The Three Great Festivals of Distress

Last week, one of the three Great Festivals of Distress passed. In my own congregation, it passed peacefully and joyfully, for which we all give thanks.

The ability of Mothering Sunday to cause distress is something with which I suspect all priests are familiar and which many priests will dread.

However, Mothering Sunday is but one of the Three Great Festivals of Distress which come upon us during the year and it is perhaps worth noting them and looking for commonalities.

Mothering Sunday is a feast of distress because there are presumptions about what will happen which are enjoyed by some and hated by others. Some people have lovely mothers. Some people have terrible, spiteful and hate-filled mothers. Oh, I know you are not supposed to say so out loud but the reality is that we are supposed to worship someone who said, “I am the truth” rather than worshipping the many breasted mother-goddess Artemis of Ephesus. Yet worship of Mother and Mothering and Fecundity is very much one of the themes of the day – more in the distressed than in the blessed. And we don’t all agree on what we are doing.

Oh, say some – “We give flowers to everyone/every woman rather than just to mothers”.

“And those are PITY FLOWERS” weep others.

The distress that is caused by issues of fertility is something that we don’t address very often in churches other than, in many, to rub that distress in the faces of those who desire children but for one reason or another can’t have them at certain times of year, Mothering Sunday in particular.

(I’m rather aware of this myself – no-one ever stops on Mothering Sunday to wonder whether I might have liked to have children…)

Ah, some say – you do know that Mothering Sunday isn’t like American Mothers’ Day which is all commercial? Mothering Sunday they tell me is about the time in the Middle Ages when all the happy serfs visited their Mother Church for the fourth Sunday in Lent. My response to this is to snort loudly and ask them to show me any proof from any liturgy of the church in the Middle Ages and tell them to look up Constance Smith – whose rather mawkish desire to “revive” Mothering Sunday seems to me to stem very precisely from the celebration of Mothers’ Day in the USA.

Locally, we tend to schedule baptisms for Mothering Sunday and rejoice in new life and potential. I welcome people at the beginning of the service by welcoming “those who are celebrating Mothering Sunday today” amongst others. We sing Now Thank We All Our God with its line about coming from our mothers’ arms. But that’s that. We don’t do anything else. In other words, we acknowledge it but play it down a bit.

And I am thanked, every year, by people who say that they would not be able to go to church on that day if St Mary’s did what many churches do. People are profoundly grateful that we don’t force-feed them their sadnesses around that day.

Very occasionally, I’ve been criticised for playing it down but the thanks that I get far outweighs the criticism. However, I have noticed that strident criticism for not keeping Mothering Sunday more fully tends to be made publicly. Appreciation for doing it in a way which minimises distress tends to come much more quietly.

Personally, I think that Mothering Sunday is an own goal for the churches. It alienates as many as it attracts. Mission needs to be about telling people about God not about encouraging them to come and celebrate in ways which alienate others.

The next Great Festival of Distress that will come later in the year is Harvest Festival. Again it is a festival we don’t all agree on. Some people are puzzled that it is a festival of distress but I’ve known many an argument about it. Is it acceptable to bring tins? Is it acceptable to bring tins from a budget supermarket line when you don’t eat from that line yourself? Is it acceptable to bring gifts that are not fairly traded? Why do we give the food to the foodbank and not to the old folk? Why do we give the food to the old folk and not to the foodbank? Why have you brought me this tin of lychees, I’m not eating that foreign muck? Why can’t we just think about everyone’s labour? Why have you not blessed the potatoes growing on my allotment? Why can’t everyone be happy singing “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”? Why would anyone sing hymns that suggest that God blesses us when there are starving people in the world? Isn’t the prosperity gospel wicked? Doesn’t God bless us when we are good as the bible says then?

Again, I play this down here and again some people find that distressing in itself. I like to have a Sunday when we think about creation and for me that’s enough. We use some hymns that some would use at harvest and there’s others that we simply wouldn’t dream of using.

After that comes Remembrance Sunday. The distress is heightened again. What do we really think about war and our part in it? Red poppy/white poppy wars are not unknown in churches. (We sell both but I’ve known several ministries that nearly came to an end because of white poppies). Last year I became aware of purple poppies to commemorate animals who had died in wartime and I sighed very deeply. Here in St Mary’s, we mark it a little differently to many churches. We have two minutes silence, seated, at the end of the intercessions and we remember the tragedy and pity of war. We sing O God our Help in Ages Past and no, we don’t sing anyone’s national anthem. We try to remember that we are an international congregation in which we have people from countries which the UK fought bitterly and bloodily. We try to remember that many people in the congregation will have no history of anything to do with Remembrance Sunday (and this applies to those from countries like the USA as well as parts of Africa). We try to remember that some in the congregation have fought for this or other countries themselves – have worn uniforms and have lost friends to enemy (or worse, friendly) fire. We wear our poppies of whatever colour we choose with pride and we do so on our street clothes rather than our vestments, as is the case with all symbols at St Mary’s – AIDS ribbons, poppies, breast cancer ribbons, daffodils for St David’s Day, CND emphemera and all my many badge creations are welcome and worn when we are being ourselves in street clothes rather than when we are standing robed at the altar.

Inevitably there are tensions on all these days of distress.

The common things seem to me to be that they are all days on which we do not agree what we are doing. And when we bring that into sacred time and space we have the capacity to cause cosmic upset for some.

The Great Days of Distress don’t appear as Great Festivals in the Prayer Book. They are each a test of a religious community in its ability to manage conflicting joys and sadnesses. They are the best test of someone’s priestcraft. And these days, with social media giving a voice to the distress that each brings, we need to be all the more sensitive and all the more careful about what we are doing.

And people very, very rarely talk about them in these terms.

How should we mark festivals that are important to some and which cause obvious and terrible distress to others?


  1. Julia says

    What is the best Prayer Book? Thanks Kelvin
    I apologize for our U.S. President Obama’s bad behavior’ we elect a new one this fall.

    • I’m not qualified to comment on what the best prayer book is. We don’t have a modern prayer book in Scotland. The best prayer book is whatever inspires you.

  2. Thanks, Kelvin
    As a priest of the C of E (one who will continue to worship in the SEC on the rare occasions when I’m in Scotland) these are precisely the three festivals I’ve always struggled with and even, in private, admitted to disliking. I thought it was just me being weird! Your thinking through and outlining the tensions of all three, and your suggestions that they test a religious community for many of whom they exacerbate joy, sadness, or both and test too a priest’s priestcraft, is very helpful and will help me – and those who minister with me – to think, pray and do liturgy on these occasions with, I hope, sensitive and thoughtful creativity.
    In short, thanks a lot!

  3. We try to remember that we are an international congregation in which we have people from countries which the UK fought bitterly and bloodily

    I guess that I don’t get what Remembrance Day commemorates. As I recall, the US had to fight two bitter & bloody wars with at least a part of what is now the UK!

  4. Exactly. While the “festivals of distress” vary from country to country, within any country they tend to be headaches for clergy and congregations across denominational (and, increasingly, interfaith) lines. The way you deal with these days is intelligent and pastorally sensitive.

  5. I am distressed when Mothering Sunday is dressesd up as an insipid mockery of the pain of motherhood or the lack of a mother. I lost my mother at age 4. I never had a mother figure in my life to nurture or love me, and spent five years in a less than compassionate children’s home as a direct result of her loss. I had problems life long as a result. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate God as both Mother and Father to get behind what an ideal mother is, because all to often we (the churches) get it wrong a great deal of the time.

  6. Peppy Ulyett says

    Thank you for the way you have articulated this problem – it is thoughtfully and helpfully explained. It seems to me that keeping the focus on biblical principles is generally wisest – acknowledge the cultural focus, but then refocus back on God. When we are all refocussed back on God, we can each find the joy and comfort we all need, both for ourselves and for others around us.

  7. Chris says

    I always have trouble with Mothering Sunday for several reasons. First, it interrupts Lent with an opportunity to be mawkishly sentimental, vaguely maternal, and totally unfocussed on the great season in which it occurs. For all its faults, the US Mother’s Day is well away from Lent. Second, my mother sadly died 35 years ago this year. I recall her every day with love and reverence. I don’t particularly want her memory confined to one Sunday of the year and then put away in the Vestry cupboard to gather dust until next year. And third and finally, the Church Year is such a treasure of our faith that interrupting it for Mothering, Harvest, or Remembrance Sundays seems to me to be blotting out part of our heritage. Although, as you have I’m sure discovered, publicly denigrating any of those faux-religious commemorations risks stirring up a hornet’s nest of Know-Nothings.

  8. Good one, Kelvin – thank you.

    And just so folks know, it’s not just ‘the U.S. Mothers’ Day’. We celebrate it in Canada on the same day in May. I’m very glad that it’s not in Lent. And in our church we don’t make it the theme of the service; it’s often mentioned in the intercessions, and sometimes we have a tea or something afterwards. But liturgically, it’s very minimal. We use the normal sections for the day, whatever they might be.

    • Meg Rosenfeld says

      Same in our parish. Our Rector always makes a point of saying, on both Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day, that while some individuals may not have happy memories of their “real” fathers or mothers, he hopes that there as been someone in our lives who has nurtured and fostered us, and to whom we can be thankful. I see nothing wrong with that. As for Thanksgiving (the American step-child of Harvest Festival) living as I have always done, in a heavily agricultural state, I have always found it appropriate to thank God for sending us a good harvest–or to pray that in the coming winter, we may actually get enough rainfall to produce our crops. Again, I see nothing wrong with that, nor with praying for our wounded veterans and for the souls of those killed in whatever wars we happen to be fighting at the moment. But it seems that all of these topics are handled differently on this side of the globe.

  9. Chaplain John Bunyan says

    I speak for one who (at 80 and perhaps politically incorrect) still greatly values all three of these days. Mothering Sunday (which here in Australia my church celebrates as well as mentioning the May Mothers’ Day) has good and broad connotations – it is not only about mothers, and since childhood, I have enjoyed the Simnel Cake which is distributed to all in church on that day, with posies of flowers for all women present or for those at home. In my final, more or less working class parish (rector there for 22 years) we celebrated Harvest Festival in our autumn, on the 5th Sunday after Easter Day, with its old agricultural associations (although in the northern hemisphere in springtime) – bringing gifts of food and decorating God’s house with some of the bounty of creation of which this day reminds us – responding with thanksgiving. As for Remembrance Day, in Australia I think it is more widely observed now than 50 years ago, as is Anzac Day on April 25th. Large numbers of Australians immediately volunteered for service in both World Wars when Britain and indeed Australia were threatened ; we did not have conscription for either War though we did for Vietnam. These terrible wars did defeat Prussian militarism and Japanese aggression. (The USA was very late coming into the Great War, and did not come into the 2nd until Pearl Harbour.) Australians and New Zealanders, in proportion to their populations, lost many dead. In my own family a considerable number fought in both wars, in the 1st World War, at least four killed in France or Belgium, one at Beersheba, numbers of other family members wounded, and that would be a typical story. Australians tend their war memorials, attend commemorative services in very large numbers on Anzac Day especially but also in considerable numbers on Remembrance Day, and Australians, especially young men and women, in great numbers visit old battlefields in Papua New Guinea, Borneo and Europe, not to glorify war or in any jingoistic spirit, but seeking to learn from war and to resist evil, and, not least, to honour those who laid down their lives for their friends. And whether or not people here agree with participation of our forces in some of the present Middle Eastern conflicts, increasingly they do seek to give practical help afterwards service men and women who are often severely afflicted in body and mind as a result of their involvement. J.B. Hon.Chaplain, Macarthur/Ingleburn National Servicemen; Hon.Chaplain, The Australian Intelligence Corps ; Hon.C.of E.Chaplain, Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital (in Sydney, NSW).

  10. Caelius Spinator says

    This essay makes it sound like Mothering Sunday is a early 20th century revival of a medieval custom for which we have no liturgical evidence. This claim is disputable. The early 18th century sources ( claim that Mothering Sunday is indeed hinted at in the medieval liturgy by the Epistle being Galatians 4:21-31, particularly Gal. 4:26. There are supposedly 13th century sources that confirm the association of the day with the collection of ecclesiastical revenue.

  11. Once again – any reference to this “custom” ever having happened in the middle ages in any liturgical book or any contemporaneous history?

    I’m not suggesting in any way that Mothering Sunday was a revival of a medieval custom that we have no liturgical evidence for.

    I’m suggesting it was a 20th century fantasy.

  12. Caelius Spinator says

    If so, it’s an 18th century fantasy or older, not a 20th century one.

  13. Teresa Reblef says

    What a relief to find someone willing to say these things. Thank you, Kelvin for articulating some of the intense pain that surrounds these difficult days in the church calendar. Please keep on expressing your mind on these issues so that perhaps the church will begin to understand the alienation factor involved. As a committed but sensitive Christian, it grieves me to be unable to worship on these days with others, whose lack of sensitivity (or is it their own pain?) prevents any real understanding or compassion. Thank you for caring about the marginalised.

  14. Mike Keirle says

    The origins of Mothering Sunday have very little to do with mothers and more to do with mother church. So we celebrate belonging to family- whatever that is. I have no issues with Harvest Festival these days – especially with foodbanks. I ask people the week before to think about what they might bring and always to make it non-perishable.
    And Remembrance is one of my favourite festivals, if there is such a thing, simply because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on peacemaking and bridgebuilding. I think we have o be careful not to overplay this. I understand people’s struggles and sympathize but that doesn’t make them wrong. We just need to handle them carefully and sensitively

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