But when is Harvest? Please, please, when is it?

The Church Mouse has a good post today on whether Harvest Festival is redundent.

The most potent paragraph is this:

So we have the comical scene of a pile of disposable razors, shower gel and nit treatment being brought to the front of church while a group of unenthusiastic adults and confused children sing about ploughing the fields they have never set foot in, and think about how that relates to modern issues like GM production, big agri-business, global trade rules and local subsidies, over-fishing and CO2 emissions on food miles.

I have to admit that I have a great deal of sympathy with the Mouse on this one. More than once I’ve heard clergy who do have such an event complain that their well to do congregregation appear to go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest tins and cheap razers to present unto the Lord when one suspects that they would not use these themselves. A pile of “essentials” style grocery can make you think a lot about generosity.

Harvest seems to me to be one of the great triumverate of festivals which don’t actually appear in the Christian Calender (go look for Harvest in Cranmer’s prayer book) which most make well meaning folk rude to well meaning clergy. They are Mothering Sunday, Remembrance Day and Harvest. Such rudeness can come on with or without the festival being celebrated.

The driving force of the kind of harvest festival that the Mouse is referring to is and always was nostalgia and not agriculture. Its a piece of Victoriana too. When I say this, people do tend to contradict me. Oh no, they say, harvest festival comes from the time when the peasants worked in the fields and wanted to celebrate that all the harvest was safely gathered in. To which I reply patiently, for I am always so patient, no, this is a piece of Victorian nostalagia promoted by people who lived in cities. Harvest hymns are pure Victoriana.

I don’t just feel out of sympathy with the kind of limp festival that the Mouse describes. I don’t feel at all comfortable with the idea that God provides us with a good harvest whilst presumably letting others starve. That can’t be right. Its just a version of the Prosperity Gospel for the Middle Classes which is socially acceptable but no less theologically obscene.

Whilst I’m broadly in agreement with the suggestions that the Mouse makes about moving forward on this topic and liberating some of the good themes from harvest and doing something positive with them, I also think that won’t satisfy some people. I did a harvest sermon at Lammastide, (the real Scottish harvest festival which celebrated first-fruits) and then we picked up and ran with some nice music celebrating the natural world on Sunday night (Francistide), including one specific harvest hymn. I threw in some nice eco-prayers and some thanksgivings for the beasts of the field.

Satisfaction and happy people?
No – I was simply asked why we don’t keep harvest.

I’ve come to the view that some folk really do want limp veg and tins and no amount of thoughtfulness about eco-justice, food-ethics, the dignity of work, fair-trade, clean water or what have you will replace that.


  1. Rosemary Hannah says

    For the same reason, I fear, that non-Christians argue for BCP, and people advertise ‘Victorian-style fitted kitchens’ (no Victorian ever fitted a kitchen). We favour fantasy over reality. It makes me cross because I know first hand how hard it is to work for your food, and how it is less labour intensive to rear beef, and slaughter and prepare it, rather than chicken (who ought to be expensive luxuries) and how slugs eat your courgettes, and how, were it not for the labour of others I would starve. And I would make a better fist than most at being self-sufficient. It makes me genuinely cross. I think people should only be allowed to attend Harvest services if they bring something they have grown, or nurtured, or sewn, or slaughtered themselves. Or knitted. Or whatever. But, themselves. (And to think my own son accuses me of making Christianity difficult for others…)

  2. I spent the week prior to Harvest up on Lewis staring at crofts and sheeps. Harvest Sunday itself I was still in the Highlands. So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to be aware of living off the land in such a situation. (Complete with home-grown apple adorning the window-sills.)

    I *do* think God distributes resources unevenly, but that doesn’t mean God is some universe-separate being who (yuck) can be blamed for it, rather, God is (in) the process of resource-distribution – this is the way the cookie crumbles(TM). From this it certainly follows that consideration of resource-flow from “farming producing communities to us Tesco-worshippers” is logical, as is “so what shall we do?” leading to fair-trade and anti-complacency and redistribution and eco-things. If it’s any consolation, a limp vegetable probably makes a less-messy icon than the meaty options in a city church, too.

    Rosemary Hannah: “Favouring fantasy over reality” is a charge that could be laid at several aspects of church, not all of which are necessarily bad. More to the point, though, I never seem to know when Harvest is going to be, and invariably fail to take anything along even if I do have half a clue. If any church I attended refused me entry on the grounds of lack of limp hand-knitted vegetable, I would absolutely never darken their doors again. A Welcome-FAIL is a Christian-FAIL.

  3. Amen to that. I’ve never liked Harvest as I don’t really ‘do’ country (except for listening to The Archers if that counts).

    And I liked it even less when forced to celebrate mass on a bale of hay as an altar and a thousand little black creatures appeared crawling all over the fair linen cloth and threatening to drown themselves in the chalice. I had to kill them – what choice did I have?

    • I once went to a retreat place where the barn chapel had an altar made from a manger. I rather liked that.

      I’m impressed, Mother Ruth, that you have actually performed such a visceral sacrifice at the altar.

  4. Rosemary Hannah says

    Um, I favour magical reality. I don’t favour fantasy.

  5. Hmm, I think there could be an interesting theological debate on whether ”hobgoblins and foul fiends” belong in the former or latter of those categories 🙂

  6. Given our drive towards minimising our carbon footprint, celebrating the harvest is one way of relating what is on our plate to where it comes from.

    Giving thanks for the Harvest gives a greater understanding of the seasonal nature of the produce that we eat and the storage of various commodities to make the harvest last throughout the winter. I well remember tying up onions for winter storage and my mother working through them during the winter.

    As an example the Clyde Valley known for its fruit farms. Your Lammastide sermon at the beginning of August hit that mark. The beginning of October ties into the harvest of other crops.

    In Canada, the second Monday of October is Thanksgiving Day with the churches giving thanks for the harvest the previous day.

    I do remember in my childhood days taking produce from the garden (rhubarb, potatoes, artichokes, etc) to the Harvest Thanksgiving service. As a city dweller, I never forget the growing of my own food, and even this summer I have been pot growing herbs for use in my cooking.

    Ruth – I do think that whether you are in a city or a country parish, you should recognise God’s gifts given to us at Harvest-tide (whenever to decide to celebrate it, and dependent on the crop and the relevant harvest time).

  7. agatha says

    I’m with Stewart, isn’t Harvest supposed to be about being thankful for what we have and being aware that others are not so fortunate? And trying to do something about that if we can? The fact that some people are rubbish at this (I well remember my 90+ year old granny being given a huge tin of out of date soup from the “Harvest Offering”) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still try. We might as well pack up the whole Christianity lark if that’s the criteria.

  8. Hand-knitted vegetables, eh? Do I scent a challenge?

  9. Perhaps those of us who minister in cities could turn our harvest festivals from being based on false nostalgia to being part of something new, without losing the agricultural component, by concentrating on the horticulture of our cities. Allotments, vegetable growing in gardens and more exciting stuff such as clandestine planting on wasteland are well trendy at the moment. I think they are in need of a trendy, photogenic, media savvy provost to arise to be their champion. And those organising services based on the urban harvest could insist on only produce from such sources being brought as offerings. There would also be the opportunity to work with councils, garden centres and grass roots organisations.

  10. Knitted food patterns…

  11. Elizabeth says

    I really appreciated the Lammastide sermon and service. But I’m not sure if I said so at the time – probably not!

    I’m reminded how important it is to share appreciation as well as (more than!) criticism. Perhaps a new year’s resolution in the making.

  12. Harvest.

    Autumn is here
    and there is no harvest
    The trees have leaves but no fruit
    The wheat has ears but no grain
    and if you should return
    I wouldn’t know
    how to begin to explain

    I would offer you a gift
    but of all the things I own
    all I have is my sin
    all I have that’s mine alone

    Spare me – I pray
    another year or two
    if you will extend your hand
    I will fill a harvest basket for you

    I have laboured in these fields
    among this bracken, broom and whin
    and a lifetime to understand
    all you wanted was my sin.

  13. Ah, the Grauniad! No – I only see that when I’m in a primary school staff-room, and never had the time to open it.
    But cute pattern – might be the next addition to the Choir dog collection.

  14. Scott from the States says

    Over here in the U.S. we have our national Thanksgiving Day (when very few actually go to church) designated to celebrate the harvest, peace and an end to civil strife, and general thanksgiving. Perhaps the UK needs to take a page from the U.S. and Canada and just make it an official government holiday!

  15. Sarah from Virginia says

    But what I was taught in school was that the first Thanksgiving was held in imitation of the traditional Harvest celebrations back home in England. Perhaps these were not actual church services? Anyhow I’m now confused!

  16. Incidentally, from a sample of 13 comments made on my photo of a harvest display in church, I deduce people’s expectations include:
    a) it’s long-life products, tinned or pasta, that one brings
    b) giving them to old dears who don’t really need them
    c) it’s something relegated to childhood memories

    Up to you where you draw the churchy/non-churchy line amongst that lot. Maybe it means there’s a *lot* of scope for a message of mission (to folks who normally exist outside the door) and ethics?


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