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Interview:Anthony Russell, Bishop of Ely

by
16 June 2009

I was driving a tractor the day before I went to theological college. My family were well-known in the agri­cul­tural world, and I grew up on my par­ents’ mixed farm. When I an­nounced my intention to be ordained you could have heard the row in the next coun­ty. But the genes come out in my children: both my sons are land agents.

You don’t easily get away from farming. But, from a very early age, I felt the desire to be ordained, and felt that I wouldn’t be happy unless I re­sponded.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England was one of the early Victor­ian learned societies, founded in 1839 to demonstrate the best modern techniques in agriculture. The Society still responds to government calls for excellence, and presents prizes. I was president in 2004, and director of the Arthur Rank Centre for quite a period.

As a former president, I have some role in the hospitality in the Show. There’s a lot of meeting people from the whole agricultural world, who as­semble there for four days each year. My concerns are mainly now on the charitable side and rural housing, and I sit on one of the House of Lords agricultural committees.

This will be the last Royal Show in its present form: the place of so large a show is untenable now. The local shows are prospering, and the com­modities and specialist shows are doing well. The strong parts are still the livestock and equestrian classes, and I’m sure something of those will con­tinue in some form.

I’m very fond of cattle in all shapes. There’s a huge resurgence of English national breeds like the Shorthorn, which was the standard cattle you would see till relatively recently. Friesian Holstein came in more re­cently, with a high yield, but relatively short-lived. Older breeds are worth pre­serving for meat quality, longevity — they are in many ways superior.

The great problems in the countryside are distances and isol­ation. The experience of poverty in the countryside is that, if you are dependent on public-service pro­vision, it will be a long way away.

Small farms aren’t making a living, and, although they don’t want to leave their homes, tenant farmers are often making very narrow margins. Some farms are just too small to be com­mercial holdings.

And a lot of employment has been mechanised out of existence — hoeing sugar beet, picking crops. It’s either done mechanically or by people brought in from abroad.

We have two-tier farming in the UK: broadacre farming, which produces 90 per cent of our food; and small, spe­cialist or hobby farms which are hugely satisfying to people, but pro­duce about ten per cent of our food.

It’s wonderful that a lot of specialist foods are enjoying a re­surgence. It stands along­side the acres of sugar ­beet and grain, which are un­romantic but nevertheless have to be grown: our home-grown food pro­duc­­tion has dipped to about 60 per cent now, and there’s a lot of con­cern about how imported food is pro­duced.

There has been a total revolution in the lifetime of the present farming community. Farmers look after 70 per cent of the land in England, and they see themselves as caretakers, as well as food producers. So there is now strict legisla­tion on water quality, there are restric­tions on spray­ing, and we’re reversing the policy of grubbing out hedge­rows. Farmers don’t get pay­ments if they don’t meet the regul­ations, and the reg­ula­tions are very strict.

Bovine TB is actually the most ser­ious issue at the moment: reducing TB is vital. 27,000 cattle were slaugh­tered in the first nine months of last year, and 7000 farms were put under restriction orders. It cost the Govern­ment about £80 million. TB is there in the wild stock — deer, badgers, etc. — but the principal contact seems to be badgers. I’ve sat through House of Lords de­bates on this, and we’re not near having full proof of this for a cull.

School visits to farms show the depth of ignorance about where things like eggs and milk come from — and it’s not just the children. People just don’t realise. We’re a very urban society, and things of the country­side are marginalised.

Rural ministry is a specialist minis­try. Clergy can’t just transfer methods which work in urban and suburban ministry. In the country, you have to re­late much more closely to people, perhaps in four or five villages, be­cause that is what is expected. It’s a very demanding role.

It’s remarkable how resistant people are to travelling to church.

Villages are no longer communities in the old sense. That’s what many people who move into the country want, but their own lifestyles are often the agent for destroying that.

I’m nearly the longest-serving bishop: I’ve clocked up nearly 22 years now, and I always enormously enjoy visiting parishes. Ely is a rather special diocese, and we are making as much as we can of our 900th anniversary this year.

Michael Mayne’s This Sunrise of Wonder is a remarkable book — it’s one I read every year. And Owen Chadwick’s Victorian Miniature.

I was for a short time adviser to The Archers. It was the only job I’ve ever been sacked from. They wanted to have an NSM vicar and also a vet, but I knew it wasn’t a runner. My brother-in-law is a vet, and I know it’s almost the only occupation which would be im­possible to combine with the cleri­cal life. He always has his mobile or pager on, and you can’t say, when it’s life and death to a calf: “Hold on, we’ve only just reached the Venite. . .”

We have four children: the two sons who are land agents, a daughter who is an international three-day-event rider, and another daughter with two chil­dren living in London. The whole fam­ily is centred around Oxfordshire, which is probably why I was appointed Bishop of Dorchester before I came here. I plan to retire to Oxfordshire next year, where we have a house.

I will continue as President of the Woodard Foundation, which is an­other part of my life, and I hope to continue writing. Writing got squeezed out of things because episcopal life is so busy. I do regret that.

I always wanted to go into the ministry. In fact, I wanted to go to Africa. I went to St Chad’s in Durham to train for five years, but in the end I be­came ill and the prospect of going abroad retreated. It was difficult to work out spiritually what was happen­ing when I had offered myself and pre­pared myself. I always tell ordinands now: “Be careful about your own plans.” But now I have this feeling of utter rightness about what I’m doing.

I’d like to think I’ve played some part in repositioning the Church’s attitude to serving in the country­side. It’s difficult to think back to how marginalised rural ministry was in the early ’70s. It was true of our national culture as well as the Church.

The man who was in charge of the Norfolk parish where I served my curacy inspired me. He was an arche­typal, faithful, wonderful country priest, Hugh Blackburn, who later be­came Bishop of Thetford.

Parts of Deuteronomy are an agri­cultural manual, telling pastoral people how to exist as an arable nation — manuring, pruning, etc. But I also love the post-resurrection stories — the walk to Emmaus, and so on.

The most unforgettable sermon was one Michael Mayne preached about his father’s death. His father was the rector of a North­ampton parish church, and committed suicide by jumping from the tower.

I get angry about clerical indis­cipline, which I feel I’ve had a basin­ful to deal with. And I get angry about other people’s anger: bishops become a lightning rod of other people’s anger. In our so­ciety now, anger is the guar­an­tor of our concern or genuine­ness about some­thing — it’s extra­ordinary. Episco­pal life is like white-water rafting. You’re always wor­ried what set of boulders will next upset you.

I love being out in the countryside, being able to read the countryside: that’s what makes me happiest. I know what the crops are, what’s wrong if the crops are turning yellow; I can read what the cattle are doing.

I could choose to be locked in a church with Lancelot Andrewes, who was the most famous Bishop of Ely; but he was quite austere stuff. I’m tempted to choose Matthew Wren, uncle of Sir Christopher Wren. He was at Pembroke College and then became Master of Peterhouse and then Bishop of Ely in 1638. During the latter part of the Civil War, he spent long periods in the Tower of London, remaining there till 1660. He made his home in Ely House, Ely Place, in London, and did some revision of the Prayer Book in 1661, before it was published in 1662. He had such a rotten life, but he was a very interesting man.

The Rt Revd Anthony Russell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Royal Show at Stoneleigh, War­wick­shire, runs from 7 to 10 July.

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