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?