Having spent many years in agriculture working as a shepherd and livestock manager, Graham Miles says his role as a rural chaplain combines both his passions of farming and the church. Angela Calvert reports.
Graham Miles became a licensed evangelist minister in 2019, and earlier this year was asked by Archdeacon for rural mission in the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Sally Gaze, to take up the position of rural chaplain as part of the Lightwave team in Suffolk.
Lightwave is a Christian community made up of small groups which meet up in homes, pubs, offices, schools and other places which work alongside more traditional ways of doing church.
To become a minister, Graham took part in a year-long pilot training scheme for evangelist ministers.
This was followed by an interview with the bishop, who approved his appointment.
He is now attached to his local parish church, St Mary’s at Stoke, south west Ipswich, with part of his time spent in the parish and the remainder in the rural community.
Graham says: “Having studied agriculture at college and then spent a long time working in farming, I speak the language and understand the problems and challenges farmers and others in the rural community are facing.
“Farming can be a lonely life anyway, but in these unprecedented times of the coronavirus pandemic it is even more difficult.
My remit is to cover the whole of Suffolk, but I do get calls from much further afield and I am happy to talk to anyone, wherever they are from.”
Graham stresses that the Lightwave team is there to support the whole rural community, not just farmers.
“In normal circumstances I would spend one-day-a-week at Suffolk New College, Suffolk Rural, Otley, speaking to students and staff and two days out and about visiting individual farmers, gamekeepers and their families and anyone who lives and works in the countryside,” he says.
“As well as meeting people on an individual basis, we bring small groups of people together who get to know each other well, support each other, but also have fun. Everyone can get involved.
Although organised by the Church of England, all religions and even those without faith are welcome.
“For example, I run a men’s group in Ipswich which meets in a pub.
There are usually two rules – we do not talk politics and we do not talk church – although if someone really wants to explore their faith further, then, of course, I am willing to discuss it with them.” Graham says farmers are keen to get involved with events, with one he visits having offered to host a clay pigeon shoot when lockdown is over.
“It is not about the bible or preaching,” he says. “It is about bringing people together. My role, in particular, is about letting people know that the church does care, even if they do not go to church. It is about sowing seeds.
“For some people it is not possible, due to their circumstances on the farm or at home, for them to get to church, even if they would like to, so talking to a minister is a way of supporting them.
“Church is not a building, it is people, and the bishop, the Right Reverend Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, is very keen to build relationships with the countryside and farming communities.”
"Now more than ever it is important to keep in touch with people and let them know they are not alone"
Since lockdown, visits have been curtailed, but Graham is keeping in contact by phone and email.
“Now more than ever it is important to keep in touch with people and let them know they are not alone, which I think is appreciated,” he says.
“No-one ever says do not call back, it is always when will you call again and please come and see us when you can.
“Everything we talk about is always in the strictest confidence and as an ex-farmer, I can offer practical help and, in many cases, give them contacts where they can get advice regarding specific problems.” During lockdown, the wider Lightwave team have also been offering support in other ways.
The website gives guidance as to how to use Zoom, for example, and individuals and groups have been using this to stay in touch, with many more people than usual joining in, reflecting a change in the way people are thinking.
Another initiative developed during lockdown has been the Phone Tree, aimed at helping those who are particularly isolated.
Each village, or street if in a town, has a Phone Tree co-ordinator and anyone who would like to receive a regular phone call contacts the co-ordinator who will match them with someone who will give them a call together with the people they will call.
With a Phone Tree everyone can regularly call their two designated people for a chat to help relieve isolation.
Each Phone Tree is organised by an individual or church, but Lightwave can offer practical guidelines and supports co-ordinators.
The Agricultural Chaplains Association is for everyone, lay or ordained, who serves the rural and farming communities.
Chairman Reverend Richard Kirlew says: “Being an agricultural or rural chaplain is a niche role and working with the agricultural community is a privilege.
“We have about 100 members, all of whom bring their own skills to the job, with most splitting their time between their parish and their rural work.
“I look after seven tiny parishes in Dorset for half of my time, and the remainder of my working time is spent in my agricultural and rural community role.
“We also work with rural businesses on such things as Post Office and rural shop closures and get involved with Government consultations.
“It is the church in action, not only spreading the gospel but supporting rural communities.
Focal point “In normal times, as well as visiting or calling farmers at home we go to rural business such as feed merchants and machinery dealers which are good places to chat to farmers and a real focal point are the markets.
“Farmers are under great stress at the best of times, but even more so during the pandemic, so our role has never been more important.” The Agricultural Chaplains Association also works closely with other organisations, such as the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution and the Farming Community Network in helping farmers find the support they need.