Asparagus is so venerated in Worcester that it has been blessed in a special ceremony in the city’s cathedral.
But the thanksgiving service celebrating the local crop has been criticised by other Anglicans who have called it “absurd”.
The bizarre Sunday evensong service was defended by the cathedral’s Precentor, who said the vegetable was “a sign of the abundant provision and generosity of God”.
Christian groups told the Daily Telegraph that the ceremony, which also involved a man in costume as an asparagus spear, was inappropriate.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of pressure group Christian Concern, said: “This is an absurd pantomime-type scene that makes a mockery of Christian worship.”
Influential Church of England blog Archbishop Cranmer, which is run by conservative theologian Adrian Hilton, said the service was “an infantile pantomime” and said it brought the Church of England into disrepute.
The post added: “This is church, for God’s sake. Really, for His sake, can the Church of England not offer something clean and undefiled in the worship of God?”
Rev Peter Ould, a priest from Canterbury, said: “I think the service itself is a good idea – there isn’t anything wrong in praying for a good growing season.
“But someone dressed up as an asparagus and a bloke in a St George costume behind him holding a sword – that just looks a bit silly.
“That takes it from being a good church service to something which looks like it’s more to do with promoting the asparagus growers.”
Read the whole thing, and take a look at the photo of the procession within the cathedral.
I am strongly inclined to disagree with the traditionalists here, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. What holds me back fully is that the image of a man dressed like a giant asparagus, participating in the church procession, does make it seem more like an asparagus growers’ promotion.
But leave that clown out, and, well, what’s the big deal? Why should we not ask God’s blessing on our crops, especially one that is so important to the local people within the cathedral’s parish? In south Louisiana fishing communities, Catholic priests bless the shrimp boats on the first day of the season. This sort of thing strikes me as very traditional, very medieval.
The Archbishop Cranmer Blog disagrees. This is a very fine rant. Excerpt:
And no, before you leap to defend this farce, it is not akin to the Harvest Festival: ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ is about rejoicing in industry and the serious stuff of life: it is never, ever turned into a Teletubby-fest with a guest appearance by Worzel Gummidge prancing behind the vicar. Surely Worcester Cathedral could have found a way of thanking God for asparagus without bringing the Church of England into disrepute. If this doesn’t make ‘Have I Got News For You’, they’ll have missed the religious frolic of the week.
Gus the Asparagusman (for it is he) has no place at all in a worshipful act of reverence: he doesn’t direct our minds to heaven or toward God, but points us to Dipsy and Tinky Winky somewhere in La La Land. Sanctity should be free from all uncleanness, and that includes buffoonery, mumbo jumbo and capers (both sorts).
I hesitate to pronounce definitively on the event, because Abp Cranmer is far closer to the thing than am I, and no doubt understands things about it that I do not. Still, I am in my heart of hearts an Asparagus-Blesser; here I stand, I can do nothing other.
If you’ve not seen the wonderful, six-part British television series Tudor Monastery Farm (all available on YouTube), oh, please do! It’s fine for the whole family. In it, three modern academics recreate Christian village life in England, circa 1500. One thing you really see is how thoroughly woven into daily life religion was. Ruth Goodman, one of the historians who participate in the project, is an atheist, but in this post, I quote her about how much she learned about the sacramental way of seeing the world through it. In those days, all of life was ordered toward God, in a way that is so beautiful, so fruitful.
Here’s the first episode, but a short passage I really want you to see is toward the end of Episode Two, below. Fast forward to just shy of the 55-minute mark:
Goodman observes on camera how surprising it is that everything about life in that (very) late medieval time:
“This complete intertwining of social life and religious life and economic life is so typical of this period, isn’t it? Everything has a religious element to it. It’s almost like the air you breathe.”
“Yeah, and pretty free of tension,” answers a historian of the era. “On the whole, they got it right.”
Let’s be clear that it’s not the case that the world became disenchanted the day Luther proclaimed his 95 Theses. Luther himself retained something of the sacramental viewpoint, and it’s somewhat in Calvin. Zwingli was the resolute anti-sacramentalist. In any case, Protestants certainly lived as if God were around them all the time. It’s just that His presence was not metaphysically anchored in materiality the way it had been in medieval times, and over time, that mattered. A lot.
Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in “reality” now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, “exclusive humanism” — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a “take” on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.
There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, “a secular age” means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.
Taylor’s work calls for epistemic humility. The way the medievals framed reality certainly made perceiving certain truths more difficult. But they were also able to see somethings more clearly than we do. The same is true of our own time. Taylor’s point is that the things that “everybody” takes for granted about how the world works — our “metaphysical dream,” as Richard Weaver put it — is by no means as uncontestable as many of us think. The “immanent frame” our Western culture’s master narrative imposes on our experience of the world — that is, the intellectual structure that orders the only truths we can admit are those that emerge within a system closed to transcendence — cannot forever keep out intimations of transcendence. The history of ideas from 1500 till today suggests that the immanent frame appeals to people today because it makes us free to do whatever we will. After all, if the world is not enchanted, if matter doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning, then we are free to bend it to our wills. There is a line — not a straight line, but an unbroken one — between the disenchantment of matter and the dissolution of gender categories, and transhumanism. The whole idea of “human rights” is parasitic on Christianity, and will not hold without a firm religious foundation.
We ought to consider the possibility that the anti-metaphysical dream is just a story we tell ourselves to justify our own desires and preferences.
All of which is to say that I approve, in principle, of the Blessing Of The Asparagus, though it could have been brought off better, it appears. But then, I approved of the Blessing Of The Horses At The Palio di Siena. If you have a problem with sanctifying asparagus in a church service, what they do in Siena — and have been doing for centuries — is going to set your hair on fire.