A Sermon from Sherborne

George Herbert and Harvest

A sermon for Harvest Festival at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 30 September 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Yesterday I had the pleasure of giving a talk to the Salisbury Diocesan Branch of the Prayer Book Society, meeting at Wilton, just a few short steps away from the lovely little church of St Andrew’s at Bemerton, of which the great 17th century poet George Herbert was rector from 1629 until his untimely death in 1633.

A year before he died, Herbert put the finishing touches to a small book which he called A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life. That little book, by one of England’s most gifted poets who had given up a glittering career at court to become a country parson, was not published until some years after his death. But it is still read today, and still contains something of the essence of Anglican spirituality and faith. It’s a book I often take up in odd moments, and if some of my attitudes and methods seem a little old-fashioned, well, George Herbert may have something to do with it.

But some things were old-fashioned even in his day and one of them was the keeping of Rogationtide, on the Fifth Sunday after Easter. Even in 1632 he was describing it as an ‘old custom’, and urging that the Rogationtide ceremonies should still be observed. The Country Parson is a lover of old customs, he wrote, if they are good and harmless; and the rather, because country people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts. And he gives four reasons why on Rogation Sunday the priest and the people should beat the bounds of the parish, and ask God’s blessing on the growing crops and the new born livestock: Because there are contained therein four 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, relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is, or ought to be used.

Well, what was already an old custom in George Herbert’s day is now nearly extinct. In a few parishes the bounds are still beaten on a parish walk, most famously at St Clement Danes and the Chapel of the Tower of London. And some coastal parishes still bless the sea rather than the fields, and the nets and the boats of the fishermen, sometimes even sending the Vicar and the Choir out in fishing boats for the purpose. But otherwise, Rogation is largely forgotten, and that’s a pity. The same is true of the other great celebrations of the farming year: Plough Sunday on the first Sunday after Epiphany, to ask a blessing on the New Year’s ploughing and sowing, and Lammas, the bringing to church in celebration the first loaf to be baked from the first flour ground from the first wheat of the year. Indeed, we would have no real celebration of the farming year at all were it not for Harvest Festival, and that is a nineteenth century innovation we owe to one Robert Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, who introduced the celebration for the first time in 1843.

So we really need to transfer to today the spirit of what our forebears used to do at Plough Sunday, Rogation and Lammastide. George Herbert’s reflections on Rogation offer us four things which we can do just as well today as at any other season, and they are these:

First, as he put it, to ask a blessing of God. In Herbert’s day, people were much more conscious of the presence of God in their everyday working lives than we are. It is recorded that in the Parish of Bemerton, on ordinary weekdays, Some of the meaner sort did so love and reverence Mr. Herbert that they would let their plough rest when Mr. Herbert’s Saint’s-bell rang to prayers, that they might also offer their devotions to God with him; and would then return back to the plough. Would that each one of us would punctuate each working day with prayer; allow God to be present in the everyday and routine and humdrum, and open our eyes to see that nothing is irrelevant to him, nothing is beyond his concern and his care and his compassion – and certainly not how we get our daily bread, on farm or in factory, in shop or office or hospital or school. Good Christian people, do you not think that we might this Harvest Festival day resolve to ask God’s blessing more often on our daily lives and let him into our hours and our days? And that will be to us a very real blessing. In practical terms, I would love to see more of you in the Lady Chapel for Morning Prayer, which we offer every day at 8.30 am from Monday to Saturday. Twenty minutes of prayer to begin the day. Why are the clergy so often alone, apart from a member of Cheap Street Church and another from St Paul’s, on those days? Abbey folk, please come and pray with us.

Then, second, discussing Rogationtide, George Herbert says that it is about justice. Even today some of you know all about boundary disputes. In the centuries before decent maps and proper deeds, it was vital to walk boundaries and agree them on a regular basis. And still today we need justice at the heart of our dealings with one another: justice at work, justice in the distribution of the world’s wealth, justice in matters of human rights and dignity and well-being. Things don’t change: the prophets in the Old Testament were passionate for justice. Not long after George Herbert’s death the denial of justice was the principal reason for a Civil War. Today injustice still abounds, and our modern Harvest Festival is an occasion to pray for justice and to resolve to work for justice, in our relationships, in our community and in our nation.

Then, third, George Herbert liked Rogation walks because on them people could ‘walk lovingly and neighbourly together’. Yes, that’s good and true and right, and you know I don’t think a little more neighbourliness even between the members of this church would come amiss, let alone in the town at large. We live in a privatised world where the tendency is for everyone to disappear into the little fortresses they call their homes and remain remote and aloof from one another. Time and again I notice that the good neighbours are older folk who grew up in a friendlier and more considerate age. I like and often use Reinhold Niebuhr’s lovely prayer: O God, who has bound us together in this bundle of life, give us grace to understand how our lives depend upon the courage, the industry, the honesty and the integrity of our fellow men; that we may be mindful of their needs, grateful for their faithfulness, and faithful in our responsibilities to them.

And finally, says George Herbert, Rogationtide is about ‘Relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess.’ The thing about Bemerton in 1632 was that it wasn’t a parish of rich merchants and bankers, but a parish of ordinary yeomen and poor villagers. And yet still they gave of their substance to help those less fortunate than themselves. And again things still haven’t changed. Every year the Christian Aid collectors come back and tell me that getting a gift out of the big houses with the smart cars is like getting blood out of a stone, but that ordinary people in the town have given generously and willingly. And Christian people are those who are called always to go a second mile, to give and give again, and Harvest Festival underlines the blessings that God promises to those who give in the name of Christ.

George Herbert wrote that country people tend to think that all things come by a kind of natural course; and that if they sow and soil their grounds, they must have corn; if they keep and fodder well their cattle, they must have milk and calves – and that therefore the Country Parson must labour to reduce them to see God’s hand in all things. Here, at today’s Harvest Festival, we need to see God’s hand in all the blessings we have received, and thank him for them, and ask for his grace and courage that his blessings might be shared amongst his people, that all might bless and adore his holy name.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 30/09/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne