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.
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
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
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.
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.