It’s a busy time of year for Canon Leslie Morley. Commitments in the run-up to Christmas include an afternoon carol service at Thirsk Auction Mart on 19 December and taking a midnight communion service in a remote village in the Yorkshire Dales.
“It’s something I’ve done for a number of years and always really enjoy it,” says the recently appointed chaplain to the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (organiser of the Great Yorkshire Show).
For the past decade, Leslie has been the rural officer for the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds, which involves advising the bishops and diocese on matters affecting farming communities and supporting clergy with rural congregations. Among many other roles, he is deputy chairman of the Yorkshire Rural Support Network and a chaplain to the Farm Crisis Network. He has been instrumental in a host of schemes, such as the Farm Business Support and Development Project, which helps farmers improve the skills needed in today’s fast-changing world.
“At a grassroots level it’s about having a presence at places such as agricultural markets, to be known and trusted by the farming community,” he explains.
“On a more practical note, we might identify – for example – a group of farmers who are unlikely to turn up to a DEFRA day on ear tagging. They either hate DEFRA or haven’t got the time. We’ll then set up a little low-key seminar in a village hall. It’s the sort of thing we did a lot when the Single Farm Payment was introduced, inviting a respected farmer who was well-briefed on the subject, a land agent and an accountant, perhaps also a young farmer to give his opinion.
“Other successful events we’ve held include getting a retired bank manager to come and talk in a pub over a simple pie and peas supper. The idea being ‘come and meet a real bank manager’ and find out how to talk to him. Many found this really useful, the main messages coming out of it being a) don’t be afraid – it’s only a human being and b) don’t leave it too late.”
The role of chaplain to the Yorkshire Agricultural Society is an honorary one. But although it’s not his “proper job” Leslie sees it as a serious commitment.
“I often just pop into the society’s offices, so that the staff can feel able to talk to me. It’s a shame if, because of the modern economic climate, companies start to overlook the importance to staff of them having somebody other than management to speak to. It might be that they’ve had a bereavement, or there’s some other crisis going on in their lives. I’m very pleased to be there for them.
“Of course, the job of chaplain steps up a gear when it’s the Yorkshire Show. At 7.30am each morning I’ll be on the bandstand taking a half-hour service.
“There are always at least 50 people, many of whom have animals to tend, or classes to prepare for, but they make time to come. It’s very commendable that the society recognises this spiritual dimension to the show.
“I’m then involved with the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute (RABI), Farm Crisis and the Church on Show stands, as well as just being around and about.”
Leslie, whose wife Georgina trains people who want to become vicars, grew up in Harrogate, home of the Yorkshire Show, and remembers with fondness when, as a child, he would get the day off school to visit. “My cousin farms, up in Teesdale, and my uncle was the agent for a large estate up there. We used to go and stay for holidays,” he recalls.
“I moved away from Yorkshire – wearing my flat cap with pride – to study, and went on to work in an urban parish,” he says.
“Having experienced ‘the other side’ – the non-country – helps me see farming from both points of view, which is very useful.
“Howard Petch, the former principal at Bishop Burton, once told me that the college became a better place when it was opened up to a wider group.
“Kids from the middle of Hull started to come in to do mechanical courses and so on and the farmers’ children, who perhaps hadn’t even met anybody who lived outside the countryside, went home much more aware of the wider world.
“On the whole, farmers talk to farmers and anything the church can do to add another dimension has to be a good thing.”
Leslie is keen to get across to the public the message that farming is not just about economics, that to the majority in the industry there’s a relationship with the land and animals that is vocational.
“The first culture in our world was agriculture,” he says, joking that he used to think that being a vicar was a “multi-skilled” job until he first spent a day with a farmer.
“A farmer can be lambing in the morning, then be a surgeon getting a pipe down into the newborn’s stomach to get milk into it, then he can be off working as a mechanic mending a piece of machinery and then – when he finally gets into his home at night – he can be behind a computer being a businessman. “I believe very strongly that everyone who eats is involved in agriculture.”
Challenges facing the church include dwindling rural congregations. “It’s vital that we sustain an effective church presence in every countryside community,” says Leslie.
“While I’m keen to see churches maintained, if needs must services can be held without a building. We’ve just got to be more inventive – I’ve taken many a memorable service out on farms.”
He isn’t one for the modern trend away from We Plough the Fields and Scatter and likes a harvest festival to be just that: a traditional – farming – harvest.
“It’s bonkers if once a year we can’t stop and give thanks for the food that we eat and think about those involved in agriculture,” says Leslie. “I’ve sat through so-called harvest festivals that haven’t mentioned farming once. One tried to use people’s skills – sewing, carpentry etc – as a harvest.
“It’s about farming, full stop. An industry which is just as important today as it ever was.”
Leslie, together with a friend, became well-known on the agricultural show circuit doing a “cooking canons” demonstration.
“Cooking is a hobby of mine,” he says. “And we were keen to get our message across using local produce. I’m very passionate about the scandal of food waste – it seems so disrespectful.
“Every discarded hamburger is an affront to the animal’s life. There is great spirituality in food. I’m not a vegetarian, I enjoy meat, but I think we need to treat the animal with dignity and the respect of using as much of it as possible.
“Around 80% of the population plan their evening meal after 4.30pm. My mother’s generation had every meal planned in advance and, in so doing, put the food on the table much more cheaply and without the waste. I’m keen to get people thinking about this whole issue.”
But there’s at least one meal each year which most people will have planned in advance – and it’s no different in Leslie’s house. But having said that, the menu does break with tradition.
Because of church commitments on Christmas morning, Leslie’s wife cooks a late meal – “two local ducks served with the most beautiful cherry sauce”.