It is very easy to be cynical about so called “folk religion”. An expression of this vague attachment to the Christian Faith has been the popularity of the Harvest Thanksgiving. It is significant that this commemoration was nowhere to be found in the official Kalendar of the Book of Common Prayer, but spread like wildfire in the 19th century once it had been inaugurated by adventuresome spirits such as Parson Hawker of Morwenstow.
The Vicar under whom I served my title used to make a jibe to those who just come to Evensong at the Harvest by wishing them a Happy Christmas and New Year. He was a pastorally zealous priest, but I used to feel this jibe was insensitive, Why do people attend the harvest services, but rarely come otherwise ? Surely the reason is that at the deepest level there is a recognition that God’s creation and bounty are not to be taken for granted. We as a Church should build upon this recognition and not disparage it.
It might be thought that the Christian Church with its doctrine of creation would be in the fore-front of the movement for the protection of the environment. It is salutary for us to recall that leaders of the friends of the earth such as Jonathan Porritt are deeply sceptical about the part the Church has played in recent centuries in its relationship with the environment. Similar scepticism was expressed earlier this year by the politician Alan Clark in an article in “The Times”, despite his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism. These critics take the view that the Protestant work ethic, building upon passages such as the verses in Psalm 8 that see man as having dominion over the earth, have led man in the Western world with the support of the Church to exploit the environment rather than sustaining it.
At a time when there is a growing consciousness of the need to protect the environment, the Church has an indispensable role to play in keeping this movement on sound lines. “Green issues” can only too easily be associated with the “way out”, and sentimental forms of pantheism centred upon Mother Earth. At harvest Time the Church has a unique opportunity to remind people through it ascetic tradition that the Creation is to be approached in a spirit of reverence and not domination.
In a society dominated by consumerism, the Church should be preaching the message of generosity and the dangers of possessiveness. Let us not pour scorn on the Harvest Thanksgiving, but see it as a time for penitence in our approach to God’s world, recognising how greedy and possessive we so easily become. Positively let us determine in our prayers to be grateful for all God’s many blessings, recalling the close association between godliness and contentment. Contented people stand out as beacons of light in a very discontented world.
John Richards, the author of this meditation is Bishop of Ebbsfleet