Saturday, 2 August 2008

1980: A Crisis Of Faith...

The Reverend Donald Hinton, vicar of Beckindale, spoke of coming nearer to God than ever before in 1980. On retreat in the rarefied atmosphere of St Luke's, the vicar was able to ponder his role in the village. For some time he had been worried that the people of Beckindale did not use him properly: he was a useful signature for passport applications, gave advice on social services contacts and even, on occasion, plumbing contacts in the locality! He confessed to sometimes feeling like an "auxiliary to the Social Services Department".

Donald was gravely concerned that he was not meeting his responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the community, and determined to do something about it.

On his return, he gave a sermon which caused much controversy. Matt and Dolly discussed it at Emmerdale Farm:

"I've been thinking about what the vicar said," Dolly mused. "I reckon he were dropping hints about how the village needs to buck its ideas up."

"Well, no, not exactly," said Matt.

"Well, he were being unfair anyway," replied Dolly, who had quite made her mind up on the subject.

"I don't think he meant that. I reckon he meant that there are some jobs that are the vicar's and some that aren't - so don't go bothering him with things like passport applications which the doctor can do anyroad."

"Well, the doctor's as busy as he is - busier!" exclaimed Dolly.

"I don't think it's just that," Annie, who was doing some hand washing at the sink, broke in. "Happen he feels he does too much organising things and social work. He wants to remember what he is - a vicar."

The Reverend Hinton saw Mr Wilks outside The Woolpack. Mr Wilks felt that the vicar's sermon had given folk something to think about: "You should've heard the arguments in there last night." He indicated the pub.

"Arguments?" Donald was puzzled.

Mr Wilks told the vicar that people had been placing their own interpretations on what his sermon had meant, and that these interpretations were many and varied.

"What was your interpretation?" asked Donald.

"Plain enough to me. A vicar's got enough on his plate without having to worry about things like the church cottage drains - writing sermons, confirmation classes, visiting the sick, to say nowt of weddings and Christenings and funerals. Am I right?"

"Not really, Henry," said Donald. "It's not just a question of time, more of attitude. The village's attitude - and mine, of course. My first duty is to the spiritual welfare of the community."

Donald had a visit from the Bishop that afternoon. Whilst the Bishop was there, Donald received a telephone call from a villager enquiring about home helps. Having replaced the receiver, he spoke to the Bishop about his concerns:

"I'm here to preach the word of God, yet I seem to spend more than half my time on things like that!"

The Bishop felt that long retreats could be dangerous ("St Luke's has gone to your head!"), and reminded Donald that he wasn't a member of a closed order.

"If the vicar is regarded as... say, the man who gets the drains mended at Church Cottage, then no one is brought nearer the Kingdom of God!" said Donald. "People are lost in the maze that is 20th Century living. How am I to show them through the maze if I've just become another part of it?"

The Bishop admitted he was there on a mission - to ask Donald to become a rural dean. It would mean that Donald would be supervising half a dozen other vicars. But, with Donald's current thoughts and feelings, the Bishop realised he'd chosen the wrong time to ask.

"To save embarrassment I won't ask now. But when you've sorted all this out, I will. And I won't want the answer that you would've given me today."

Harry Moore was a cantankerous old man who lived in the village with his dog, Sparky. His wife had died over thirty years before and, after a recent fall, Harry was suddenly housebound.

He was lonely and spent a lot of time at his window.


The local Meals On Wheels service staff had long been told that only five minutes should be spent on each client. But Harry wanted more. He wanted company. As the Meals On Wheels ladies took their leave one day, Harry lambasted them from his window:

"You rush in, dump food on't table and rush out again! That's no way to treat a respectable senior citizen who's spent all his life upholding right..." The two women hastened into their car. "I'LL REPORT YOU TO'T SUPERINTENDENT!" wailed Harry. "NO TIME TO STOP AND BE CIVIL TO SOMEONE WHO CAN'T GET ABOUT! DO YOU HEAR? I'LL REPORT YOU!!"

Harry slammed closed the window and sat down, near to tears.

Matt Skilbeck bought some tobacco in for Harry after he'd requested it. Harry then began to regale him with tales of the past: "Did I ever tell you about the time Sam Pearson and me..."

"You'll have to tell me some other time, Harry - I've got sheep to tend to."

"Aye, you're same as all't rest!" said Harry bitterly. "You've no time to talk to an old man who gave best years of his life fighting for't likes of you!"

But Matt really had to leave.

"Vicar don't come to see me, so why should thee?" asked Harry mournfully. He'd knocked on the window to attract the vicar's attention only that morning, and had simply received a cheery wave in reply.

Matt was concerned about Harry and called on Donald to request he pay the old man a visit. "I'll come as soon as I can," promised Donald.

And he was as good as his word.

His visit was not an easy one. Harry wanted to have communion. But he hadn't taken the sacraments for over thirty years.

"My wife, Martha, used to. Only when you get to't near end you start to think about them things..."

Donald told him he hadn't come prepared to give communion.

"Don't you think we should have a chat first?"

"What about?"

"Well, you haven't set foot inside a church since I've been here. You haven't taken communion for over thirty years. I should like to know why. Did you just drift away?"

"I did not! I fell out wi't vicar!"

"You've fallen out with a good many people."

"Damnation to the lot of 'em! I don't like people. I like dogs. "

"God made man in his own image."

"More fool him then!"

"Harry, I don't think you're in the right frame of mind to take the sacraments."

"All't trouble in't world's caused by folk. Dogs don't cause no trouble - not if they're looked after proper. Dogs understand me."

"I don't pretend to understand you, not yet."

"You won't bring me communion, then?!"

"I'd be very happy to, Harry. But we've a good deal of talking to do first. And praying."

"I want it now! I'm not interested in all that. And if you're not going to give it to me, you can get out!"

Dolly, waiting to begin work at the local playschool in a fortnight's time, was helping out the Meals On Wheels service. Harry confided in her that he had a weak heart - he'd had a small heart attack two years ago, and the doctor had told him the next one might be his last.

Totally untrained in care for the elderly, but very well meaning, Dolly managed to patronise and upset Harry. Helping him to the table for his meal, she said: "Oops a daisy, here's your stick. Off we go then!"

"Oh, leave me be, woman!" cried Harry. "I'm not a baby! I can walk to me own table!"

Dolly was sorry for the old man, felt that he didn't mean half he said, and offered to return for a chat with him after she finished her Meals On Wheels round later that afternoon.

Dolly was with Harry when the vicar paid his second visit. Harry had confided in her that the vicar had refused to give him communion and asked her not to leave him alone with Donald.

"He's not gonna eat you!" laughed Dolly.

Outside Harry's cottage, Dolly asked the vicar: "What on earth have you done to Harry?"

"Only told him that he wasn't in a fit state of mind to take communion."

"But that's just him. You don't want to take notice of anything he says. All that matters is cheering him up a bit."

"No, not all. Cheerfulness you can bring him. I want to bring him peace of mind."

"Well, let him take communion."

"Oh, I've no intention of denying him. But not just to cheer him up. I may say I'm not looking forward to this."

And Donald went back into the cottage.

What followed was very difficult. Donald wanted Harry to pray with him. Harry refused.

"When did you first get like this?"

"Like what?"

Donald smiled gently: "A miserable old devil with not a good word to say for anybody? It wasn't your fall - it happened long before that. What happened all those years ago when you fell out with the vicar?"

"It doesn't matter now," said Harry quietly.

"How old were you then - fortyish?"

But Harry was no longer listening. "She liked dogs," it was almost a whisper.

"What?"

"I SAID SHE LIKED DOGS!!" tears were brimming in Harry's eyes.

"Who?"

"My wife, Martha. She killed herself. The vicar, he could've helped. He didn't - never had time. She left me a note. 'Look after Bess for me,' - see, that were her dog. 'Look after Bess for me'... That's all she said. 'Look after Bess... ' ". Harry was openly crying.

Donald leaned forward in his chair: "Do you feel like praying now?"

"Get out, Vicar," whispered Harry through his tears.

"We'll pray together."

"Go on, get out!"

"I'll see you again tomorrow. I think that's best." Donald left.

Harry, now alone in his cottage, sobbed.

The next morning found Harry's cottage door open and Sparky, Harry's beloved pet dog, running around the house and garden.

Sparky nuzzled his master's hand. But there was no answering movement.

At Emmerdale Farm, Annie was telling the family what she knew of Harry Moore's wife:

"It were a long time ago. She were a strange lass. The only child of elderly parents. Lived in that cottage t'other side o't bray. She was found drowned. Accident, the coroner said. But there was talk. That was more than thirty years ago."

A little later, Donald was making his way towards Harry's cottage, dressed to give the old man the communion he so desperately sought. As he neared the cottage, he saw an ambulance and a small crowd standing outside.


"Has Harry been taken ill?" Donald asked the postman.

The postman had actually found Harry: "He must've had a heart attack. He'd been dead some time. There's nowt anybody could've done, doctor said, unless they were with him when it happened and not much chance then. Best you can say is Harry probably knew nowt about it."

"Lord, let us us now thy servant depart in peace..." murmured Donald.


He was shocked to the core and went to the church to pray. Here, PC Ted Edwards, the local bobby, found him. He was trying to establish Harry's time of death and thought that Donald was probably the last person to see him alive.

"What was his state of mind?" asked Ted.

"He was a little upset. With me, I'm afraid. I'd refused him communion. It seemed to me that his attitude was not conducive to a state of grace. I'd no right to do that. I was guilty of passing a judgement that only God can make."

"Yes, well," - all this was way beyond Ted: "It's just a question of an approximate time of death..."

The vicar appeared not to hear him: "I knew about his heart. I let my own concerns and worries come first..."

After Ted had taken his leave, Donald sank to his knees again.


Later, up at Emmerdale Farm, Donald confided his inner turmoil to Annie:

"I passed judgement on a man without knowing him at all."

"You can't blame yourself for not knowing him."

"Oh no, if I'd done my duty... I should have talked to him - found out who he really was."

"Do that for everyone you'd have no time for owt else..."

"No, don't make excuses for me, Annie. I know I was in the wrong."

"You acted according to your beliefs. No man could've done more."

Donald was still deeply unhappy: "The balance was wrong - in me. There was nothing wrong with my decision to put prayer and the search for God before my social work obligations but I pursued that decision to the point when I let my own doubts interfere with my practical religious duties. I was guilty of a lack of balance, Annie. And that led to Harry Moore dying without the solace of the communion that he wanted."

"It's easy to see that now. But there's lots of things most of us wouldn't have done in our lives if we'd been able to see into the future."

Donald frowned and rubbed his forehead: "At least we can learn from the things that do go wrong. In St Luke's, I came nearer to God than at any other time in my life. I wanted that union to last. And others to join me in it. But for a parish priest I went about it the wrong way. Everything that happens in the parish is important because the people are important. There are so many roads in the search for the Kingdom of God, Annie. If I'm to do any good, I daren't ignore any of them."

"Seems to me if you want to take folk with you, you've got to make sure they're on your side."

Donald smiled: "Which sums it up far better than I could have done!"

"I'm on your side!" Annie declared. "And if you want any help gathering the lost sheep... First thing is to fix a new date for the Church Council meeting!"

"No," Donald corrected her, his balance restored. "First thing is to help you with the washing up!"

After thoughts...

Reading my account of this story is a very second rate experience compared to actually watching the episodes concerned. The story, which took loneliness, suicide, religious issues and sudden death as its themes was, quite simply, an example of 1980s Emmerdale Farm at its very best.

The lead players were absolutely brilliant - Walter Sparrow evoked great pity as Harry Moore - I was actually moved to tears, Hugh Manning, as the Reverend Donald Hinton, was, as always, a joy to watch, as was Sheila Mercier (Annie Sugden). Jean Rogers, newly arrived as Dolly Skilbeck also gave a sterling performance. This was an excellent and highly thought provoking piece of television drama.


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