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Features

Forest church

Bruce Stanley

Like the naturalist John Muir, many of us find it easier to encounter God in nature than in religious institutions. Bruce Stanley shows how a pioneering new movement is attempting to combine the best of both.

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It's Sunday morning and a group of us togged in walking gear are standing in a patch of sunshine waiting for a few latecomers. We're in the town of Aberystwyth by the pier, and this is Forest Church - though there isn't a tree in sight yet. We're about to head south along the coast and back along the Ystwyth river - what's known as a 'blue-green' walk, with water on one side, vegetation on the other.

It's a combination that's said to be good for wellbeing, according to Richard Louv (who coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder") . But instead of dwelling on the research, I'm going to be interspersing the walk with reflections, readings and prayers about spring using language suitable for a mixed group from different paths and traditions. But for now I'm just going to let people walk and chat.

What do we all have in common? I suppose we're people who find it easier to connect with God in nature. To paraphrase naturalist émigré John Muir, we'd rather be on the mountains thinking about God, than in Church thinking about the mountains, and we're not alone. According to my own research over 10 years and anecdotally, far more people fall into this category than into the category of conventional church (temple or mosque) goer.

But if people want to explore a formal, structured spiritual path that leads them outside with others, there haven't been many options that Christians would feel comfortable attending. At least, not until now.

 

TRANSCENDENT NATURE

A few years ago my own spiritual pattern was fairly conventional. I gathered once a week with others inside a building and during the rest of the week practiced a contemplative habit that drew on mindfulness meditation techniques - a spirituality practiced both inside and inside the mind.

But I couldn't ignore the growing evidence from my own life that something more remarkable was happening out in nature. Ask most people to describe a transcendent moment and most answers describe an outside event - a spectacular natural phenomenon or view seen on holiday, for example.

We've been walking now for about 45 minutes, hugging the coast and cutting inland briefly to cross the Rheidol river at the top of the harbour. Across from us the docks are busy with lobster and crab boats and a group are readying one of those robust rowing boats that's designed to cross the Atlantic.

The sound of lanyards knocking against aluminium masts prompts people to share their memories of the seaside. Very soon we're back at the waters edge with breakers crashing against a steep pebbly beach and it is time for me to intervene and introduce some structure into this walk. We have half a mile to walk along the waters edge before we begin to climb the headland and we're in no rush - so I invite people to wander at their own pace with their own thoughts. I'm hoping this will help people to drop their anthropocentric, social focus and open themselves up to nature and God's spirit.

 

TWIN BOOKS

Imagine a church that attempts to read from both books of God - the scriptures and the book of creation. A church that seeks multi-sensory resonances in site-specific locations, that participates with nature and its patterns and explores God, not only through recourse to scriptures but also through natural theology - just as Jesus did.

It also happens to be a church that costs nothing to set up and is free to run and if Mid Wales Forest Church is anything to go by, it attracts a lot of people who would never attend a conventional church, or have had enough of it. As John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford recently said, 'the natural world could be a way back for many whose faith has faded under the assault of too much institutional religion'.

We stop at the south end of the pebble beach for a rest and refreshment; food and drink are shared. Someone has mountains of homemade flapjack and someone else has a packet of yoghurt coated raisins. When we're ready to walk we gather in a circle and I read some poetry / liturgy that mentions Imbolc, the festival just past and I ask 'The Turner of the World, the Brightener of Seasons' to bless our circle and our walk.

The locality also finds its way into the language, 'Laughter of the running waves be yours in the name of the God whose love excludes no-one.' Everyone present can engage with the language and no-one feels like they're being proselytised to. We are becoming friends and those of us in the core group are earning the right to share more about our path and our understanding of life and learning a lot in return.

 

SOLAR CALENDAR

We don't always walk. We also run workshops in various nature connection activities from naturalist subject matter to mindfulness techniques, these are very inviting for newcomers to attend. At the four solar festivals that mark midsummer, midwinter and the halfway points between we have a ritual and a shared meal which includes much more obvious spiritual and liturgical content.

There are other Forest Church groups which focus more on the rituals and follow the eightfold calendar adding to the solar festivals the fire festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh and Samhain. In doing so, they explore the overlap between Pagan, Druid and Christian ideas relevant to these seasons, and hold ceremonies outside in circles where people from both traditions can attend.

As alarming as this might seem to some people, those who are writing and leading these rituals are coming from an orthodox background using great creativity and heart. Forest Churches are starting in lots of places - the New Forest, two in the Midlands, Stockport, even Toronto with more on the way across the UK - and each has a different focus depending on who's facilitating it.  (See www.forestchurch.co.uk and www.facebook.com/groups/forestchurch).

 

BLUE-GREEN WALK

Our blue-green walk continues with the only climb of the journey. Some race to the top and stop to enjoy the views back across Aberystwyth and Snowdonia beyond. Others are taking it more slowly, myself among them. My excuse is that I'm carrying a two-year-old on my back who's giving me a running commentary of whatever is delighting her at that moment, lambs, snow or 'that lady is lying down'. I explain that one of the older participants with us today has just stopped to catch her breath.

At the top I ask our resident birder, who's never without his binoculars if the tiny dot making slow progress out to sea is the trans-Atlantic rowing boat and it is but they seem to be out for a leisurely test-run rather than the full trip. The views, the exercise, the beautiful weather are working on everyone now - we've made the transition to being mindful and receptive and creation works its magic.

 

MY HIDDEN AGENDA

I'm occasionally asked what my 'hidden agenda' is by understandably suspicious people thinking about attending our local Forest Church in Mid Wales. I'm not reticent about admitting that I do have one. My personal hope is that through deep, participative nature connection we'll grow to understand and love nature better and care for it more effectively.

As for the rest, I think we're making it up as we go along. Forest Church works as a centered set which means that participants can see what those at the core believe and are hopefully drawn to those ideas themselves. If not, they're still welcome, there is no line that delineates membership. Some ask, 'is it really church?' My answer would be that there is nothing that defines a conventional church that Forest Church can't do - so yes, it's really church.

Back at the pier, I'm outside the bar at the end, with a pint in one hand and yet another bit of flapjack in the other. We're waiting for the event's finale, the starling murmuration; the aerial display put on by large flocks just before they go to roost. Around me people are in friendly conversation with others they have walked with and we're talking about some of the events we've got coming up: a spring equinox ritual, a workshop on the dawn-chorus, and our next walk. The Bishop of Bangor is joining us for that, again. He seems to quite like what we're up to.

In groups of a hundred or so the starlings appear from various directions and slowly coalesce into one huge flock. From the high vantage point of the pier, with the tide out the display happens above and below us. I'm stood leaning on the railing with someone new to the group who's talking enthusiastically as if he's found the spiritual home he's been looking for. The book of creation and the God who wrote it have embraced and delighted us and today's event has left vivid imprints on those that attended. We wait together for the sun to set.

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Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals by Bruce Stanley is available from www.mysticchrist.co.uk/press at £7.95

NOTES

1  Carretto, Carlos, Letters from the Desert, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972, pp. 24-25.

2  Kelly, Thomas, A Testament of Devotion, NY: HarperCollins, 1992, p. 35

3  Dale, Jonathan, (ed.), Faith in Action, London: Quaker Home Service, 2000, p. 51