I LACK any flower-arranging skill beyond jamming them into a vase and hoping for the best. Yet, one of the most fascinating mornings I have spent this year was at a talk by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Felicity Hall on the flower rota at St Stephen’s.
It was notable not only because it presented the rota as a way of cementing respectability, but because St Stephen’s is entirely fictional. Hall’s talk was part of the annual Academic Archers conference which shines rigorous light on the world’s longest-running drama series, The Archers on BBC Radio 4.
The borders between our world and that of The Archers (as the fan podcast Dum Tee Dum describes it, “a docu-drama set in the West Midlands”) are gossamer-thin. Listeners can document the year’s passing on the annual wall calendar, and cook from Jennifer Aldridge’s Archers’ Cookbook (The Archers Year of Food and Farming, a follow-up by scriptwriter Keri Davies, was published last week), while familiar services such as the Easter vigil, Harvest Festival, and Remembrance Day have their counterparts at St Stephen’s.
While the clergy I speak to dismiss Ambridge’s parish priest, the Revd Alan Franks, as “a bit feeble”, the series’ portrayal of the Church’s place in the life of a country parish is praised. “It’s a bit annoying that the omnibus is on Sunday morning to be honest,” sighs the Revd Jane Ball, 51, Vicar of the Hampshire parishes of East Meon and Langrish, and a long-time dipper-into Ambridge goings-on. “There’s an identity with a rural ministry. Even if people don’t go, they think it’s ‘their’ church, they’ll still be gossiping about it in the local shop. It’s like The Vicar of Dibley: people think it’s a comedy, but it’s real life writ large.”
The story around Alan’s marriage to the Hindi solicitor Usha Gupta was a realistic portrayal of the lack of privacy experienced by a vicar in a small parish. “I love being a visible member of the community, but it really is a goldfish bowl where everything you do and say is taken as a representation of the Church,” says Mrs Ball, whose husband, Jonathan, is also ordained. “There’s a pressure to stay looking normal and happy and engaged, and it can be really difficult.”
WHILE life at the vicarage might have taken a back seat (whither Usha?), faith in Ambridge has recently moved to the forefront thanks to the humourless Shula Hebden Lloyd’s decision to retrain from stables owner to minister (Radio, 7 June) — hot on the heels of an unreciprocated crush on a former lover, her divorce from the vet Alistair Lloyd, and the departure of her only child, Daniel, to join the Army.
“Shula’s sense of call is an interesting one,” says Canon James Mustard, Precentor of Exeter Cathedral, who has listened to The Archers since he was at boarding school, recording episodes on cassette to listen to after supper. “She’s been a churchwarden for years, and very much in the orbit of St Stephen’s.
“However, it does feel a little bit as if Shula fancies the local builder, doesn’t know how to handle that, gets divorced, and then, in the vacuum, discovers a passion for Jesus.”
Shula’s initial interview with Borchester’s Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), from which she emerged with very ruffled feathers, was well done, he thinks; but her plans are being depicted as a career change rather than a vocation. “What they’ve shied away from is that more challenging conversation about its being a calling — where it’s not really her decision. So that’s slightly not quite as on-the-ball as it could have been.”
Her divorce may not be as much of a hurdle as it used to be, but there are limits. “Bishops will allow you to have been married twice, but not three times. Poor Zsa Zsa Gabor wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
THE Revd Dr Daniel Inman, DDO for the diocese of Chichester for three years, is an expert in the hurdles on the track to ordination. He has been an Archers listener since his curacy, when it followed on from evensong. He is currently checking up on a new scriptwriter on Twitter to see if he’s been brought in to beef up the church storylines. (“He does seem to follow a lot of humanists. . .”)
Despite her regular church attendance, Shula hasn’t always demonstrated Christian virtues. In the 1990s, she had an affair with Usha Gupta’s partner Richard Locke, and in 2008 fell out with Alan over his marriage to Usha because of her Hindu faith.
“My friends and I were trying to think about positive things about Shula, and the best we could come up was maybe when she stood up for Freddie against his aunt Camilla?” Dr Inman says, doubtfully. “She’s not a particularly discerning character. She covered up for Rob Titchener when he hit the hunt saboteur, which raised questions about her integrity; and there are questions about her tenacity, especially about the vows she made at her marriage. Could they have spent more time working out whether it could have lasted?”
Shula’s being asked to write her biography (“a classic DDO task!”), which should reveal answers to some of the questions that listeners, especially the clergy among them, might have. “‘Why now?’ is the key one that any DDO would want to ask. With Alistair having disappeared, and Dan absent, she is more involved in the church — but does that necessarily mean ordination?”
SINCE 2019 marks 25 years since women were first able to be ordained, and five years since they could become bishops, some clergy think that it’s a shame that The Archers has chosen Shula to pursue the priesthood rather than someone younger and more charismatic. Others question whether the anniversary needs commenting on at all.
“On the one hand, there’s the feeling of ‘Gosh, 25 years! It should have been longer,’” Mrs Ball, who started her career as an Army chaplain, says. “I feel frustrated that we’re still going around the same totem pole with the ordination of bishops. But I wish we could get to the point where being a woman or a man didn’t matter.”
Shula’s late-in-life decision to devote herself to God is fairly typical of a mixed-blessing phenomenon, she says. “The really baggy part of me sees menopausal, middle-aged women whose children have left home and who think, ‘Oh, I’ll go and work for the Church.’
“But the positive part says: ‘These things happen: someone gave you a tap on the shoulder.’ Sometimes you look at what life has chucked at you in a wider context of faith and think: ‘This is all grist to the mill.’”
“With this great increase in young vocations it’s unfortunate that it’s Shula being demonstrated,” Dr Inman says. But, with Nic Grundy now sadly lost to sepsis, none of Ambridge’s young people go to church, let alone approach having a vocation. “Freddie’s unlikely. Phoebe’s full of idealistic passion — but she’d be even more irritating than Shula.”
Certainly at 61, were she in Dr Inman’s diocese, Shula would be on the older side of candidates, 50 per cent of whom are under 35. Canon Mustard isn’t sure that she would be ordained at all. “I don’t know what the policy is in the diocese of Felpersham, but in St Albans, for example, I don’t think they would ordain someone [of 61] at all,” he says. “It may vary from diocese to diocese, but they were reluctant to take anyone to begin training after 55, even for non-paid, self-supporting ministry.”
The length of time and money invested in training is an issue. By the time Shula qualified, he says, she would have few years of service before having either to retire at 70, or to get a bishop’s permission to officiate: “You can lead services, but it doesn’t offer you the security of being the vicar, and you have an annual review to check that you’re fit.”
The clergy agree that the woman whom listeners ironically nicknamed “St Shula” is a bit too humourless and earnest to cope with the rigours of clergy life. “When I look at a candidate, I think: ‘Would I like this candidate praying for me at my deathbed?’” Dr Inman says. “And would you want her doing your mother’s funeral? They’re not official criteria, but helpful.
“Being a vicar is about teaching people how to pray and how to die — and I don’t think I’d want Shula teaching me either.” He recommends that scriptwriters give her “at least” a six-month placement away from the village to strengthen her commitment: “Ideally, somewhere where we don’t have to hear about her.”
SO, what next for the parish of St Stephen’s?
“My tip for the next scandal is when Adam and Ian’s child is born [to surrogate mother Lexi Viktorova],” Canon Mustard says. “In canon law you cannot refuse to baptise any child, whatever the parents’ arrangement. I suppose if you were adopting a child, you wouldn’t expect the parents to be present, but it sounds like Lexi is planning to; so it will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Knowing Alan as I do, he will want to do it.”
Like the rest of The Archers’ millions of listeners, he has confidence — not in the scriptwriters, but in these parishioners, so familiar to us, who exist only in our radios.
Kat Brown is a journalist who writes a weekly column on The Archers for The Daily Telegraph.