Thanks to a bit of prompting from three excellent posts The Church Mouse, Charlie Peer and Red I have been inspired to add my bit about harvest festivals and their relevance in today's world.. I would recommend reading the above posts in the order I've put them, and look through the comments too, it's an interesting read.
Harvest Festivals could be considered the bane of some Clergy lives! I have done around a hundred or so (by my rough guesstimate) in the past fourteen or so years since I was Ordained. We had a school one and a Church one in my first Suburban London parish, nice and simple. In my second parish in Central London we had a Church Harvest Festival, and I was chaplain to four schools who liked a good Harvest Celebration. Then I moved to a Thirteen Parish Team with four schools who all celebrated Harvest in our 'soft rural' setting in South Cambridgeshire and after eight years there I lost track of how many I covered... I usually did two of the schools and up to eight of the parishes in any one year. Now I'm in another, slightly 'harder' rural area (though not as isolated and very rural as Dartmoor or Exmoor which are both in our Diocese) with Five Churches, or six including a daughter Church in a tiny village which always wants a harvest and Four Schools, all of whom enjoy their harvest celebrations.
Long winded background, but all because I want to say that not one of those Harvests felt 'Irrelevant' or outdated or out of touch with the contemporary world. Urban and Rural settings both appreciated the need to remember where our food comes from, both in terms of the producers and the God who we believe provides for us in a wonderful, though perhaps not quite so mechanistic as some seem to envisage, way.
The Church Mouse points out that Harvest as we know it in the Church of England is a Victorian invention from a rather eccentric Cornish Priest. And says that we are disconnected from the cycle of food production, particularly in urban areas, that the Harvest Thanksgiving marks. These can be seen as reasons for dropping 'Harvest' as we know it I can see that argument, but we are also disconnected from the community ties we used to have, and we live in a very self-serving culture, and there are many other social mores that as a Church we are critical of - do we drop anything that people don't 'get' straightaway or do we take on the role of apologists and evangelists for a gospel that is 'foolishness to the Greeks'?
I do think there are plenty of 'Victorian Values' that the Church needs to drop and move on from, particularly with regards to the idea that somehow Christianity is tied up with holding to a particular set of moral standards. We could also do with leaving behind a few of the awful Victorian Dirges that the Church seems to cling on to in the misbegotten belief that they somehow represent the pinnacle of worship. There's a few buildings that might benefit from the ministrations of a Diocesan Arsonist too. But I'm rambling. Just because something was started by a slightly-not-quite-right-in-the-head Vicar in the Victorian Era doesn't mean we have to stop doing it. If we stopped doing things inspired by odd clerics, the Church of England would have very little to keep itself occupied with....
But the disconnect between Food production and the cycle of the Agricultural year and people bringing what they have produced to offer in Church is something that does need addressing. I'm not sure the best reaction to something that doesn't quite fit is to drop it - and if we need (as is claimed) to explain the meaning behind something then the Church is fulfilling both an educative and prophetic role it should be fulfilling!
It also strikes me that the recent interest for seasonal foods, slow foods, local produced goods, farmers markets, farm shops and fair trade as well as the popularity of local munchies guru Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall and other celeb chefs and cooks have also tapped into a desire on the part of many people to go beyond the cheap food culture and connect again with food that we both need and enjoy. The Church should surely be building on such interest and addressing the desire for connection with these things - which serve to build awareness of our interconnectivity and draw people into community.
Lastly, I think that Harvest being at Harvest is quite important. I grew up in Church traditions which barely acknowledged the seasons of the year and it sometimes felt marked only those parts of the 'Church Year' which they couldn't avoid - Christmas and Easter. I can see why they did this, as the focus was on celebrating the resurrection of Jesus every week, but we human beings are time-bound, we mark the cycles of the year and we are a part of the change of the seasons. I think the Church is enriched by marking the seasons and even if they aren't very visible (eg in City centres) they should still be observed and enjoyed and used as reasons for people to get together, give thanks and enjoy being with one another. We may not have people out in our city streets gathering in the fruit of the field, but that doesn't mean we don't mark it happening as part of our world and highlight it - helping people be more aware of our world and all that God has given us.
Hmmm, not quite as coherent and significantly more long winded than planned. But I enjoyed the process :-) Well done Mouse - once again got the blogosphere and twitterverse moving :-)