Sheep will make an appearance in any decent English fantasy you might have.  If you don’t have an image in your head of a little, right-hand-drive, stick-shift car stopped in a narrow lane, as a flock of sheep cross in front of you, impeding your progress with a certain degree of charm, then I don’t know what you have been dreaming about when you dream about England.  But sheep have also played a complicated role in the history of England, especially if you consider the drawn-out process that took place over some 600 years, known as “enclosure.”  Enclosure was “the division or consolidation of communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands in western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned and managed farm plots of modern times.”* 

Anything I have to say about enclosure will be an over-simplification, born primarily of ignorance.  But it remains a fact that for hundreds of years “the open field system and the communal pastures [of England] came under attack from wealthy landowners who wanted to privatize their use.”**

Sheep, it turns out, are relatively easy and inexpensive to keep, as long as you have plenty of grass, as England does.  And sheep’s wool, it would seem, could bring a handsome return on a modest investment.  But grazing sheep requires land.  And the system of the commons - that is, land that “was at the disposal of the community for grazing by the village livestock and for other purposes,” - was an obstacle to the maximization of income for the aspiring large-scale wool producer.  You could make more money with more sheep grazing more land, if only you could get rid of the people using the commons to feed themselves.  The answer to this problem, if you were a “manorial lord” was “to enclose land... [and] put a hedge or fence around a portion of this open land and thus prevent the exercise of common grazing and other rights over it.”***

The thing about enclosure is that it’s not really about either the land or the sheep. It’s really just about the money.  Which means that although it unfolded over many centuries, long ago, it is nevertheless a thoroughly modern story.

Many’s the preacher who has pointed out how unflattering is Jesus’ comparison of us - sophisticated, complicated, wonderful us, the crowning accomplishment of God’s creation - how unflattering is the comparison of us to a flock of sheep.  It is easy to take offense at the comparison, or to reject it altogether, which allows us then to ignore anything that follows.  If you don’t see yourself as a sheep, then you can’t imagine why on earth you would require a shepherd.

But if we look at history a little differently, perhaps it is easier to see why a shepherd could be a good idea for us humans, even now.  For the process of enclosure, wasn’t really something that was done to lands, or even to sheep.  The process of enclosure was a policy delivered by one, privileged group of people upon another, less well resourced group of people.  It was a policy delivered by the strong upon the weak, to deprive them of the little they had.  All you have to do is follow the money to see this.  Enclosure required a culture that vested power in ownership, which is to say a culture that vested more power in those who were already powerful.

The church, believe it or not, raised her voice in England to object to enclosure.  Several of the best-known English reformers weighed in on the matter with concern.  More famously, Sir Thomas More wrote critically in his work “Utopia,” that “noble man and gentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes leave no ground for tillage, thei inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down townes, and leave nothing standynge but only the churche to be made a shepehowse.”****  In a literary turn of facetious pique, More writes that it is a though “your shepe... eate up and swallow down the very men them selfes.”  Such is the effect of enclosure upon those with little power to demand for themselves the common good that once was thought rightly to be theirs.  Perhaps the reason that More decided to assign responsibility to the “shepe” for this slow-motion tragedy, meted out upon the weak by the strong, was his unerring faith in the power of a particular shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my own, and my own know me,” Jesus said.  What an incredible statement of good faith this was for him to make.  For, while undoubtedly our Lord does know all his sheep by name, even the numbers of hairs on our heads, it remains to be seen how well we “shepe” know him.  If we “shepe” really knew our shepherd, and what he desires for us, and what he demands of us, and what he has done for us, and where he calls us, and what he promises us, would we really make the choices we make, and create the kind of society we have created?  If we knew our shepherd, would we really reinforce a culture that so regularly, consistently, and deliberately vests power only in those who are already powerful, and that repeatedly metes out tragedy (often in slow-motion) upon the weak at the hands of, and to the benefit of the strong?

Jesus said, “there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  But this lovely statement of unity is impossible as long as we insist on enclosure, which means my flock and your flock must stay within their respective hedges; and which makes no provision at all for those who just need to plant potatoes to get through the winter.

Of course Jesus was using pastoral language to speak to a pastoral people, and so it is possible that he did not intend his words to say so much about how we organize ourselves into societies.  Except that his talk of shepherding includes the acknowledgement that he “lay down [his] life for the sheep.”  And actually, I am not convinced that it was the accepted best practice of shepherding for a shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep.  I strongly suspect that Jesus is teaching us that he is a shepherd like no other, and that he is calling us to be a flock like no other: gathered in unity, bound together in love, committed to a common hope for what lies before us, and sanctified by the blood he shed for our sake, the gift of his life laid down for us before we even knew we were in peril.

Existing, as we do, behind our various hedges, walls, and fences, how can we ever learn to be one flock with one shepherd?  And as long as we resist the call to be one flock with one shepherd, how can we ever really learn to know our shepherd, as he desires we should?

The hedges, walls, and fences we build have enclosed our hearts, our homes, our communities, our churches, our common resources, and our nations.  We have become experts at enclosure, and this expertise has suited the rich and the powerful just fine, since it has promoted the expansion of their wealth, vesting more power in the hands of those who are already powerful, just as it did in England.

Many English fantasies - admittedly childish ones - in addition to involving sheep, include the distinction between the commoner and nobility.  And we tend to think that the word itself - a commoner - is a description of the low social status of a person, helpfully distinguished from the nobility.  There is some truth to this, and every contemporary dictionary that I consulted supports this notion more or less, calling a commoner “one of the common people,” “one who is not of noble rank,” at least in the first instance.*****

But the full-size, old fashioned, Oxford English Dictionary, ever helpful, provides this as the first definition of a commoner: “a member of the community having civic rights; a … citizen….”  although it does take till the seventh definition before those rights are described as including “joint right in common lands.”****** But at the core of the matter there are rights that belong to a common people, enjoying a common life, on this common earth.

Jesus is our shepherd, which is to say he is our common lord.  And it ought to be inconceivable to any church that he laid down his life so that we could establish thornier hedges between us, to delineate what’s mine, and not yours; to vest power only with those who are already powerful; to mete out tragedy upon the weak at the hands of, and to the benefit of the strong.  How could any such shepherd be called good?

In fact, by calling himself a shepherd, and distinguishing himself from the wolf, Jesus is teaching us that he is on the side of the weak, not the powerful.  By distinguishing himself from the hired hand, he teaches us that neither is he concerned with some business interest to do with the sheep; that you can follow the money, but it will not lead to him.  Even when Jesus allows for the possibility of an enclosed flock of sheep, he teaches that he is the gate, by which sheep may safely come and go.

Ironically, when we dream about the hedgerows and stone walls of the English countryside, we probably imagine that all this was made for the sheep, that the walls and the hedges keep them safe.  We tell ourselves that this is just good animal husbandry.  But actually, it is just good business.

Enclosure, at which we have become exceedingly good in more ways than I can possibly account for, serves the purposes of the few at the expense of the many, and may not make anyone safer.  But it does ensure that power stays in the hands of those who already have it.  It may or may not do any good for the sheep.  But it certainly serves someone’s purposes.

What sheep need to safely graze is a broad and green pasture, and relatively still waters.  And most of all, they need a shepherd who knows them, and who is known to them for his strength, his faithfulness, and his love.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  He requires neither hedge nor wall to keep us safe, for he defends us with his own life.  And it is a matter of grace and of hope that he has promised us, enclosed as we are, that some day we will be free, and there will be only one, common flock, beneath the banner of his love.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
22 April 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*Encyclopedia Britannica
** “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain,” Simon Fairlie, from The Land Magazine, 2009
*** Britannica
****Sir Thomas More, “Utopia”, 1551
***** Merriam-Webster online
****** Oxford English Dictionary

Posted on April 22, 2018 .