Forest Church: a greener spirituality for Withington Deanery?
Rev Mark Hewerdine writes:
Two related obsessions have taken hold of different members of my household of late: identifying trees (me) and whittling branches from said trees into arrows (my son).
Both activities have enabled our individual re-connection with what we tend to call the “natural world”- the living stuff all around us we often take for granted and call “the environment”.
These obsessions have given us the opportunity to take stock of the patterns of our lives, and the extent to which we wisely use our time for “re-creation”: fun which is also life-giving and enables us to rediscover who we are as humans.
Both obsessions have pulled us away from smartphone screens, Xbox and TV and enabled us to get our hands on the living (or recently living) stuff on which our very lives depend.
They have coincided with my exploration of an initiative and network called “Forest Church”. This is a coming together of like-minded followers of Christ who share an interest in connecting Christian faith and discipleship with our natural, green and wild surroundings.
One of the basic requirements for something to be Forest Church is a green space of some kind – a garden, park, forest, hilltop, wilderness etc. But Forest Church isn’t just taking “ordinary” church and doing it outside.
One of the hosts and enablers of the growing Forest Church network “Communities of the Mystic Christ” describes it this way:
“Forest Church is a fresh expression of church drawing on much older traditions when sacred places and practices were outside – but it is also drawing on contemporary research that highlights the benefits of spending time with nature in wild places.
Forest Church isn’t just normal church happening outside, instead it attempts to participate with creation…we aim to learn, worship, meditate, pray and practice with the trees, at the spring, along the shore.”
Oxford Forest Church expand on the ethos:
“Wonder and awe are important sources of spiritual growth for many of us, and such transcendent moments, when we feel deeply connected to something bigger than ourselves, often occur in nature.”
Forest Church has sprung up in recent months in Greater Manchester, led by Tim Presswood and Clare McBeath. Tim and Claire help to lead the Urban Expression mission initiative in East Manchester. They have coupled their commitment to Christ and discipleship in his way with their passion for engaging with our natural surroundings. Forest Church Manchester meet once a month on a Sunday morning, at a variety of venues – all green, outside, some more wild than others. The gathering are coordinated through Facebook and include folk of every age. (see also: forestchurchmanchester.org.uk )
A colleague and I in South Manchester are beginning to explore whether Forest Church is something we can get onboard with in our deanery. What form(s) it will take we don’t yet know. A monthly gathering in a park to complement Sunday morning building-based worship perhaps. Maybe exploration of different facets of the natural world – trees, bird-spotting, foraging, hiking through wilder places. My hope is that we will make the most of the beauty, the wildness and the green spaces on our doorstep: not just as a nice addition to “Church proper” but as the very settings for exploring a different, “greener” kind of spirituality, still in the “Christ tradition”.
In due course, we’ll put out more information about our first experiments with Forest Church. The hope is that Forest Church will deepen, stretch and grow the spirituality, prayer, worship and commitment to the Way of Christ of those already professing faith. We also hope this will be a way to engage with the Way of Christ for those wary of more building-based and institutionalized Christianity. It may also appeal to those who feel a more natural affinity with the wild and natural creation than with “normal” Christian liturgy and practice.
Exploration of the connection between natural, wild and green spaces, and the spiritual aspect of our lives are being explored beyond Forest Church too.
The “Green Health” conference being held this October at Lambeth Palace brings together health professionals, clergy and other professionals working within the church. The purpose is to sharing research, learning and experience of how people’s health in the broadest sense can be enhanced by engagement with green space, natural environments, gardening and engagement with nature.
There is a pressing need, I believe, for us to bridge the gulf between our Christian worship, prayer and spiritual practices, and the earth and non-human life around us. That gulf which has grown ever greater over generations is to our detriment and to the detriment of the earth. When we see the natural world as something separate from ourselves, and the “spiritual” aspect of ourselves as somehow disconnected from it also, it is easier to treat the earth with little reverence and love.
A reconnecting of what we mean by “spiritual” and “Christian faith” with the earth, our home, is more urgently needed than ever – if we do not want to see more cataclysmic and irreversible changes to the ecological systems around us.
Yet, what benefits the earth ultimately benefits us too as a species. That is my conviction based on my research, experience and reflection. Quite apart from basic questions of our survival and the preservation of viable spaces to live, the good of the earth is connected with our spiritual good too. Granted, a healthy relationship with the earth may entail some upheaval as we let go of destructive yet comfortable habits and patterns of living.
We are not separate from “the environment”; we are animals even as we are more than only that, and our lives are inextricably connected with a vast array of non-human life. The sooner and more often we are able to be participants in and partners with creation, the better it will be for the earth and for our own health – physical, mental and spiritual.
Forest Church may be, for us, a way of making these re-connections and altering our habits for our own sake and for sake of the good creation around us.