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Hallo again to all.

Come, let us occupy ourselvesNo matter in which hemisphere we find ourselves, each year at harvest-tide our thoughts turn to Parson Hawker.

One of the great eccentrics of the nineteenth-century Church of England, Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875), made his mark in many areas of contemporary life. He was a poet, though almost all of his poems fall strangely on modern ears. He was something of an architect, though his most noted surviving built works are a series of rectory chimneys built to resemble the spires of churches where he had worked and a hut constructed of driftwood from wrecked ships. Hawker was an ardent Ritualist, but he eschewed both the collegiate life and the industrial slums where others of his churchmanship thrived.

Hawker chose as his sphere of work the rockiest of pastures: Morwenstow on the northern Cornish coast, a poor living in a region where the influence of Methodism was far stronger than that of the body then called the United Church of England and Ireland. Here, he took advantage of seaside freedom to cultivate eccentricities both ecclesiastical and personal. Hawker used (illegal) vestments; he chased demons out of his church following the baptisms of infants, using a purpose-built door; he indulged in opium; he conversed more comfortably with cats and birds than with bishops; he plumbed mystical and numerological depths of scripture; and he sought guidance for his amateur archaeological endeavours from headless mediaeval Cornish saints whom he met in dreams.*

The great and lasting influence of Parson Hawker on the worldwide Anglican Communion, however, was his formal modern revival of an annual harvest festival in 1843 at the Church of St Morwenna and St John the Baptist, Morwenstow. In this remote place, Hawker called on the parishioners whom he served for the last three decades of his life to dedicate the fruit of their labour on the earth—the work of human hands—to the glory of God. He welcomed at the altar bread fashioned from local grain. Root vegetables, marrows and stalks decked the chancel before which his tiny congregation gathered, and the substance of their daily toil in field and furrow received through him the blessing of the Church. Today the feast is kept in one way or another wherever Anglicans grow and harvest food at whatever time of the year that food is ripe.

Hawker is in many ways a remarkable indicator of the astonishing tolerance and breadth of nineteenth-century Anglicanism. We're quite sure that his personal quirks—general lopsidedness, experimentation with dangerous narcotics and flamboyant haberdashery, his first marriage (at 19) to a woman twice his age and his second (at 60) to a woman a third his age, and the likelihood that he may at least once have dressed as a mermaid—would have kept him well outside of any modern ordinand selection conference or ordination process. And all of this omits the dangerous political idea he inculcated in his people: that their sweat was holy, that the dirt-clods on their boots were welcome in church, and that the sustenance we receive in creation must be acknowledged as coming from God.

A full three decades before Marx, Hawker understood and taught the intimate relations of human labour and human dignity. A full 170 years before Giles Fraser resigned his post as Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral in protesting support of the right of peaceful people to express their opposition to unjust economic patterns, Parson Hawker helped destitute Cornishmen to see their occupations as something more than punishment for having been born at the gate rather than in the manor.

We are not uncritical in private about some of the ways in which Hawker sought to Occupy Morwenstow, but we give thanks today and often for his influence and for the ultimately generous space given him by the Victorian Church to live and teach his principles.

We thank thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, and food;
Accept the gifts we offer, for all thy love imparts,
But what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

6 November 2011

* We have omitted—as undocumented in contemporary sources, and perhaps scurrilous—the rumour that he excommunicated one of his cats for mousing on the sabbath.

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