THE other day, I encountered a large truck on a country road in Wales. It was full of bleating sheep, looking balefully through the slits in the side of the metal trailer. I am fairly sure they were on their way to the abattoir.
We hear a lot about sheep in church. They appear in the Christmas story, they are contrasted with the goats, and — as well as being “the Lamb of God” — Jesus called himself “the good shepherd” who knew his sheep, and was known and trusted by them.
Rather than feeling reassured by all these familiar metaphors, I find myself feeling rather troubled that the church bangs on so much about sheep and shepherds.
First, because 95 per cent of the population hardly ever see a sheep. Apart from a few kept for cuddly display at children’s urban farms, there are no sheep in London, Birmingham, Manchester, or any of the other main urban centres. This immediately distances people, especially children, from experiencing the words of the Christian message as being of immediate relevance.
Second, those who live in the countryside, and are involved in modern farming, know that the methods of keeping sheep described in the Bible bear no relation to the way sheep are kept today. Shepherds no longer “abide in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night”. There are no wolves on the prowl in Britain. If sheep do recognise sounds, those sounds are not the voice of the shepherd, but the revving of the quad-bike carrying extra winter feed.
YET even allowing for social evolution and changes in methods of agriculture, a third and far more problematic question arises: for what purpose are the sheep being kept?
It would be no comfort to the self-aware sheep to know that she has a good shepherd who loves her, knows her, and would search high and low to find her if she strayed, if ultimately she exists only to be fattened up and eaten, or to breed children that will be slaughtered for lamb chops. Fortunately, as far as we know, sheep are ignorant of their ultimate fate, although the sheep in the animal carrier I saw sounded far from happy.
In the context of our relationship with God, we are indeed like sheep, but not just because we love our shepherd, or tend to stray from the flock. It is because we have no idea why we are here, or what will happen to us eventually. Surely God is not so two-faced as to appear to love us, but actually want to despatch us and devour us?
Yet, if we take sheep and shepherding analogies too far, we inevitably come face to face with an idea of God that has turned many to atheism. The comedian Stephen Fry, whose comments on Irish television have prompted accusations of blasphemy, used these provocative words: “The god who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”
I strongly suspect that there is a correlation between the decline of the Church and the widening gap between Christian language and that of everyday life. In fact, the overuse by Christian preachers and teachers of dated and alien metaphors may even be a cause of decline. Something, I am sure, will emerge to fill the spiritual void in modern Western society, but, whatever form it takes, it will need to express the love of Christ in very different ways, and to tell very different stories about God.
IN RURAL areas, the few faithful left who maintain church life Sunday by Sunday remain devoted to the familiar. The “sheep” hymns are still some of the most popular, especially at funerals (“The Lord’s my shepherd”) and Christmas (“While shepherds watched”). It is in towns where new things can be tried: Fresh Expressions work best in an urban setting.
Yet whatever exciting forms worship might take in the future, if we still overdo the sheep language the same problems of relevance will arise. The indications are, worryingly, that there is still much talk in the “new” churches of shepherding and flocks, and much Bible study focused on the numerous passages — in both Old and New Testaments — that are about keeping sheep in the Middle East 2000 years ago.
I live in the country, and, in the spring, I love watching newborn lambs playfully racing across a field to find their mother. Setting all the Christian language-baggage about sheep to one side, just in that sight there is a reminder of God the creator. What God creates is joyful, trusting, and hopeful.
I know, however, that those lambs will grow, and turn into young sheep. One day they will be herded into the back of a truck and taken for slaughter. At the slaughterhouse, they will be killed, after which they will be butchered, marketed, bought, roasted, and served at a family Sunday lunch with mint sauce and all the trimmings.
It is here that we get into deeper spiritual territory. Christ is described as “the Lamb of God”, and, at the eucharist, we receive and eat his flesh. In this perplexity, we discover the limits of human language and metaphor. It is spiritual territory in which music, the arts, prayer, and action take precedence over out-of-date vocabulary and imagery.