TODAY is Rogation Sunday – think interrogation, but in a nice way. Traditionally it is the time when we are concerned with asking and thanking God for the kindly fruits of the earth in due season. Processions, parades and parties, cakes and ale and bonfires. The first Rogationtide processions were set up by Bishop Mamertus of Vienne in AD 470 to thank God for deliverance from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the Auvergne. In the Middle Ages throughout Europe, Rogationtide was the second-most important religious observance after Easter. In his wonderful book The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy quotes from someone who was present at a typical scene in the Suffolk village of Long Melford in the 13th century:
There was a bonfire and tubs of ale, and bread was given to the poor . . . and they had the like drinkings and some long pies of mutton and pease cods set upon boards. And at all these bonfires, some of the friends and more civil poor neighbours were called in and sat at the board with my grandfather . . .
They did something similar in towns and the City of London. John Stow tells us:
These were bonfires, as well of uniting amongst neighbours that were before at controversie were there by the labour of others reconciled and were made of bitter enemies loving friends. The rich made many bequests to neighbours to make merry withal . . .
There were processions and prayers and junketings for days on end. The Protestant Reformers opposed them, with their usual deadly misunderstanding and leaden imagination concerning ritual and ceremony. William Tyndale complained:
As if they should preach the gospels to the corn in the fields in Rogation week, that it should the better grow!
Well, there are fools, damn fools and literalists. The Reformers’ mistake was to think that what they saw going on in the fields was a species of sympathetic magic. But those holy, ale-soaked picnics were much more about something we would now describe as holistic – a better word is incarnated. The spiritual and moral identity of the community was expressed through a ritualisation of the work of the country, which was farming and growing. Farmers are not stupid. They’re not New Age freaks operating by incantation, star sign and moonshine. If farmers get their practical science wrong, they starve.
The Rogationtide junketings, taking the Blessed Sacrament out into the fields with the ale and pies, proclaimed many truths, theological, moral and social. They were vital to the life of the community. First, they declared the unity of the spiritual and natural world. Second, they provided the opportunity for reconciliation among people who had been at odds. Third, in the beating of the bounds, they set out clear boundaries between neighbours and competitors. Fourth, they encouraged local charity. By threatening to get rid of these rituals as superstitious, the Reformers and iconoclasts threatened the very existence of local communities. That’s why the Reformation in rural England turned violent, not over some sub-scholastic preference for a particular shade of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. The rooted countryfolk were not willing to have their settled way of life abolished by some abstracted townie or metropolitan-chic. Does any of this strike us as familiar?
It should, because it’s a battle between ideology and practice, between wholehearted, world-affirming Christian materialism on the one hand and a theoretical Puritanism on the other. Coleridge said men are mostly right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. Puritanism is all denial, and it gets things in the wrong order. Did you hear the story about the Puritan Elder, come to answer questions from his congregation? A young man stood up and asked,
What is the view on dancing?
Answer: Dancing is unnatural and not allowed.
What about sex?
Yes, sex is quite permissible between the married couple.
Question: What about kinky sex?
What d’you mean by kinky?
I meant standing up.
Certainly not – it might lead to dancing!
Rogationtide is a celebration of material-spiritual reality. It is not just some relic from the Middle Ages of no earthly use to us today. I would say it is more needed than ever, for the local world of the parish is always under threat from the distant abstractions and the artificially-imposed systems of the centralising bureaucrat. If you listen to the BBC, you will notice that these days parochial is used only to denigrate. Chesterton warned us against the centralising bureaucrats:
They have given us into the hands of new unhappy lords;
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright, dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laugher as a tired man looks at flies.
The bureaucrat wishes to impose a universal system of rights whose pernicious result is the breakdown of community and personal relationships by the onslaught of constant litigation. Any doctrine of universal rights is a prescription to sue thy neighbour. Whereas true community is built on the solidarity of shared interests, a covenant or social contract underwritten by shared ceremonies.
The ancient ceremony of the beating of the bounds exists to remind us of what’s ours and what belongs to someone else. It is about landmarks. In our Prayer Book we have the warning, ‘Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark’. And we have landmarks which are social and moral and spiritual as well as physical. They delineate public and private space and they warn alike the busy-bodying Puritan of old and the politically correct, nannying politician of today that they ought not poke their noses into what’s not their business.
More prayer, that’s what we need. Prayer with cakes and ale. In the world made by God, these things are inseparable.