My first experience of Rogation was over 35 years ago when I was a young Curate in an urban fringe community. The Vicar decided it was time to celebrate Rogation by walking the boundaries of the parish – all 26 miles. The young Curate was detailed to lead the walk. I still have the photo –it was probably the last and only time I wore shorts and a clerical collar, and an orange hat!! The original idea of beating of the bounds was to educate young people about the waymarks or boundary posts of the parish. No googleearth or sat nav in those days! The myth that the clergy beat the young at each waymark to impress them upon the memory is probably just that – a myth!! The procession to beat the bounds [boundaries] would often included pausing at different points to pray for God’s blessing on the community and on the land.
Rogationtide is primarily a festival of prayer lasting for the four days before the feast of the Ascension. The word Rogation comes from the word Rogo meaning to ask (rogo, rogare, rogavi, rogatus) “Ask and it shall be given”(Matthew 7 verse 7). The connection of Rogation with agriculture probably links back to the ancient Roman festival of Robigalia when the goddess Robigo, who had the power to bring rust or mildew to crops, was petitioned for mercy to allow the goddess Ceres to do her work and bring forth a good harvest (from “Certes” we get the word “cereals”!) Both Ovid and Cato refer to the sacrificing of dogs as part of the festival and Ovid’s priest prays: “Scaly Robigo, god of rust, spare Ceres’ grain; let silky blades quiver on the soil’s skin. Let growing crops be nourished by a friendly sky and stars, until they ripen for the scythe… Spare us, I pray keep scabrous hands from the harvest. Harm no crops. The power to harm is enough” (Fasti, IV.911ff).
Rust, or mildew, is something which farmers still hope to keep away from their growing crops. If you are an avid fan of the Archers like me, you may occasionally hear farmhouse kitchen talk about spraying crops against rust. But farmers no longer sacrifice dogs as part of the process and where churches hold prayer walks around farms the only dogs are those ones which are well behaved and on a lead accompanying members of the congregation on the walk. At Christian rogation services the crops are “sprayed “with blessing prayers and the God of creation is prayed to for the success of the growing season
Rogation services are also an opportunity to thank farmers for their work in bring in the harvest and playing their – essential –part in providing for our food. So Rogation today reminds us afresh about the importance of farming alongside three other agricultural fesitivals, Plough Sunday, Lammas and Harvest.
Someone has said if you eat you are concerned about farming. Hands up all those who eat! That is why Rogation still captures the imagination of many people who turn out for prayer walks on farms. It also helps people to make a renewed connection with the land. Genesis 2 vs 5 – 8 suggests that the primary purpose of creating humankind was to till and work the soil. A rogation prayer walk might also visit allotments or even someone’s kitchen garden as part of the procession.
As we make those connections with our food we pray for those whose work it is to provide that food. Farming is an occupation – a way of life – with mixed fortunes, dependent on the vagaries of the market and the weather. The Farm Crisis Network, (www.fcn.org.uk) a Christian voluntary organisation which works in support of those in the farming community whose family or business life has met with adversity, can tell stories of financial and personal problems which belies the public perception that everything down on the farm is rosy.
Farmers are also custodians and guardians of the countryside. Much of what people see and enjoy in the countryside has been shaped by farming practices. Many farmers are changing their practices as they come to understand more about climate change. And there are a number of campaigns and organisations working with farmers to help them further protect and enhance the environment whilst at the same time continuing to provide food for us: see for example Campaign for the Farmed Environment (http://www.cfeonline.org.uk/ ) and LEAF http://www.leafuk.org/leaf/home.eb
Many Rogation services take place actually on a farm, sometimes starting or ending in Church and the prayer walk can take in parts of the village to celebrate village life on the way. Resources for celebrating Rogation can be found in “Common Worship: Times and Seasons: Services for the Agricultural Year”, the 2003 SPCK book by The Staffordshire Seven “Seasonal Worship from the Countryside” and from the Arthur Rank Centre website at: http://www.arthurrankcentre.org.uk/component/k2/itemlist/tag/Rogation
Eternal God, creator and sustainer of life, we praise you for the beauty and fertility of the earth. We praise you also for its complexity and mystery, before which we bow in wonder and awe. Bless all farmers everywhere upon whom we depend for the production and provision of our food, bless the management of the countryside and the husbanding of its resources. Amen. (adapted)