john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Breaking the mould with Robert Hawker

    Northmoor News Front Page
    September 2011

    For countless centuries farmers have gathered for a supper to celebrate the end of their harvest. After the bright light of the Harvest Moon has faded over the fields and the last of the corn has been gathered, so the lights of the village halls have been turned up high, rooms decorated, and food and drink produced in abundance: ready for the high-point of the social calendar, a chance for relaxation after a year's hard work, for thanksgiving and fellowship.

    The Harvest Festival service is a more recent invention - usually credited to the 'eccentric' Victorian cleric Revd Robert Stephen Hawker who, in 1843 introduced a harvest thanksgiving service to his congregation in Mortenstow, the most northerly parish in Cornwall, six miles north of Bude.

    Hawker's 'eccentricity' was perpetuated by his first biographer, the equally 'singular' Sabine Baring-Gould, who unreliably recorded Hawker's penchant for dressing up as a mermaid and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. A questionable contemporary source, Wikipedia, further reports that Hawker 'dressed in claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket, which he claimed was the ancient habit of St Padarn. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a pig as a pet.'

    Thus unafraid of breaking the mould, Hawker was a pioneer of his time, a man with the imagination to connect the spirit of his community (from ancient times committed to their harvest feasts) to the thrust of holy scripture where in Psalms the creator is praised for his generous provision, and bold enough to make of this connection a new form of service - which proved so popular that for many rural churches (as I was told by one church member recently) 'it remains the highlight of the year, bigger than Christmas or Easter. People who never come otherwise are there. The church will be full to overflowing.'

    So this Harvest I shall be looking forward to celebrating the hard work of all those who labour in the fields of West Devon, whether with crops or livestock or in the support industries which service them; I hope to help each in their giving thanks to God for his provision, and facing the harder situations of shortfall, loss and decline by offering prayers which name these struggles. And I shall be giving thanks for the example of Robert Stephen Hawker whose pioneering spirit the church keenly needs again today. Hawker's ministry poses a question for us this harvest-time: looking at our society and the way it expresses itself, what new forms of worship might we introduce now, to connect the spirit of our community with the thrust of holy scripture?