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September's pastoral letter

As the seasons turn, we are once again preparing to celebrate our Harvest Festival on Sunday 26th September (09.15 at Prestwold, 10.30 at Barrow, 11.15 at Wymeswold and 16.00 at Walton). One of my favourite quotes that sums up this festival for me says this about harvest; "At harvest we thank and praise God for all his gifts of food and weather, especially his plants which mature in autumn and nourish us all year .. and … for all creatures which move in the waters, fly in the sky and live on the land. Harvest reminds us that all earth creatures are a community created to praise and glorify God. Nature matures in autumn even without human help. Wild creatures enjoy the fruits of the season. With human co-operation, however, nature glorifies God through cultivated fields, including grain and grapes which make bread and wine."

The celebration of Harvest in Britain dates back to pre-Christian times when the success of the crop governed the lives of the people. Saxon farmers offered the first cut sheaf of corn to one of their gods of fertility, in order to safeguard a good harvest the following year. The last sheaf was thought to contain the Spirit of the Corn, and its cutting was accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of an animal - often a hare caught hiding in the corn. Later, a model hare, made from straw, was used to represent the continuity of the Spirit, which led to the making of plaited ‘corn dollies’, symbolising the goddess of the grain. These were hung from the rafters in farmhouses until the next year. 

After Christianity arrived in Britain, some of the traditions continued in a different form. Ceremonies and rituals were held at the beginning and end of the harvest and church bells were rung on every day. The horse bringing the last cart load was decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons. When the harvest was in a magnificent celebratory supper was held at the farmer’s house, to which the whole community was invited and games were played to celebrate the end of the harvest. One special church service was Lammas (meaning ‘loaf Mass’) held at the beginning of the Harvest season, when farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop to be used as the Communion bread during a special Mass thanking God for the harvest. Much of this ended with the English Reformation and it wasn’t until 1843 that the now widespread practice of Harvest Festivals began, when Revd. Robert Hawker invited his parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Victorian hymns such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ and ‘Come ye thankful people, come’ helped popularise the festival and spread the custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce.

Harvest is still a popular festival, although the days when village communities worked together to bring in the harvest have long since disappeared and with most produce available in shops throughout the year we’ve lost the concept of a ‘harvest season’. However, in recent years we’ve become more concerned about how our food is produced with debates about GM crops, intensive farming methods, the supermarkets’ influence on farming and the importance of Fairtrade. In Genesis humankind is charged to partner God in the stewardship of creation and with all the changes it’s even more important that we reflect on our responsibilities for God’s world - hence the Diocese decision that we should all seek to become ‘Eco Church’ congregations and work towards a Net Carbon Zero target. Nature is finely balanced, so we should never take for granted what we receive and a sense of thanksgiving ought to be our response, alongside a deep concern for those whose lives are threatened because they have so little. So harvest is a time for thanksgiving, for deep thinking and for re-commitment.

A prayer for Harvest time, from All Desires Known’ by Janet Morley…

God our creator, you have made us one with this earth,

to tend it and to bring forth fruit; 

may we so respect and cherish all that has life from you,

that we may share in the labour of all creation 

to give birth to your hidden glory, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

With every blessing for Harvest Season and always,

Rev’d Clive