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Angela Tilby: Don’t let the sheep go astray

01 December 2017


THE debate sparked by Ted Harrison’s article about not wanting to be addressed as a sheep (Faith, 17 November; Letters, 24 November) has been running for many years in one form or another.

It lies behind the decision in some dioceses to drop the term Rural Dean in favour of, for example, Area Dean. It has inspired some scriptural and liturgical paraphrases, in an attempt to get round the sheep-based imagery.

An example of this is the version of the 23rd Psalm by Toyi Miyashiro: “The Lord is my pace-setter I shall not rush; he makes me to stop and rest for quiet intervals. He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity. . .”. The popularity of this adaptation suggests that it speaks to Christians stressed by city life; but, of course, its power rests on an awareness of the original. Whatever “images of stillness” the Lord may provide, they probably hark back in the end to something like green pastures and still waters.

It is almost impossible to take the rural imagery out of Christianity. Scripture itself is permeated with it. The kings of Israel are shepherd kings, descendants of David. The first images of Jesus in the early Christian catacombs are of the Good Shepherd, bearing a huge lost ram on his shoulders.

Although Jesus’s ministry began in rural Galilee, Christianity quickly became an urban faith, reaching Rome less than 20 years after the crucifixion. Christianity spread from city to city along the imperial trade routes. Ironically, it was the country that got left out. Gregory the Great found the Roman countryside barely evangelised even in the sixth century.

I am not persuaded that rural imagery should be bypassed; nor do I feel particularly insulted to be addressed as a sheep. I quite like rural deans, too, even in cities. Sheep remain part of the country landscape, and so of our spiritual landscape, as the Advent liturgies remind us: “Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.”

The real cultural problems arise when Christianity is adopted in a setting where some of its dominant imagery simply has no reference. I remember a sermon by Jeffrey John, in which he spoke about the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu. There were no sheep in Vanuatu, so references to sheep and lambs were simply incomprehensible. There were, however, pigs, which were highly valued. They could be given as a bride-price and offered in mitigation for adultery. So it made sense in Vanautu culture to speak of the precious “piglet of God”, and to refer to swineherds rather than shepherds.

What happens now that a small number of sheep have been exported to Vanuatu I cannot imagine: a knotty problem for the local branch of the liturgical commission.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.



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