Christopher Trundle considers the traditions of Rogationtide

‘The Country Parson is a Lover of old Customes… Particularly, he loves Procession, and maintains it, because there are contained therein 4 manifest advantages. First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field: Secondly, justice in the Preservation of bounds : Thirdly, Charity in loving walking, and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any : Fourthly, Mercy in releeving the poor by a liberall distribution and largesse, which at that time is, or ought to be used’

(George Herbert, The Country Parson, ch. XXXV, ‘The Parson’s Condescending’)

Beating the bounds

As summer approaches we find ourselves at the beginning of a season of processions; we have already celebrated Easter, the May Devotions to Our Lady await, as does Corpus Christi. Easily forgotten, however, is Rogation Sunday (29 May this year), and its procession of the beating of the parish bounds – here we certainly have a venerable and thoroughly Anglican tradition.

Of course, there are practical difficulties in geographically large parishes, the weather may be against us, enthusiasm can quickly wane when faced with a great field or dual carriageway to traverse. But given fair weather and a good half-way picnic lunch the exercise can be quite rewarding.

There are, of course many parishes which still maintain this tradition. I remember the beating of the bounds when at university (fond memories of a vicar in cope and biretta striding out into a muddy fen, MC in tow, in search of some hitherto elusive cattle to bless), and I also recall seeing the numerous parish markers (dating mostly from the nineteenth century) painted onto the outer walls of buildings to show where one parish boundary ended and another began.

Granted, there may be a faint sense of the ridiculous which goes with beating the bounds, but it is nonetheless surprising to realize the central part it has played in Specifically English religion for centuries. It is also perhaps the most public demonstration of the parish system, and of our Church’s responsibility not to groups of like-minded individuals, or to particular social classes, but to entire communities.

Christian unity

In pre-Reformation England Rogationtide was traditionally a time for the settling of disputes in the parish community, and Rogationtide processions served as a focus of parochial unity; it is easy to understand how the experience of walking together around the parish boundaries as a community served to strengthen feelings of belonging. Parishioners would also often eat and drink together during or after such processions. It is not inconceivable that these occasions were among the most important communal parish events of the liturgical year.

George Herbert’s romanticized account of such processions does have a ring of truth to it. Not only does it bear witness to the medieval traditions associated with Rogationtide, but the depiction of the camaraderie to be found in walking together Speaks powerfully of Christian unity. While we do not live in anything like the Christian culture of medieval England, the parish system remains an important symbol of the Incarnation and of the mission of the Church.

Faced with the onset of the ‘network church’ and even less ecclesiologically coherent Fresh Expressions, it is more important than ever to stand up for the parish today. Indeed, of all our Anglican Patrimony the parish system stands out as the one integral part which cannot be taken elsewhere. ND