Other seeds fell on good ground and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!
Preacher: Mr Geoff Dodgson, Honorary Chaplain, British Guild of Agricultural Journalists
15 January 2017, 15:15 (Blessing of the Plough)Blessing of the Plough
Rochester Cathedral – 15 Jan 2017
Hon Chaplain, British Guild of Agricultural Journalists
May I begin by expressing my thanks for the invitation to be here and the
visa to escape the flatlands of fenland for an afternoon.
Your service sheet gives you some background to this service and its
Victorian origins. I suspect the tradition may be much older and rooted in
far more pagan times.
But I do rather like the idea of cavorting around the village with the plough
and stopping at every pub en route. Although, I suspect it will be a rather
mean event. Today my home parish of Fen Drayton has just one pub, rather
than the six that once existed.
And the decline of the village pub, is part of the change I want to think
about this afternoon.
Change that is ripping through Britain’s countryside and our farming
Looking around here, I am sure some of you have ‘enjoyed’ similar
experiences to me?
Hand shearing sheep, milking cows in old cowsheds, driving tractors without
cabs, I could go on about what some consider ‘the good old days’.
But the world has changed, just how much I had not realised until I looked
at the programme for the International farm show in Paris next month.
Let me quote:
The SIMA 2017 theme is ‘Being a farmer in 10 years’ and will be presented
from four main angles:
1. Digital: farming jobs in a digital age
2. Robotics: tomorrow, a driverless tractor?
3. Ecological economics
Such is the high science and technology that is becoming the norm of our
Last week I listened to a Northamptonshire farmer talking about his latest
satellite guided, computer governed cultivation and sowing system. His
biggest complaint was nothing to do with long hours or back breaking work.
Not even lack of horsepower.
His problem was lack of software capacity on the complex of machinery
passing over the land.
This shift brings problems to the rural Christian.
Today, we have heard one of the many parables Jesus told – one of the
parables of the sower. It has always struck me that those of us who have
grown up in farming communities, can relate so much easier to the parables
– which were designed for an agrarian society – than can our urban
However, as farming changes, so our relationship to the parables and
sayings of Jesus, get harder to reconcile.
Of course, technological advance has not been without a price.
When the current Bishop of Huntingdon arrived in the Diocese of Ely, I took
Bishop David out for a day on farms. At lunch time, to get the conversation
going I said to my four farming friends gathered round the table:
Tell the bishop your name, how many acres and what crops you farm; then
tell him how many men worked on the farm when you were a lad and how
many you employ today.
The decimation of landworkers struck the bishop so much that nearly every
time we meet he has had another idea of how to get people back on the
None has impressed me to date.
And of course, it is not just farmworkers who have found themselves out of
work. Rapid technical progress and the vagaries of world markets have
caused real difficulties for some farmers, their businesses and their families.
I pay tribute to those agricultural charities gathered here today for all they
do. And I urge the rest of you all to donate generously, whenever you can
to the causes they represent.
But let me return to the focus of today – the blessing of the plough.
The more I have pondered, the more of a challenge I have with this
You see, in the past few weeks, I have heard a lot of reasons why the
plough – as an implement - is more of a blessed nuisance, than something
to be blessed.
There are siren voices telling us that the precious soil – this shallow skin
that covers parts of the globe and on which we all depend – will only
support another 100 harvests.
Others dispute this, but many scientists and agronomists agree that we
have a problem with our soils.
A letter in this week’s Farmers Weekly bewails the absence of worms; while
data I saw last week showed how modern intensively farmed soils have
seen drastic reductions in organic matter.
That one man can now plough where once 50 men and 200 horses plodded
may be progress, but at what cost?
Perhaps that is something that the SIMA topic of ecological economics might
Today, there is a growing enthusiasm for putting away the plough and
adopting much less aggressive ways of sowing seed and growing crops.
And that is not just the view of someone from the broad arable acres of
Another reason for finding alternatives to the plough was given by Prof John
Geraghty of the Waterford Institute to the delegates of the Oxford Farming
Conference at the start of this year.
He showed a field in Africa full of young children, each with one of those
primitive hoes. You know a stick and a blade on the end.
He amazed those of us listening by telling us that those small children
moved 500 tonnes of earth on every hectare they tilled.
He condemned the practice for two reasons.
1. The damage to soil and release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
2. The fact that those children were labouring when they should have been in school.
But let us return to the words of scripture.
For whether we bless or condemn the plough, the fact remains – as Isaiah
The rain and snow come down from heaven
And do not return until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth
Giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater.
This is what, I believe, we celebrate and pray for today.
The wonder of creation, revealed through our farming industry to take seed
and turn it to food for the whole world.
That is a challenge that our industry takes on every year, every season.
Today there are many challenges and concerns, whether it is the
uncertainty of Brexit; the challenges of climate change; the uncertainty of
pest and disease resistance…
The world still needs feeding.
In the parable of the sower Jesus, commentators suggest that Jesus may
actually have been using a nearby sower on the slopes leading down to
where his boat was anchored as a visual aid.
The man was scattering seed onto a hill side more in hope than certainty.
Following on could have been a plough, turning the seed in where it could.
In some places it couldn’t – the land was too stony, too shallow, too weedy
but where there was good soil the seed delivered returns from 30 to 100 fold.
That is the magic of our farming industry – the multiplication of seed and
livestock for the good and the benefit of all.
Let us today give thanks for all who work the land today and deliver that
same magic on which we all depend.
However, regardless of whether we work in the world of farming or not. Let
us remember the words of Jesus should speak to each and every one of us.
His words, spoken from a boat, were not a lecture on agronomy. They were
a wakeup call to his listeners, whether they worked the land, traded goods,
fished or collected taxes.
As he explains to his disciples later the ground represents people. The hard
of heart – who refuse to receive the word of God; the shallow rooted who
get all enthusiastic and then fade away; the weedy ground – people who
are easily distracted from the way; and the good soil, the fruitful soil.
It is this fruitful soil that Jesus calls us to be. And just as good soil yields
through its constant attention, tilling, manuring and tending. So we are
called to open our hearts to Christ who will help us return our own 100 fold.
Let me end with the closing words from this afternoon’s gospel:
Let anyone with ears - listen!
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