The annual Asparagus Lunch took place on Wednesday 12th May this year. Every year the Unitarian Ministers in the Midlands – along with some friends – gather at our chapel in Evesham. We have a service and then have a wonderful lunch which features (you’ve guessed it!) asparagus! The tradition goes back at least 200 years -and you might wonder why on earth a group of Unitarian ministers would do such a thing! After all, whilst asparagus is lovely to eat, why would we go to such trouble to eat it?
Well, our group of Ministers in the Midlands have been meeting each month since 1782. Back then, Unitarianism was still illegal. If you professed Unitarian beliefs, you could not only face prosecution, but also persecution in your community. In fact, our churches which date back to that time had to be very careful as there was a very real risk. Unitarianism didn’t finally become legal until 1813.
So, if you are a group of Ministers in the Midlands who belong to an illegal organisation, you’d have to be careful about where you meet. In fact, a disguise might be necessary. And so the idea came up of going to Evesham and meeting there when the Asparagus crop was harvested. There would’ve been lots of strangers in Evesham at that time: farmers selling their asparagus crop and many people there to buy. A group of Ministers could easily meet and pretend they were there to buy asparagus …. and so the Asparagus Lunc was born!
You might think that all this sounds rather a great deal of effort just to hold a meeting, but we have to remember what a risk it was to be a Unitarian minister in those days. Right up until 1813, if you were caught proclaiming Unitarian beliefs, you could be heavily fined, and if you did it a second time, you could go to prison for up to three years and lose all your civil rights permanently. Unitarians couldn’t go to university or hold civil office, and many of our earliest churches and chapels were built to look like barns or houses, so that they didn’t attract too much attention. It seems incredible from today’s standpoint that this could have happened …
How could a religion which has always preached tolerance arouse such anger in people? It’s probably because Unitarians have always encouraged people to think for themselves – which is a dangerous thing! The early Unitarians encouraged ordinary folk to read the Bible for themselves and to only believe what they found there, not what bishops, churches and prayer books told you to believe. The annua Asparagus Lunch continues to be held. This link with the past reminds us how brave our forbears were, and how much religious freedom we have today.
The service this year was conducted by Mr. Neville Kenyone, the President of the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches, whose sermon talked about “stepping stones”. Unitarianism only exists today because someone laid stones for us to tread upon. We are doing the same for future generations. Neville did warn us that we have to be careful and diligent. Our denomination faces many challenges, but there are signs of hope.
After the service, it was upstairs for lunch. Asparagus was served as a starter, followed by roast beef and yorkshire pudding (for the meat eaters), with yes, more asparagus. We are pleased to report that the dessert was an asparagus-free zone! A wonderful lunch eaten, it was time to charge our glasses for the two toasts. Neville proposed the Unitarian toast to “Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over.” He gave a thought-provoking talk which reminded us that all over the world civil and religious liberties are still very much threatened. Rev. Peter Godfrey responded with thanks. After this, a toast was proposed to the Ministers’ Meeting by Peter Forder Chairman of Oat Street Chapel, Evesham, and a number of votes of thanks were proposed to: the chapel at Evesham for their hospitality, to the organist, and to the caterers.
All in all, a lovely Unitarian occasion. Maybe the next time you have a glass of something you could drink to civil and religious liberty. And if you don’t drink, then give thanks for civil and religious liberty the next time you eat asparagus! By doing that you will be continuing a noble tradition.
Rev. Ant Howe