What has the church got to do with sheep?

I have suggested that it would be a good idea, for many reasons that I will mention below, for us to get some sheep to graze our field and the older parts of our graveyard at St Marys Church. A friend and colleague said the above and it made me laugh. Because in a way they are so right, but also given that key parables and stories in the New and Old Testaments refer to lambs, sheep and shepherding the answer had to be, ‘well actually, an awful lot’.

It seems to me that there is a need at this time for the church to use its history and resources to reconnect with its rural communities and for it to be a place that educates and inspires future generations in care for the environment; which necessarily means a focus of FOOD. There is a consensus of scientific thinking on climate change that places food production, care for the soils and for sustainability and resilience in delivery high on the agenda. For years we have been horrified that children have so little awareness of where their food comes from, but little has been done to change this because in fact it is not easy for them to engage with industrial food production that, for example, grows pigs in crates through slaughterhouses and out as a cheap sausage. Farms are factories that are not very child friendly and sanitised lifestyles have created a chasm between soil and kitchen.

The church through the centuries has survived many crisis not least because it is resourceful and, following the teachings of Jesus in every age, it always has something new to offer. It has been called to many great endeavors, from the primary deliverer of hospital and schools in the 19th Century to the recent focus on caring for the poor with shelters and food banks. It is my belief that it is time for the church to engage with the great crisis of our time, which is the ecological disaster that we have created, and to set up farms!

At the beginning of lock down I searched the internet to see what the church was doing with regards to farming and food production and found nothing. There are organisations that support farmers but I was looking for agrarian communities, church run city farms and community orchards and gorilla gardening but there appeared to be nothing. I think this is a shame for the following reasons.

In my mind there is nothing closer to God than being outside, in nature and in contact with animals, tending the soils and nurturing growth. Our Old Testament and the life and teachings of Jesus are rooted in the life of the people in relationship with the earth. With the writing of Paul in the letters of the New Testament we get the rise of the first urban Christians, but before that it is all wheat and soil and lambs, grapes and bread. For many people their sense of the Divine, or the awakening of their spiritual lives, is found in relation to the natural world or in the love of their animals and garden.

The land around our rural churches and the glebe land that the church owns are ideal places for nurturing an encounter with this revelation of Divinity. Our graveyards, tended for wildlife could also have a chicken arch or sheep to graze them and local families could be part of the care of these animals; engaging with their lifecycles and appreciating the true cost of the meat and eggs they eat. Gorilla Gardening is the use of common land for the growing of vegetables for the community to freely pick and there is often room for a pear or a plum tree for children to pick on the way home from school. It is all about GIFT, about abundance, and the humility and wonder of nature’s bounty which is the source of awe and of encounter with the spirit that fills our souls.

It is also about Justice, about the recognition that everything we eat has a cost; a cost for the producer, the animal and for the planet. Justice for the farmers who struggle to produce the food from all around the world and justice for the soils and the fragile biodiversity that is being stripped away by our demand for cheaper and cheaper food.

So for me the church has a lot to do with Sheep!

I would like to have the opportunity to share lambing time with the local school children and with the whole community. To show them the process of their clothing from shearing through spinning to jumper. I would like them to know that the hoggets will be slaughtered for them to eat meat and to learn where leather comes from. I would like them to feel warm animal breath on their faces on a freezing cold morning and see the steam rising as they muck out the shed, with the sweet smell of manure and satisfying munching of straw as a soundtrack. For some children and adults this will be something that changes their lives, that increases their wellbeing and gives them hope…. I hope it will be that for many; it certainly is for me.

At present when we take ecochurch in to the schools we encounter too many children who won’t touch the soil. I would like to help to change that, with our herb garden, our outdoor fires, orchard and animals because for some it will be an encounter with their spiritual selves that will last a lifetime.

This lively book explains some of the history and also refers to the loss of species in graveyards which I fear may have happened in St Marys. I hope that grazing will help to restore some of the species that we have lost if carefully managed.

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