To kneel down in manure regularly beneath a local shearing shed in order to fill bags with manure to raise cash for the parish; raking, shovelling, dragging, sweating, toiling, helps a parson to get the sheep/shepherd imagery of the bible into sharper than usual focus.
When a malicious old ewe, standing in the shearing shed above you, voids her capacious bladder through the grating on to your bald head, to the amusement of the parishioners toiling with you, the sheep/shepherd imagery of the bible takes on a different aspect.
When you have blessed a fleece in a shearing shed, accompanied by a cacophony of corellas in chorus outside, fidgety sheep as well as fidgety parishioners inside, and with a natural incense rising to God as prayer, not from a thurible, but from a strangely pleasing blend of manure, urine and damp wool, then the sheep/shepherd imagery of the bible is seen in a new light.
When you have watched sheep castrated in the old fashioned way with the teeth, when you have assisted in the slaughter and butchering of sheep, and have watched them sheared, dipped and dosed, the sheep/shepherd imagery of the bible loses its stained-glass sentimentality and begins to mean something to you.
It is too easy to be a book-bound, study-bound parson; a theoretical, hypothetical parson; a parson obsessed with liturgical minutiae, fine points of doctrine, diocesan politics and what General Synod is up to. Especially if you are Rector of a wealthy and well endowed suburban parish.
The desperation for cash experienced in small country parishes, which is the most debilitating and depressing fact of life, is also, paradoxically, the most invigorating. It forces the parson out of his study and away from parsonic preoccupations to get alongside people in all sorts of ingenious schemes, enterprises and undertakings. This enables a mutual and realistic appreciation to begin to grow between parson and people, and allows the bible, theology, liturgy and faith to coarsen into the rude vitality of real faith. An authentic shepherd has to stink of sheep. All of which when Rector of the little country village of Skipton, I celebrated in verse:
Under a shearing shed shovelling muck,
Crouching, grunting and down on his luck,
An Anglican Rector discovered the way
To keep cash‑hungry bishop and diocese at bay.
The offertory plate each Sunday was light,
But he didn't despair at the pitiful sight,
Or rant and harangue his faithful few,
He flopped to his knees. But not in a pew!
Under a shed he got down to his praying,
In sweat and in action, not talking and saying,
And so there were filled lots of offertory sacks,
Piled up high, a great mountain of stacks.
This wasn't accomplished completely alone.
He didn't perspire and beseech on his own.
Parishioners too came to kneel in the dung,
To pray with their muscle, not with their tongue.
In Carngham they did it without their Rector,
Hundreds of sacks from this hard‑working sector,
And in Wallinduc's rain and in Wallinduc's mud,
The hand of Sue Robertson split and poured blood,
But still she dug on, with the hard working Netta,
Inspiring the men to do better and better!
So Christ Church Skipton is solvent on dung
And happy am I dung's praise to have sung.
For the stuff has its merits and isn't obscene,
Its smell is not noxious; it's pungent, but clean,
And how well it dissolves a church's debts
And eases a Rector's worries and frets.
Hurrah then for muck, it is glorious stuff,
Our parish and church just can't have enough.
Like roses and lilies we need it to thrive
To keep mother church sweetly fragrant and live! (Skipton 1989)