Giving Thanks

21 06 2009

[You can listen to this podcast here, or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes.]

One of the great traditions of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities are the Christian Latin graces said before formal hall (that’s dinner for the rest of us). Each college has its own grace, and most of them are fiercely proud of this little piece of heritage.

Oxford and Cambridge are both fundamentally Christian and Anglican institutions. At least, that is their tradition. For a very long time, well into the Nineteenth Century in fact, it was not possible for anybody to attend University in this country unless they were a communicant member of the Church of England.

Well, clearly this was not sustainable. A number of institutions were set up specifically as secular centres of learning – University College London being one, and the University of York being another. Oxford and Cambridge, while retaining most of their Christian tradition, have now established secular colleges themselves. One such is Newnham College in Cambridge.

This week, after two years of prolonged negotiations, debates and protests, the principal of Newnham College read out for the first time a new grace at the last formal hall of this year.

“For food in a hungry world, for companionship in a world of loneliness, for peace in an age of violence, we give thanks.”

This simple prayer has caused a great deal of excitement. Why? Because the new grace makes no reference to God. At least, any reference to the divine is not explicit, it is merely inferred. The idea behind rewriting the grace was to make it accessible and relevant not just the Christians dining, but to everybody.

The question put by opponents to the change is this: to whom are we giving thanks? Well I have to say that I do not entirely understand the hostility towards this simple and effective prayer, but perhaps that is because I have never attended Cambridge University.

The tradition of giving thanks, be it to a Christian God, to some other abstract concept of divine being, or even in an entirely humanistic sense, is an ancient one for mankind.

Every year in these Isles, on a given Sunday in September, churches, schools and communities celebrate Harvest Festival. You may remember the occasion involving a great deal of mess at primary school. It is a time when we decorate our churches ad classrooms with the produce of our harvest. Marrows, Turnips, Potatoes and, more recently, tins of baked beans. We gather round, and sing the famous hymns “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” and all that.

Of course in this country, we habitually turn to the church for such occasions. Hence, we become uncomfortable when Newnham College change their grace. But elsewhere in the world the act of giving thanks is an entirely straightforward, mostly secular affair. In the United States, for example, the feast of Thanksgiving is given its own national public holiday, and it is imbued with a great number of myths and traditions relating to its origins.

Originally this urge to give thanks came from a deep fear within our ancestors. It was a fear that next year, the weather would be different, crops would fail, and that they would starve. Thus it was only natural to give thanks, offer praise and sacrifices to whatever power it was thought could control the weather. Perhaps there is still an element of that.

But today, in our arrogance, we pretend to fully understand the weather, and the climate and how to control the production of food. Certainly, we seem to get better results than any of our forebears.

I have the great privilege, from time to time, of spending some time in the country. My parents have a small farm in Gloucestershire, which is a particularly beautiful corner of the world. Charles II, on the way to the Battle of Worcester, camped overnight in our valley. When he woke in the morning, he is said to have been so touched by the view that he asked Edward Hyde “Where am I? Surely I must be in Paradise.”

Throughout my childhood, the benefits of country living were lost on me. As far I was concerned it only meant that I couldn’t go into town, because there wasn’t one, and that I couldn’t watch the Simpsons, because some animal or other had escaped and needed herding back into the paddock.

Well today it is a great treat to return home, especially at this time of year. The first thing to strike as you get out of the car is the smell. It is fresh and lively. One moment, the wild garlic breezes past, another the sweet scent of silage. Then there is the range of colours. You don’t actually see that many colours in a cityscape. Mostly there is the grey of buildings merging into black tarmac. Here, though, the horizon is made up of the rich greens and blue of the grass and sky. Even the animals provide new colours – our latest addition, a calf named Orville, has a coat of deep mahogany.

Why do I tell you all this? Well, it is only through doing the occasionally bit of farming myself that I have come to understand it in some way. We find it so easy to equate the countryside with nature, but that is not fair. Nature would look very different to the gentle shape of the English countryside.

What the farmers do is not preserve a natural state of affairs, they use it. Farming is the perfect example of mankind harnessing nature so that both may flourish. The farmer gets his produce, and the wildlife and the earth go about their own business.

The process we use today owes much to a namesake of mine, one Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend (no relation). He pioneered the British Agricultural Revolution of the Eighteenth Century. In particular, he invented the four-field crop rotation. Those with a keen ambition to avoid technical agricultural discussion should tune out now.

Every crop has its own pests and diseases, and uses a particular of nutrients in the soil. That is why every year, crops have to be rotated. For example, grow Wheat in the same field for ten years and the size and quality of your harvest will decrease steadily.

For many centuries, European farmers had used the three-year crop rotation. They separated their land into three fields – one of rye, another of oats or barley, and the third was left fallow so that the soil could recover.

What Turnip Townshend did was to introduce a fourth field, and remove the need to keep a third of the land permanently unproductive. He instead rotated wheat, his beloved turnips, barley and then clover. Crucially, this meant the livestock could be grazed all year round on the nitrogen-rich clover. In turn the manure from the livestock could be ploughed back into the ground, providing the soil with a much-needed nutrient boost. Thus every piece of the land was producing food for the growing English population.

Not for Townshend was the process of artificial fertilisers or genetic modification. By this simple technique, utilising the properties already present in turnips and clover, Townshend increased British wheat export from 11.5 million quarters in 1705 to over 90 million in 1765.

Whether or not you believe that it was God who made all things bright and beautiful, we all stand in awe of the phenomenal way in which the earth so effortlessly adapts to our needs. Whoever we think is ultimately responsible for it, as we watch the harvests grow and ripen this summer, we can give thanks.

For me, it will be in the words of that most magnificent hymn:

“We plough the fields, and scatter

The good seed on the land,

But it is fed and watered

by God’s almighty hand.“

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