, the minister got up in chapel and began by saying “Almighty Lord, you probably remember that last week we asked you for rain, and sure enough you gave us rain in rich abundance. I suppose, Lord, we want to thank you for that abundance. Only next time, Lord, have some sense.” I guess there are occasions when our prayers have been answered and we’ve felt a bit like that.
But it does take me to some of my own memories of ministering, as a bishop, to farming communities in Wales over 10 years ago. And especially to what I suppose, for us, was the very worst time in recent history for farming – and that was the time of the foot and mouth outbreak, about 10 years ago, which hit our area of Wales very hard indeed. One memory of that time is of farmers and their families not being able to leave their farms, waiting there for the slaughterers to arrive, and sometimes waiting for two days without being able to get out of the house or the property and feeling, as you can imagine, very desperate. I remember one farmer’s wife ringing up the bishop’s office in tears. There was nobody to talk to, she just wanted to pour out how she was feeling about the loss, not only of ‘a few animals’, as some would think of it, but the loss of a whole way of life.
Because so many of those farmers in Wales were, of course, part of families who’d been farming the same land for generations, and developing flocks, breeds, of various kinds that were, as they say, ‘hefted’ – that were native to the territory; that worked with the territory. Somehow, what had developed was a real relationship between livestock and land and farmers. And all of that was being broken apart by that terrible catastrophe.
I think for somebody right outside of that situation, it’s quite hard to understand why a farmer might be so deeply distressed by that prospect. But it’s something about farming, something about rural life, which I guess relates to one of the phrases we heard in that Bible reading just now. Farmers know more than they can always say. Everybody who lives and works in the countryside knows something about how land works, about how weather works, about how animals work. They know things they can’t always put into words. There’s a sense of how it works; a sense of how things fit. Break into that, and it’s a great deal more than just a loss of income: it’s a breaking of a relationship.
Jesus talks, in the Bible reading we heard, about being a good shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep recognise his voice. And again, people outside of this setting will probably find it quite difficult to believe that shepherds really know their sheep, or that sheep recognise human voices. But of course they do, and it’s one of those rather mysterious things about life in the countryside that you can’t boil down to formulas and you can’t teach out of textbooks. It comes patiently, over time. It comes with relationship.
There’s a great deal that we could say about what it’s like living in a society which doesn’t understand the rural setting at all, and doesn’t understand any of that. You’ve only got to read some of the national newspapers to realise how little understanding there often is of rural communities at the moment, and how extra-tough that makes it for people who live in that context and find their living and their meaning in that context. But here we are, being reminded in this reading, that there are things in our human life that we can’t always crystallise sharply; that we can’t reduce to formulas; that we can’t teach just by words or techniques. There are some things we only learn, over time, in relationship.
People who live and work in the countryside have good reason to know that that is true. And that’s something which we who share the Christian faith might well want to say to the rest of our society: there are some things you can only know by taking time; there are some things you can only know by being there. And whatever the claims made for technical, scientific knowledge – important as those things are – they don’t actually substitute for the kind of knowing that takes time and builds relationship. It’s true, goodness knows, of every family. It’s true of some kinds of work and life. It’s true of faith.
And that’s why I don’t think we should be pushed too easily into a corner about faith. When somebody says to you, very aggressively, “Well come on, prove it to me. Why should I believe this?” sometimes the only answer is “Well, take a bit of time over it. See what it feels like. Watch people’s lives. Be there.”
About 100 years ago, one great scholar writing a book on Christian prayer, said that if he wanted to explain to somebody what the Christian faith was like, he’d simply say “Go and live for three months in this little village in Switzerland that I’ll tell you about, where most people go to church and get on with it, and then we’ll talk about the ideas. Don’t let me waste your time with theories; just go and see it done. Be there; build the relationship. And things begin to make sense. And you will know things you wouldn’t otherwise know.”
Well, that’s one of the ways in which life in this rural context connects very, very deeply with the sort of thing that faith is. Faith isn’t either a set of clear, certain conclusions, nor just a set of vague ideas. Faith is slowly and steadily feeling your way into the place you have before God. Sensing it; feeling the relationships, just as the farmers in south-east Wales 10 years ago were rooted in their relationships with land and livestock and with each other – and so felt so deeply, so painfully, the shock when that was being ruptured or taken away.
But that’s just the human side of the story. Faith is about taking time, building relationships. But there’s the divine side of the story as well. There’s the way in which God looks at us, God relating to us, the field that He farms, the territory that He has mapped out for His work. And when Jesus says “I know my sheep, and they know my voice”, He is saying that God Himself has, as we might say, an instinctive feeling for us. It’s not that God creates us like machines and sets us running and looks at us from a long distance. God is as deeply involved with us as any farmer or cultivator is with the land and the livestock. God’s life has in some way gone into this. He knows us from inside, he’s taken the time, he’s built the relationship. And as St John’s gospel says in another place, He knows what’s inside human beings.
So God knows what we need. God instinctively knows where we’re hungry, where we’re suffering, where we’re doubting, where we need assurance, where we need his presence. And it’s out of that deep, age-long, eternal, instinctive knowledge of what we need and where we need to be built up, that God takes the action that He does in stepping into our world in the life of Jesus Christ. What we need: we need to know we’re loved without condition, loved without any forms to fill in, loved without any standards to satisfy, just loved. God knows us from inside and He knows we need to know that.
So, in God comes. In and through the life of Jesus, and the death of Jesus, and the rising to life again of Jesus. Giving us what the Bible calls the desire of all nations, what everybody really wants: the assurance of a faithful, forgiving God. He knows what is inside human beings. And coming into our world, that is what he builds with us.
So if we do spend a bit of time reflecting on what kind of knowledge it is that farmers and people working in the countryside have of their environment, it gives us a picture of those two things. How do we get to know God? How does God know us? Deep, instinctive knowing, and God knowing what we need – as it were, quarrying down to the level of our being where we’re able to recognise who He is and what He’s doing. As we recognise that, knowing too that we now know something about our neighbours, we know what other people need. They need unconditional welcome, they need forgiveness, they need love. And we, recognising God’s love for us, begin to sense what other people need from us in terms of love, and to act on that in His strength and His grace.
Well, I began with a story of a prayer going wrong, so to speak, and said that you never quite know what’s going to happen if you pray. Except that there’s one of the prayers in our prayer book which talks about God giving us more than either we desire or deserve, which is certainly what was going on in that Welsh chapel, I think. Giving us more than we desire or we deserve – we come to God and we tell Him what we think we want; God gives us what He knows we want. And sometimes it’s as much of a shock as the floods in that Welsh village – as much of an overflow, as much of an excess. We never thought it was going to be like that. Because what God has to give us in terms of love and hope and promise, is more than we could have ever imagined.
Not surprising really, if we’re tempted sometimes to say with that Welsh minister “Next time, have some sense” – but then it’s St Paul himself who says that the foolishness of God is wiser than human beings. Perhaps we ought to leave God alone for that. He has the sense to know what we truly need, and the strength to build us up in that knowledge: to know Him, to know one another, to rejoice in the abundance that He gives.”