Article for the Southward Diocesan newspaper, “Noticeboard”
Early autumn is the season for Harvest Festivals in our churches. There is something very fundamental in such celebrations – giving thanks to God for our food which is essential for life. It is absolutely right and proper that we should have Harvest Festivals as an integral part of our liturgical calendar. However, sometimes there can be an air of unreality to our services. This is particularly so when we bash out the popular, largely Victorian, harvest hymns which speak of gathering in the harvest given that for most of us our food is sourced in many places around the world and purchased in supermarkets.
Our services are, of course, symbolic occasions, but if there is too much of a gap between the liturgical expression of harvest and the current reality of our world, we need to do some fresh thinking. Many of our services do include much of this already, but it is worth articulating some of the key themes for Harvest Festival which genuinely reflect both our context and our Christian faith.
In an earlier age there would have been heartfelt gratitude when the harvest was gathered. There were no other sources of food so it was literally a life and death affair – as it continues to be in many parts of the world today. Challenging our ‘taken for granted’ attitude to food and developing a proper appreciation and gratitude for our food is vital. It might be that, in our context, fasting rather than the traditional harvest supper would be a more powerful expression of this (or perhaps both).
A second related theme is the way that thankfulness is expressed via our actions – particularly so in light of the vast inequality across the globe. One of the huge moral scandals is a world in which obesity, junk food and the wasting of food is found in some parts and great shortages in others. Most harvest services focus on those in need. One crucial aspect of this is to look closely at the system of finance and commerce which shapes global food supply. This is a complex story of commodities markets, supply chains, vast international businesses, and government regulations. We should not allow the complexity to put us off reflecting on the underlying moral issues of fairness and justice. Organisations such as Christian Aid are extremely helpful in providing high quality material to inform both our actions and our liturgy. This element is particularly important at this time of such financial turmoil in global markets. A clear sighted analysis of the ethics and impact of market systems which draws on Christian moral and social teaching is more needed than ever.
A third, more theological, aspect is how we understand the doctrine of God’s providence. The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer for rain which says, ‘O God . . . Send us we beseech thee, in this our necessity, such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth for our comfort . . .’ In a world of meteorology and weather forecasts we need to think carefully how we interpret such language. Orthodox Christian doctrine has always seen God as thoroughly involved in the created universe – and we need clear exposition and liturgical expression of how we understand this in today’s world.
Harvest Festivals are fundamental, but they do need to connect with our lived reality. To create good liturgies to do this is a vital part of our overall responsibility to ‘proclaim the Gospel afresh to each generation’.