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01 April 2016

How The Archers is serving the gospel

How The Archers is serving the gospel

Paul Woolley is interim chief executive at Bible Society

I have an admission to make: I listen to The Archers. Or, to be more accurate, I used to listen to The Archers until the central story line became too painful for me. There it is. It’s out now.

For those of you who have no idea what The Archers is, let alone what the story line to which I'm referring to is about, perhaps you will allow me to enlighten you.

The Archers is the world’s longest-running radio soap-opera. It started on 1 January 1951 and is the most popular BBC Radio 4 non-news programme, with more than five million listeners. Originally described as "an everyday story of country folk", it's now described as a "contemporary drama in a rural setting".

The story line that has been developing over the last two years centres on two characters: Rob Titchener, a former dairy farm manager, and his wife Helen (formerly Archer). Rob is superficially charming, but creepy, manipulative, and increasingly emotionally and physically abusive towards Helen. Helen is a very capable and intelligent woman, a feminist, shop manager and cheesemaker, and a devoted mother to Henry, who was conceived through assisted conception when Helen was single. She has previously endured bereavement - a boyfriend committed suicide and her brother died in a tractor accident, anorexia and temporary estrangement from her father.

Since his arrival in Ambridge, the fictional village in which The Archers is set, Rob’s ‘dark side’ has slowly emerged. The plot has thickened in recent months, which has produced both compulsive and repulsive radio. Helen seems unable to fight back and tries to justify Rob’s behaviour towards her. The storyline has resulted in one listener setting up a JustGiving page for those who want to donate to real life Helens, a Twitter hashtag #JeSuisHelen, and extensive media coverage.

In the real world, domestic abuse, physical and emotional, is surprisingly common. In England and Wales, two women are killed by a current or former partner every week. Police in the UK receive one domestic assistance call every minute, but only 35 per cent of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police.

As the story of Rob and Helen shows, physical abuse doesn't necessarily start soon after a couple get together. It can occur after weeks, months, and often years of emotional abuse. The victim will have been belittled and worn down. They will have lost their self-confidence and self-worth, and, with it, the ability to make their own decisions. They will have been isolated from friends and family who could have protected and sheltered them, and they will be terrified about what might happen to their children.

Domestic abuse transcends class and age, and the appalling truth is that it exists in the Church. The wives of church leaders and prominent members of churches are not exempt. Indeed, women in this situation - and it's overwhelmingly women - often suffer in silence out of a misplaced sense of responsibility to the ministry their partner is leading.

It’s difficult to think of a behaviour that is more antithetical to the gospel. "I give a new commandment to you," Jesus said: "Love one another; just as I have loved you, you should also love one another" (John 13:34).

I have taken a break from The Archers for a while because it’s too painful, but taking a break from domestic violence isn't an option for thousands of women. We can’t allow this situation to continue. It’s time for all of us in the Church to play our part in unmasking this evil and doing everything we possibly can to support the victims of such violence.

If The Archers helps more women break their silence and get the help they deserve, this "contemporary drama in a rural setting" will have served the gospel well.

If you are affected by the issues raised here, or are concerned for someone you know, please get in touch with Restored. You can also find out about the work Restored are doing with churches to confront domestic violence.