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27 September 2013

By Jonathan Boardman


Not so everyday story

I WAS laughing out loud (LOL) as I listened to my Radio 4 podcasts on a flight from Venice to Gatwick a few weeks ago. The source of my good humour? Not the Ambridge Extra Omnibus per se, but the idea behind it.

Let me explain, just in case you are not familiar with The Archers, its Extra, or indeed Radio 4 Extra itself, a digital radio station that broadcasts mainly repeats of high-quality radio comedy shows of the past, and some new material, such as Ambridge Extra. Storylines break free from Ambridge, and take the regular characters to locations never dreamed of in this "everyday story of country folk".

I suppose the intention is to transform the show into a vehicle that is relevant to a younger, "digitally competent" audience - hence the recent affair between the homely Brenda Tucker and the St Petersburg multi-millionaire Dmitry, and Matt and Lilian's run-in with the Russian Mafia.

Marvelling at these occurrences, my imagination ran wild: nonagenarian Peggy Archer setting up as a madam in Felpersham, just behind the cathedral school; or the publican, Jolene, recruited as an experimental physicist after weird properties are exhibited by meat pies served in the Ploughman's; while Shula, discovering the liberating effects of the occasional line of coke, is transformed into a Birmingham bag-lady.

The most ridiculous feature of all is the necessity of keeping the truants from Ambridge in telephonic communication with what is going in the village, or their sparking of that creaking dialogue that we all know and love from Ambridge of old:

Brian (meets Alistair): So good that we beat Darrington yesterday. Shame about your duck. Have you heard from Shula since she left to settle Daniel in at uni?

Alistair (sighing heavily): Yes, a great match, although I wasn't on form; and, no, I think she may be away for some time. (Cue theme music.)

Unthinkable as they seem, these developments appear to fit the bill of taking the village-bound characters to levels of experience deemed "more relevant". I am not so sure.

Traditional calling

RELEVANCE, schmelevance. The news from the recent Fresh Expressions conference in Cambridge is that all these new ways of being church have one thing in common: that they "work", that they start to exhibit signs of Church with that capital C, when the practitioners acknowledge, own, even embrace, their weakness and failure rather than obsess about the smooth running of their outfit.

Odd, that. It reminds me of traditional models of Church: like the time we appear to waste on hopeless, heart-sink cases; like the ever-necessary presence of persons with psychological challenges amid the faithful; like the Dostoevskian "crack-up" of even the most controlled and balanced in our numbers, clerical or lay.

Praying recently for the release from captivity of our friend here at All Saints', Archbishop Ignatius Kattey, of Niger Delta diocese, Nigeria (News, 13 September), put it all into context. Christ reigns from the Cross - so what's new? Oh, maybe a mission statement that expects growth at all costs.

My hunch is that the Spirit is saying something just a little ironic to the churches. Do not pray for growth if you are not welcoming of the inhabitants of the hedgerow.

Now, never let it be said that I do not agree that we could grow, and that we should - here, where I am, and also across the whole Church. I am, after all, an archdeacon, however little that is acknowledged by the national Church, which shows every sign of thinking that my and my colleagues' calling is to be a cross between a diplomatic hanger-on and a legally impaired area dean.

As archdeacon, I look at registers, websites, and annual accounts, and I ponder and pray. I visit widespread communities throughout Italy and Malta, and I try to make constructive suggestions. I engage with local partners, and identify common goals and shared resources.

As Chaplain of All Saints', Rome, I foster a ministry team, which now includes four lay ministers and worship leaders, two NSM assistant curates, and three honorary assistant priests. And I hearken to simple instructions from successful mentors: open the doors of the church, wash your face and your clothes, tidy up the mess that churches attract, and yet accept the messy. Say "hello," and "goodbye", and listen, listen, listen.

Fresh plotline

THE ARCHERS has, in the past two years, introduced two characters called Jonathan: "Jonty", who rented the cottage next to Tom and Brenda and did a moonlight flit; and "Jono", who rejected Helen as a partner because of her single-parent status. This is, I would claim, Jonaphobia.

I demand a new character in Ambridge Extra: Archdeacon Jon, who meets Pip Archer and her boyfriend, Spencer, on the Spanish Steps during their city break to Rome, and convinces her that she should develop a Fresh Expression amid the milking-parlours of middle-England. Cows welcome.

Now that's what I would call relevance.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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