The Religious Basis of Rural Culture

an excerpt

Martin Thornton

Authorized Reissue

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Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral
Former Dean of King’s College, London

“Nature’s a rum ‘un,” said Mr Squeers, and few have questioned the truth and profundity of his remark. Mr Thornton’s book is about one part or aspect of this strange, fascinating and awesome creature of God; it is about the Nature which by Man’s tendance becomes “The Land,” and so the means by which God wills to give us all our daily bread. The author is singularly well-equipped for his task. In former years he farmed his own hereditary acres, today he is an Anglican priest and a trained theologian. The reader will find himself embarked upon a sustained argument in which an intimate acquaintance with rural life is skillfully combined with a scholarly knowledge of Christian Doctrine to demonstrate the essentially sacramental nature of “The Land.” The book is the product of direct experience and hard thinking and entirely avoids the snare of pseudo-Wordsworthian gush. Indeed, the author unconsciously provides the strongest proof of his thesis in revealing the depth and spiritual quality of his own mind.


If we compare the world of today with the great ages of the past, we are immediately forced to the conclusion that their respective pros and cons are so intertwined that such a comparison tends to become rather pointless. The Good Old Days were not particularly good and the Bad Old Days were not particularly bad. Yet the application of the adjective “great” is not quite meaningless.

The paradox will be complete to the modern mind when it is realized that those ages or civilizations which seem to justify this description (as for example, the European culture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, or the flowering of the English Renaissance under Elizabeth) were dominated by “religion” while their sense of social justice, morality, democratic freedom, and what we would call “standard of living” was vastly inferior to the ethical ideals of our own times. But this paradox is only valid if we interpret “religion” according to the current fashion, which insists on putting the second Christian commandment first, and the first nowhere at all; which so stresses Jesus-The-Teacher that it eliminates Jesus-The-Christ.

The human being, alone among God’s creatures, can ask the question “Why?” It is, moreover, instinctive and vital that he should ask it, and the question fairly faced must inevitably lead beyond the temporal good to the Eternal God, to the purposeful reality, the ultimate goal. To whatever Utopian heights we may reach in temporal virtue and social justice, human life remains empty and meaningless if we discard the idea of eternity, not as everlasting time, but as the elimination of time—the Eternal Now.

But there are two primary forces which, despite human progress and regress, are common to all ages, including our own. We have the Spirit of God, dwelling within the Christian Church, and ministering to the human urge toward eternal salvation; and the force of Fertility, by which all worldly life is created and sustained. The Church and Sacraments may be regarded as the extension, in time and space, of the Incarnation and Crucifixion of the Son. Soil Fertility may be similarly regarded as the extension of the Creation of the Father. But the Father and the Son is One God and the fact that both of these forces spring from the eternal purpose of a common Creator, a purpose behind an indissoluble and integrated synthesis, would suggest that there is some primary connection between them.

Today the respective parties to this synthesis are subject to struggle, disagreement, and schism within themselves. The various sects, denominations, and parties which come under the very general heading of “Christianity” are no greater in number than the various schools of through in the spheres of Rural Economy and Agriculture. We still find disciples of Wordsworth who found whole wonderful worlds in a single wild blossom; and of Johnson, to whom “one green field is after all, very like another.” There are those who would wish a completely mechanized, commercial, agriculture; while some, despairing at the sight of a single tractor, look wistfully to the days of the bewhiskered and be smocked. Wealthy men would spend their lives in maintaining their village’s Tudor integrity whilst its inhabitants shriek for electric light and omnibuses. Practical farmers join together against the encroachments of agricultural scientists who disagree among themselves.

In the middle of it all stand the village churches, vying with one another on matters of liturgical theology which are quite irrelevant to their environment, or attempting schemes of social organization which are equally irrelevant to their mission.

A return to the idea of an integral synthesis, of an eternal purpose, would suggest that some fresh light might conceivably be thrown upon the respective problems of these two spheres if they were brought together again and compared side by side. We would emphasize the word “compare,” for it must be remembered that we are dealing with ultimate things, with categorical orthodoxies over which we have no control. Fertility is a perpetual and integral part of the original creation; the Christian religious is not primarily a code of moral behavior or social ethics, but a body of doctrine spring from the supreme revelation of ultimate truth by that same Creator. Both are grounded upon facts, not on theories which can be basically altered, or “adapted,” in the sense which means “watered down” or fundamentally changed to fit in with the temporary whims of a finite human society. We can only “compare” and attempt to find out whether or not they are, in fact, “adapted,” whether they are essentially coincident or antagonistic in principle, and if any relevance can be found between them, then the particular problems which both are not facing may appear to be a little less difficult.

Our purpose, therefore, is not so much to take sides with any particular school of rural thought or theological scholarship, but rather to introduce them and, if possible, arrange a marriage. We would embark upon the eternal quest for truth by trying to supply some kind of common anchor for two academic balloons, both of which are inclined to fly gaily over the heads of their respective laities.

In modern theological circles, for example, there is a tangle of conflicting opinion about “religious experience.” The teachings of Dr Rudolf Otto are commonly regarded as “dangerous”; few would care to accept all he says without reservation, yet few would categorically reject it. For the purposes of this little study we make full use of Dr Otto’s work without hesitation; not because the academic fashion supports him, nor because we are particularly attracted, but because it tends to be supported by the facts of rural life.

Similarly, we oppose the agricultural school which seeks a return to the rule of “natural order”; not that we are particularly repelled by the idea, but because it seems to be quite incompatible with the orthodox doctrines of Christianity.

Thus the object of this particular study may be summed up in those familiar phrases which we so often read, or hear, in the concluding lines of rural books, articles, and addresses. On such occasions we are informed, amid polite applause, that … “the material and spiritual welfare of humanity is rooted in the soil,” or, “the land is the basis of all human development.” “The farmer (and/or farm-worker) is the backbone, the very life-blood, of all civilization,” etc., etc. This sentiment forms an extremely effective oratorial flourish, an uplifting literary finale; but does it really mean anything? If it means nothing in particular, as the polite applause would imply, then it is a perfectly justifiable piece of professional rhetoric; but if it is a true statement of fact, then we are faced with a truth of the most profound significance to all generations and to our own in particular. We are confronted with a truth that raises a most formidable host of theological, political, and agricultural questions; which can only be examined by the leading scholars and technicians within these spheres.

This very short volume evolves from a personal belief that the sentiments to which we have alluded, though usually expressed in the rather distorted manner pertinent to the grinding of some particular axe, are not entirely false.


© Akenside Press and Matthew C. Dallman, 2016. Reissued with permission of Monica Thornton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, Akenside Press.

Cover image “St._Rumwolds' Church, near Bonnington, Romney Marsh, Kent” by Paul Russon is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original