Late September or early October, in the life of most churches, sees the celebration of the Harvest Festival. This takes different forms – in Grantchester this year we will have a Harvest Festival service for all ages on Sunday 15th October at 10.30am, but we will begin celebrating before that with a harvest supper at the village hall on Friday 6th October.
The harvest festival is something that has developed and changed over many years and is celebrated in different ways by different communities. You might know the name of the Rev Robert Stephen Hawker, as the ‘founder’ of the harvest festival. He was a Vicar in a church in Cornwall from 1835–1875. In 1843, he felt that parishioners should gather to give thanks to God for providing them with such plenty and, despite criticism from neighbouring clergy who thought him most peculiar, he held a service in 1843 to which everyone was invited to bring their produce as a way of saying thank you to God. Thereafter he urged his parishioners each year to come to church for thanksgiving for God’s provision. The idea caught on; many of our popular harvest hymns were written; and since then in churches up and down the land, as well as school and other groups, the harvest festival has taken place to focus on giving thanks to God for the harvest.
Now of course Robert Hawker didn’t pluck this idea from nowhere, and the roots of it go back much further. Since the middle ages, for example, the church had celebrated a sort of harvest festival, albeit a little earlier in the year. Lammas, meaning Loaf mass, was normally held on 1st August. Farmers would cut one sheaf of corn each and the flour from these would be used together to make a loaf which was offered to God as the first results of the coming harvest – and later a party was held for everyone to celebrate and give thanks for God’s generous provision.
But actually one could argue that for Christians, the harvest festival has its roots in the earliest recordings of the people of God who gathered for festivals to remember God’s goodness to them.
So what about today, for us? I have recently moved here from the Cotswolds. In the Cotswolds, we were surrounded by rolling countryside, most of which was farmland. I had farmers and shepherds in my congregations and we were very aware of issues around farming locally and, most years, I invited a farmer to speak to us about his world, about the issues he faced and how his faith was impacted by this. It felt local and on our doorstep.
Before that, I lived in a town, a step further removed from the immediate issues that I learned so much about in the Cotswolds. Most of the people in the congregations didn’t work on the land, we weren’t surrounded by open countryside and farmland and so our harvest services tended to be a chance to reflect on the bigger issues affecting this earth we live on – climate change, fair trade, food miles. It felt global and rather more distant.
Whatever our context, harvest is a good time to simply focus on being grateful, giving thanks for what we have. A time to be reminded that most of us in the UK have much to be grateful for but also that our own actions and consumption have an impact on many others – locally, nationally and across the world.
As we gather in church to celebrate the harvest, we gather first to give thanks to God, for the world we live in, its beauty and its splendour, its fragility and its power, and for all that we have. We celebrate communion using the gifts of the land – bread and wine – to remember what God has done for us.
As well as giving thanks to God, we will also acknowledge others around the world, most of whom we won’t ever know. And we will, I hope, hear again the challenge to examine our own behaviour and actions to see if we can do something about inequality and poverty, about our impact on the world and the lives of others.
Please do join us to celebrate and give thanks this harvest time but let’s also take time again to consider our impact on the world and on other people and what we can do in response. As always, our collection from the harvest service will be given to charity. The Revd Rachel Rosborough