Eucharistic worship is at the very heart of corporate Christian devotion but a good many occasions have an aspect of life which is best expressed in a tailor made service. Many of these are centred on the land and our dependence on it. This was brought home to me in the past few weeks, when a letter came from a family who had been in farming for years, but who now are being forced to give up and find other work because it is no longer possible to make a living. The farm was a small mixed farm, so first raising calves was badly hit by the B.S.E. crisis. The move into pig production is notorious and this changed from gold to brass all too soon. The corn crops have been hit by the low rainfall over the past three years and the potato market has been undermined by the import of cheap potatoes. It is so easy for most of us who are able to shop in the supermarket to forget how we all depend on the land, but those with experience of food shortage such as war time gave, know that the slogan, 'Digging for Victory' was more than justified. So services connected with the land have found a place in the yearly round.
The first is Rogation, asking that is, but it was more than that. George Herbert tells us that:-
1. First a blessing of God for the fruits of the field.
2. Justice in the preservation of bounds.
3. Charitie in loving walking and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time if there be any.
4 Mercy in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is or ought to be used. Wherefore he exacts of all to be present at the Perambulation, and those that withdraw and sever themselves from it be mistakes, and reproves as uncharitable and unneighbourly and if they will not reform, presents them.
Beating the bounds was not a practical matter in many parishes, but a Rogationtide Service on the farm was possible. The farm always providing everyone with refreshments afterwards. The Litany for the occasion was usually sung and the appropriate prayers used. One cheerful farmer told me that was the worst year he had ever had. Which just goes to show that God does not always do as we would wish.
This may all seem academic, but remember that the Church Commissioners own many farms and the rent from them forms part of their income. A three yearly assessment could well mean not a rise in the rent, but a fall and the days when the old custom of entertaining both the tenants and the clergy who had farms in their parishes will go for ever. The custom goes back to the days when the Commissioners called and collected the rent. They naturally stayed at the local inn and as farmers came they provided refreshments, latterly this took the form of entertaining the farmers and their wives to a dinner at one of the colleges at the university.
The other main occasion connected with the land is Harvest Thanksgiving. We take this for granted, but it was not till the Revd. Robert Stephen Hawker who was the vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall revived what was really Lammas, that the custom was established. Country congregations are usually good for Harvest, but in one small parish where a wish had been expressed to link with an inner city parish, we had a coach full of visitors who came to stroll round the grounds of a lovely country house, were entertained to tea and then went on to the evening service. I said it was a 'Rent a congregation'. Every church had its own way of using the produce. One would send it to the boys home at Walsingham, one to the British Legion Home at Cromer, one to the Little Portion Mission run by the sisters from Ditchingham as a women's refuge, while another made a point of taking flowers or other items to any sick or elderly in the parish.
It would have been good to have kept Plough Sunday when the plough is blessed by tradition or Lammas, when the first wheat was used to make the bread for the Mass. The nearest to this custom was to use the harvest loaf made by one lady for the communion. It is not easy as the crumbs are a problem, but we had a reminder that we were, 'All one bread, one Body.' At the end of the service I took the remainder of the loaf and distributed it at the door. It was not only the children who lined up, so did the adults and nothing was ever left of the Harvest loaf.
The usual round of Christingle Services and Mothering Sunday Services were always well supported, but the annual Toy Service was more than a chance to turn out the toy cupboard, children also bought and gave presents for other children, besides it was an opportunity to talk about getting ready for Christmas. So when I asked if anyone was getting ready for Christmas, one small boy put up his hand and volunteered the information, 'My dad's got the booze in.' I imagine his father who sat a few rows behind him wished he was somewhere else.
In one parish, the churchwarden and his wife were jointly secretaries of the local branch of the R.S.P.C.A. The outcome was to have the R.S.P.C.A. service for the Blessing of Animals. Dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, hamsters, a goat and a pony helped fill the church. The animals were far better behaved than the adults, far quieter and many dogs brought their owners to church for the first time. A canon came from the cathedral to give the address, a bit like St. Francis, only he had a beautiful cope embroidered with all the animals. In one parish, a R.C. nun and her friend came with two King Charles spaniels complete with lovely red bows in their collars for the occasion.
The Crib Service too gave many people a chance to take part, readings, poems, carols and at the end a conditional blessing from the boy bishop, dressed in cope and mitre. I wonder if he will look back and perhaps be encouraged to continue his spiritual journey?
Perhaps one other special service which is open to the public, but is not always remembered is the Judges Service. At the beginning of a new session, the judges would all go to the cathedral for a special service. Also present for the occasion was the High Sheriff of the County with his chaplain. It was my privilege to be chaplain for the year. On the day in question, it meant meeting the judge who would be sitting locally and then with the High Sheriff riding in a Rolls Royce with a police escort through the city, over traffic lights and on to the cathedral. It was my job to read the long Bidding Prayer from the pulpit and after the service to spend the rest of the day in court listening to the various cases, from murder to claims for compensation. It was a long but interesting day.
All these extra liturgical services have a place, many touching people who would not have any contact with the church, and the hope is that the Christian Church may be seen as relevant to everyday life. I hope you have enjoyed reading my trip down memory lane as much as I have writing it.
written by Fr Arthur E Green
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