I wonder what your first thoughts are on hearing this word. For sailors and aviators, the international distress call will probably be their first response. Others might well think first of maypoles and other May Day festivities. The Maypole, topped with brightly coloured ribbons, around which children dance in a choreographed pattern is less than 200 years old – its popularity was disseminated through villages schools who used the maypole to teach dancing. Earlier maypoles were much taller, often 70 -100ft, set up on a village green where they were a focal point for dancing but without the ribbons (or children!). Going a-maying meant going out of the town or village into the countryside and woodlands to fetch greenery and flowers with which to decorate houses or to make garlands. This merry-making drew mixed responses. One of the earliest references is from the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, who in 1240 complained of priests taking part in ‘games which they call bringing-in of May’. Others however saw it as a way of praising God or a means of giving money to the poor. However, the bishop’s complaint is probably well-founded if we take into account Philip Stubbs diatribe against these festivities. He stated that only a third of maids who went a-maying came back undefiled. Perhaps it is no surprise that maypoles were banned by the puritan Commonwealth Parliament in 1644.
When I read the ancient accounts of these festivities I am struck by communal nature of these events. They are celebrations of spring and early summer, new life and light after the long winter, but they are also events that bind communities together. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that going a-maying and going a-wooing were fairly synonymous.
Last week I was looking at some old photos from Sleaford and I came across some picture of the Slea Raft Races. The pictures were less than 20 years old but I was struck by how much the world has changed in these past 20 years. We have become much more individualistic. Community events (if they still survive) are a dim shadow of times past. But community is important. Jesus may have called individuals to follow him but he formed a community around him. Church is first and foremost a community – a group of people who seek to follow Jesus together, to learn together, to work together, and together speak of the transforming love of God to a troubled world. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the church today is to model what ‘community’ can be to a world that more concerned with the individual and has lost the sense of community.