We Are England: BBC show to address Yorkshire pig farming struggles and introduce new Bradford vicar

A new BBC show explores the changing face of England, and Yorkshire subjects include a new vicar and struggling pig farmers. John Blow talks to them about their roles.

When a mentor first suggested that the Rev Leah Thompson should join the clergy, she “laughed in his face”.

But after some deep thought and deciding to train for a life in the church, she now believes that she has “the best job in the world”.

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The Rev Thompson, 29, is settling into her role as a curate in the Idle area of Bradford and her story is one of those included in a new current affairs programme, We Are England, which examines the changing face of the country and issues across the regions.

The Rev Leah Thompson. Picture: BBC.

The programmes for BBC One have been made from hubs around the country, including one in Leeds, which developed the Rev Thompson episode and others such as a feature about the Morgan family, East Yorkshire pig farmers facing hard times in the industry. The two episodes air tonight and next week.

Around a third of ordained ministers in the Church of England are women and that number is growing, says the BBC, adding that in each of the last five years more women have begun training as vicars than men.

More than a quarter of a century after the first women were ordained in the CoE in 1994, many are clearly seeing it as an attractive way of life.

But the Rev Thompson, who is from Worthing and studied geography at the University of Leeds, says that becoming a vicar had not crossed her mind for a moment while growing up.

Kate Morgan and Vicky Scott. Picture: BBC.

After university she was working as an intern at the Lighthouse church based at St George’s Crypt in Leeds, one which is tailored to people struggling with homelessness, addiction, criminal backgrounds, poverty and mental health crises.

She says: “There were lots of people struggling with trauma and the long-term effects of that, and so it was quite a unique gathering and I just absolutely loved it. It was just some of the best years of my life.”

Jon Swales, the vicar who runs the church, sat her down one day to ask when she was going to consider ordination. “And I honestly laughed in his face,” says the Rev Thompson. “I was like, ‘OK, in short, never. That’s just not on my radar, Jon’. And he was like, ‘Oh, I think you should probably think about it’.”

Over the next few days, multiple people asked her the same question, (and say they were not in cahoots).

The Rev Thompson spoke to her family, who were surprised, but she considered whether it “might be what God’s asking of me”.

She says: “It wasn’t until a good eight months later that I’d come to the conclusion that not only did it make sense, but I actually really wanted to do it as well. And so since then, I haven’t looked back, but it was a really bad bumpy journey.”

She studied at Trinity College, Bristol, and as a “self-professed geek” really enjoyed the work for her theology Masters, which she is still finishing.

“I loved studying geography as well, but geography didn’t impact me in the same way because it wasn’t extremely personal.

“Studying theology, it shapes your faith and the core of who you are.”

While there, she also met her fiancé Ben, who is a year behind her in training but plans to move up in June so they can both work in Bradford.

The Rev Thompson started as curate at Holy Trinity Parish Church, which had never had a female vicar before, last July. “I guess it’s not unusual to go to churches that haven’t had a female vicar before because I guess it’s only been in the last 30 years that that’s even been a possibility,” she says.

“There was a part of me that was well up for the challenge, but being realistic there might be some people in the congregation who, for theological reasons, don’t think that (being a female vicar) is OK. I was kind of bracing myself for that.

“But I have had nothing but the opposite response.

“Lots of women have been really encouraging and excited that there’s a woman who’s their new curate/trainee vicar, but also loads of men, too, have been really excited by it.

“So I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by like the severe lack of any hostility or any kind of negativity at all. Which is great.

“That’s just how it should be; I’m so glad that’s my experience.”

In terms of challenges she faces in her new role, the Rev Thompson is a “raging extrovert” in a job where there can be a lot of lone working.

However, she says: “I pinch myself some days because I think I have the best job in the world. I spend my days hanging out with people, teaching people about the Bible, talking about Jesus, praying with people – it’s all just stuff that I love to do. I’m walking with people through the different challenges of life, so I feel very blessed to be able to do that.”

Unfortunately, she is affected by long Covid and experiences fatigue, she says, but feels that she is slowly getting better and hopes to play a more active role in the wider community as the country comes out of the pandemic.

“Lots of people haven’t seen each other for years because of lockdown. My main focus, I think, is going to be rebuilding community, and probably a bit of recovery for everyone from what’s been quite a traumatic few years for people.”

It certainly has been for the Morgan family over in the East Riding.

Sisters Vicky Scott and Kate Morgan are the second generation of their family to farm pigs near Driffield.

A huge increase in the cost of feed for the pigs was already an issue but they say labour shortages in the processing plants brought about by a combination of Brexit and Covid has left them with a big backlog of pigs on farms that should have gone to market.

Their farm has 1,700 breeding sows and they sell about 90,000 pigs a year but the number leaving for processing has dropped in some weeks by as much as to 30 per cent.

This means spending hundreds of thousands of pounds more on feeding the extra pigs at a time pig prices are very low – they say that farmers across the country are losing between £30 to £40 per pig sold. Other farmers have even had to cull their own pigs.

“We’ve really struggled very hard to not have to cull ourselves, because that’s a complete travesty,” says Vicky.

Fearing financial ruin they are “hanging on for the best of times”, she says, but “might have to make a decision” amid an exodus of fellow workers in the industry.

The sisters were among the farmers demonstrating outside a meeting in York on Thursday last week as industry representatives met with the Environment department (Defra).

“It does affect us as a family,” says Vicky, 44.

“It makes us more cynical about the industry that we’re in – we’re probably not as enthused about it.”

The episode about farmers Vicky and Kate will be broadcast tonight at 7.30pm on BBC One, and the episode with the Rev Thompson will be broadcast on Wednesday February 23 at 8pm.

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