By Mark Chapman, Associate Priest
This time of year around Ascension Day has been traditionally associated with prayers for the fields and the land – it’s called rogationtide after the Latin word for prayer. It’s something that dates back well before Christianity – in some parishes they have processions to beat the bounds of the parish. These date from the time when 10 per cent of agricultural produce had to be paid to the church. The Old Testament too is full of feasts associated with the land. It’s not hard to imagine a semi-nomadic people settling in the Land of Canaan and asking for God’s blessing on the land. If the people of Israel obeyed God’s commandments, then God would fulfil his part of the bargain: the land would be fertile and the people would be well-fed. I guess little really changed thousands of years. If we think of England before the eighteenth century, it was an agricultural country whose cycles depended on the rhythm of the seasons. People had their own small pieces of land which they cropped; they had a few animals; they paid their taxes in kind; and at busy times of year everybody mucked in together. And if the rains didn’t come, the people starved.
The church was part of this whole process. Many clergy functioned in part as farmers – they had their own farmland, the glebe. In his marvellous diary, the Revd James Newton, Rector of Nuneham Courtenay talks about spending September 1759 organising the harvest, sending out for donkeys, and brewing large quantities of beer to offer to the labourers. His life was pretty much indistinguishable from any other gentleman farmer of the time – except for the occasional badly attended service.
But of course it’s all changed now – we are no longer primarily an agricultural economy. Even in our rural villages, only a tiny percentage of people are employed on the land – and that percentage has been rapidly declining through the century. Ever since the invention of the three-point coupling by Massey Fergusson in 1928, one person can now do at least eight people’s jobs.
The land may have gone out of lives but still we need to ask God to sustain it: in our world of supermarkets, agribusiness and instant gratification, it is all too easy to forget just how all of us ultimately depend on the land – it’s just that it’s not just our little bit of land. Nowadays Oxfordshire like the rest of our country is intimately connected with the whole global economy. The world is very fragile and we are becoming increasingly aware of climate change and the need to careful stewardship – and ultimately these are matters of justice and they require us to think globally. At the deepest level, God and the land are linked – our God is a God who demands justice, fairness and compassion, not just in this country but throughout the world. So as we pray at this time of year for our farmers, and for our crops, let us remember the need for God’s justice throughout the world – after all, all things come from him, and all that we have is rightfully his.