Sometimes random things stick in your mind for years, and it was many years ago I remember listening to a programme on Radio 4 about a man who is the shepherd of a flock of sheep which graze the grassy banks of a big reservoir right by the side of the M4 near Heathrow. The sheep keep the slopes from becoming overgrown; it is cheaper and easier than mowing places that are so steep. The shepherd was interviewed and the conversation went something like: “Isn’t it strange being a shepherd of a reservoir, especially so close to the M4 and Heathrow, a shepherd usually looks after sheep in the countryside or even mountains?” He replied, “Not at all, sheep are sheep, doesn’t matter where they are really, the job is the same.” What an oddity to remember, but somehow the image of a shepherd concentrating on sheep, despite the roar of planes taking off and the thunder of millions of cars zooming past, was comforting.
I know the job of a shepherd has changed beyond recognition through time. Today shepherds ride around on quad bikes, even helicopters, and they use chemicals and trucks and all kinds of breeding techniques on their sheep, it simply isn’t the same as it was 2000 years ago. The sentimental image of a man carrying a crook and carefully tending his flock all day in the fields has long gone, shepherds are in the modern world; the emotional involvement however is most likely still the same. How a shepherd does the job day to day has changed, what he or she feels probably hasn’t.
In May 2009, lambing time, The Guardian interviewed a shepherd about daily life and when asked why he loves it Andy Jackman replied: "It's not a job, it's a way of life, and it's got to be treated as a way of life, because you couldn't do it otherwise. But it is extremely rewarding. And you're here now talking to me at the most rewarding time of the year." What's so nice about it? "Life," he says immediately. "Life. Life is coming up in front of your very eyes. And you're helping to bring life into the world." No change there then, the heart of the job is still the same. Andy Jackman didn’t say he loved it because it was in the countryside or up a mountain, but because it was about life.
This image has been stronger in my mind the last few weeks as the Catholic Church charters stormy and unknown waters. This vast and traditional institution faces change and it is notoriously slow at changing. The media is baying for a shift in position and transparency; the laity is unsettled and disturbed by the accumulating mass of crimes and cover-ups (or head-in-the-sand approaches). The public shaming of Keith O’Brien has been a severe blow. How will these senior shepherds re-group and focus in Rome over the next few days with so much pressure?
The image of a shepherd doing the job of tending no matter how fast life zooms around is a good one. The job of a leader is to stay focussed and lead through change, not to ignore it or be carried away by it. The M4 shepherd and Alan Jackman are modern shepherds who operate in a contemporary world whilst still doing the basic job of caring and managing. So it is with the leaders of the Catholic Church, it is imperative not to be tied to a past that no longer exists but at the same time hold firm to the basic instruction of Jesus to “feed my sheep.” Change is inevitable and often good but if change is always regarded as wrong then the leader can no longer lead successfully in a dynamic world, and the sheep suffer. I’ll be praying for calm wisdom and courage as the media storm whirls around the Vatican and I’ll also be praying for healing for all those who have been hurt, wronged and degraded as the walls crumble.