One of the delights of my short period as a vicar in rural Oxfordshire was the annual Rogation procession around the villages. When the weather cooperated, we’d walk from one village landmark to the next, stopping at each place — the village green, a fence by the open fields, a farm, the old manor house — to ask God to bless the land and her people. We ended at the medieval parish church where we sang a hymn and closed with final prayers.
The Rogation procession was the last echo of a tradition in the villages that stretched back well into the Middle Ages, when vicar, wardens, choir and villagers would “beat the bounds” to remind everyone where the boundaries lay and even (if court records are to believed) to shift them a few inches farther out. Though solemn, such processions were usually accompanied by such quantities of drink that it was not uncommon for them to end in an undignified brawl between the strong men of opposing villages — another example of how medieval Christians could contain piety and riotous living in one solemn occasion.
Sadly, Rogation processions are largely a thing of the past here in Britain. Like Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, they have been forgotten in many churches; yet another example of a church that claims to want to connect with people, yet has cut off a vital moment for doing so. Rogation won’t even be mentioned in most churches this Sunday. In a post-Christian world where the Church can’t get people to acknowledge major festivals, why bother with something like Rogation Sundays?
That may in fact be an unanswerable question in Britain today. If one is disposed as I to retain and even celebrate old Christian festivals in the face of wider apathy, one can often seem like an Anglican version of a historical reenactor. The world in which beating the bounds on Rogation Sunday made sense is now largely a thing of the past and certainly not something in tune with the times. What does it have to do with discipleship or church growth initiatives?
Yet for all that, I do believe something important is lost when we neglect Rogation days. Certainly, times given to collective prayer are important and of themselves worthy of promotion and preservation. But less obvious is the way that the “beating of the bounds” on Rogation Sunday reminded people that their faith is more than an airy-fairy idea with no impact on the world, more than just a collective feeling or personal relationship with God. It is a faith that includes the very space in which we live. Rogation processions remind us that God is the God not only of people but of the land as well; in G.K. Chesterton’s words, he is the “God of earth and altar.” Rogation processions also remind people that God is intimately involved in our efforts to imbue space and land with meaning. As we see repeatedly in Scripture, God calls us to promised lands where space becomes more than empty ground by becoming the place where we belong. Rogation reminds us that these places that grab hold of our deep affections need also to be baptized and to become, if only for those who live there, a little Eden where God still enjoys strolling in the cool of the evening.
In a world beset with ecological crises and dominated by a culture that abuses and exploits God’s creation in order to try to sate insatiable desires, perhaps we need to rediscover Rogation Sunday and the wonderful processions that once marked it. For what we need far more than visions about discipleship, Green Reports, and plans for institutional restructuring is a church that, like Lady Philosophy who consoled Boethius, has her head in the heavens but feet firmly planted on the earth. Perhaps a grounded, earthed Church enlivened by the Spirit of God is worth a prayer or two during these Rogation days. I can think of little better to ask for.
The featured image is from the beating of the bounds at the Tower of London. It was taken by Flickr user IanVisits and is licensed under Creative Commons.