Mirabilia and the British National Service

In the fall of 2012, the congregation of Toronto’s St. Anne’s Anglican Church teamed with the NetherMind artist collective to sponsor Mirabilia (meaning “Things causing wonder”). Some 2500 people attented the nine-day festival exhibition, lecture, and worship series held in connection with the church’s 150th anniversary. The contrast between contemporary experimental art and ancient architectural setting could not have been more striking. Designated a national historic site, St. Anne’s features an imposing Byzantine Revival dome supported by Caen stone columns and decorated with religious scenes painted in 1923 by J. E. H. MacDonald and other members of Canada’s famed Group of Seven. Mirabilia’s large-scale installations included Mary Catherine Newcomb’s immense Osiris’ Advance (Ten Thousand Soldiers) of upright grain stalks covering a wide circle between several rows of pews and a priest’s table draped in a green and gold altar cloth embroidered with heads of wheat.

St. Anne’s longstanding ecumenical tradition involves local artists and musicians for church programs, and in his festival sermon, “What Does God have to do with Art?”, Rev. Gary van der Meer noted that some visitors had found some of the art insufficiently religious. His message opened with the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zaraphath (I Kings 17:8-16) in which the prophet is divinely directed in a time of famine to ask a desitute widow for bread. Such pitiful circumstances put the woman and her son at risk of starvation, but she consents to feed the stranger. Showing remarkable generosity, she shares their meagre supply of flour and oil. Elijah then miraculously restores their provisions until the famine ended. “Wonder is happening at St. Anne’s,” proclaimed Rev. van der Meer in his Mirabilia homily, and explained the sacred nature of creative expression in theological terms:  “We are created in the image of God and therefore are creators. Our artists are living with God’s image in them by creating the art that is here. Artists are engaged in the sacred by living out God’s creating image in their own creating. …God is the first and supreme artist. …[W]e should learn more about art to learn more about God.”

St. Anne’s Church-NetherMind Mirabilia Exhibition (2012), Cheryl O’Brien Photograph

St. Anne’s Church-NetherMind Mirabilia Exhibition (2012), Cheryl O’Brien Photograph

In an effort to revive Great Britain’s traditional Anglican Harvest Service and promote stewardship of land and food, members of the royal family joined with civic and business leaders in 2010 to launch a series of agrarian-related initiatives including British Food Fortnight to foster school gardening projects and charitable food distribution. Royal patronage in cooperation with church leaders also sponsored the first National Harvest Service in a half-century which was held at Westminster Abbey on October 16, 2013. The service opened with Henry Alford’s popular congregational hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” (“…raise the song of harvest-home!”), followed by homilies from Owen Patterson, Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, and Dr. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London. Actor Damian Lewis read lines from Henry Birtles poem of unpretentous gratitude, “The Harvest”:

Let’s  gather as a band of one, in symphony

across the land
To thank our Lord for Harvest reaped and

gratefully as one let's stand
To think of those, for all their toil who've readied

plough, who've nurtured soil 
The farmers in the fields, the cold; the hardened

hands, the fens, the wold
So many aspects of a life, a challenge most will

never know
For we in houses snugly sleep, whilst in the biting

winds and snow
…And through this nation memories walk, depth

of image ever strong

Of distant days and innocence; of man and Shire

Horse ploughing on
Of wheat sheaves standing in the sun and

laughing girls coming home
…For all the romance of these scenes, look not

through glass of tinted rose
Ask farming people what it's like and though the job

is one they chose

It takes its toll; the troughs are long and cold and

The flattened barley, missing sheep and so much

more that blights their show
But on and on and on they go, until that day of days

has come
The tractor's parked, the combine's quiet; the crop

is in, the Harvest done.

Since the revived Westminster commemoration, the National Harvest Festival has grown to some 400 parishes and schools in Great Britain and includes services at the grand cathedrals of Canterbury, Lincoln, and Ripon. Related events now include British Fortnight restaurant menus to “rekindle the tradition of regional British foods and the harvest,” designation of farm discovery trails and heritage crops, and community harvest celebrations and concerts. Devon Master Blacksmith Andy Hall created the official traveling British Harvest Torch sculpture that features a wrought iron vessel holding a grain sheaf and is hosted by participating churches in accordance with the National Harvest Service schedule.