by Richard Orton
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2006

My subject is religious behaviour.

During my ministry I have repeatedly gone back to a book published in 1978 called The Dynamics of Religion by Bruce Reed. There are two things to consider, the Pattern and the Rationale. The first is the pattern of behaviour; the things which religious people do, the worship, the ritual, the use of sacred texts, and so on. The rationale is provided by the dogmatic faith; the story which is told to explain the behaviour. It's the story in the Bible which provides the rationale for Christian religious behaviour.

Pope Gregory the Great knew all about this centuries ago. When Augustine of Canterbury sent him all those anxious letters, saying 'these Britons have got some very peculiar religious customs, what should I do about them?', Gregory wrote back 'don't abolish them; let the people continue to keep them, but tell a different story to go with them. Stop telling the pagan story and pick an appropriate Christian story instead.'

In the Church of England we dress up the clergy and the church building in different colours at different times in the year as each part of the story is featured in turn, doing different things and reading different parts of the sacred text. We call this the liturgical year. Having grown up in a typical parish I became very familiar with this calendar.

In the first parish in which I served as curate a different liturgical year was in operation in addition to the standard one. This parish was a village of 5000 people in the Pennine foothills in the bottom left hand corner of Yorkshire. The way things worked was as follows. On one Sunday you attended your own church's Harvest Festival and so did everybody else. Next Sunday you all went to the Methodist Church for their Harvest, then the Baptist Church and lastly the other Anglican Church. The next season was the Carols and Nativity Play season when the same thing happened. The main season was the Sunday School Anniversary Season when all the stops were pulled out.

Then I realised why all the church buildings were built large enough to house the then population of the village. Large crowds really could be expected during these three seasons. All three seasons were concerned with fertility. Harvest related to the fertility on the farms, the next season with the toddlers' nativity play at its heart was a celebration of human fertility, mother and child rather than Madonna and child, while the Anniversary season had to do with numbers, taking up the psalmist's remark 'happy is the man that has his quiver full of them and happier still is the minister who has his Sunday School full of them - ' I've got 851 names in my registers this year!' - 'Oh, I've 900.'

In that parish, 50 years ago, fertility religion was alive and well. Now it's all fallen apart. Harvest has lost its raison d'etre now that we've all moved so far from our peasant ancestry, the Sunday School movement has well nigh collapsed, and the nativity play has fallen victim to political correctness. Every child in the school now has to have a part. The most recent one I attended had found it necessary to increase the number of shepherds and they were allowed to bring to the manger not just the token lamb but the whole flock, while Gabriel was accompanied by the entire heavenly host.

Yet another different liturgical year was in operation in a different part of Yorkshire where I laboured 30 years ago. I was rural dean of a deanery with an area of 300 square miles straddling the Yorkshire-Lancashire border One year I was asked to be the special preacher in a parish high up on the watershed between the valleys of the Ribble and the Lune, a parish where the county boundary runs through the middle of a house. I was told that it was a very special Sunday and there would be a lot of people there; my pocket lectionary didn't enlighten me but enquiry revealed that it was the Wilson Sunday.

The other very special Sunday in this parish was the Robinson Sunday. The full names were the Mrs. Wilson Sunday and the Mrs. Robinson Sunday. Everybody who lived in the village street and in the many surrounding farms was descended from one of these two matriarchs. On the Sunday nearest the anniversary day of her death, all the descendants of each founding mother would attend Church. That was all the information I got in the way of rationale, but I did note that this society way definitely matriarchal.

So in this parish, 30 years ago, ancestor worship was alive and well.

Augustine never reached these parts, though Aidan probably did, but if Augustine had done and in his next letter to Gregory had asked 'whatever should I do about Mrs. Wilson?' I wonder what the Pope would have said in reply.

In the formerly Christian West, have the Pattern and the Rationale come adrift? Does the story which Christianity tells to make sense of religious behaviour no longer seem plausible? Can anything be done to re-connect? Have we got to tell the story in a different way now? If so what way?

I would be interested to hear of any alternative liturgical years which people may have come across in their travels. Or has what I have said any other echoes in your experience?


Richard Orton is a retired vicar.