As I have mentioned before, the Church of England in the North West has chosen the Harvest Festival as one of its “Back to Church Sundays” when services will be made especially visitor-friendly and when it will be a good time to go if you have not been for a long time. Of course, I think it is a good idea and I hope it helps a lot of people. However, I am not a great fan of Harvest Festivals, despite the fact that they can be very enjoyable and I know a lot of effort goes into them.
Why am I less than thrilled?
The Harvest Festival is an important fixture on the calendar for a lot of people, although it is not exactly fixed. It has been around a long time. The concept and the symbolism are both simple and are both good. It is an occasion when samples of the year’s harvest are brought into church and given away to the poor as a recognition of our gratitude to God for the harvest, as well as for everything else that we have, and a recognition of our responsibilities towards each other, especially those worse off than ourselves. The concept is certainly in line with everything Christians, and a lot of others, believe. The old hymn sums it up very well:
We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
What then can be wrong with it?
What is wrong is more in the perception than in the reality. Everything about Harvest speaks of our rural past. That is what many people like about it. It reminds us of our rural roots. It conjures up images of happy peasants working in sunny field manually gathering sheaves of wheat or some other crop. It is questionable whether that image was ever real, but nowadays it is certainly long gone. Not only do very few of us work in agriculture, but agriculture itself has changed dramatically since the Olden Days. Agribusiness is big business, is highly technical, is far from labour-intensive, is highly regulated and entails a remarkable amount of IT. Even in the countryside, more people work in leisure, conservation and mineral extraction than in agriculture.
Does any of that negate the truth that we all depend on God for our material as much as for our spiritual well-being? Of course not. God is the God of Science and Industry, even of Finance, just as much as he is the God of Agriculture. Is our duty to help each other, especially the poor, any the less? In our modern global economy, where not only are we increasingly interdependent but where we can be instantly updated on crises around the planet, the poor are more visible than ever.
Why then would anyone doubt the value of having a Harvest Festival?
It is because Harvest gives the impression of a Church and God that belongs in the countryside and in the past. It may be that some of us find that the sort of Church and the sort of God we are comfortable with, but it is wrong. If God exists at all, he exists for all people for all time. He is as relevant for a website designer or a careworker as for a farmer. He is as much the God of the inner city or the City as of the rolling hills.
I know that many clergy and others work hard to make the points I have just made in their Harvest Festival sermons and other elements of their services. I applaud them. However, their words are likely to have less of a lasting impact than the overall impression created by the sight of fresh fruit and vegetables and the very word “Harvest”.
There is another issue.
My other objection is that it is an annual event, like harvesting itself, for that obvious reason. However, it is too easy to remember God and our neighbour only once a year. The reality of God’s goodness and the needs of the poor should be with us all the year round.
What do I recommend?
Perhaps it is time to scrap Harvest Festivals and hold special events scattered like seed throughout the year to think about the relevance of God and our social responsibility in relation to various aspects of modern life: science, technology, health, education, leisure, service industries, sport, and whatever is most relevant in your area.