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If you kneel down in the woods today

04 October 2013

Forest Church has been gaining interest in recent months. Christine Miles packed her cagoule and went to find out more

ancient arden forest church

Woodland gathering: the Ancient Arden Forest Church meet, led by the Revd Paul Cudby (second, right)

Woodland gathering: the Ancient Arden Forest Church meet, led by the Revd Paul Cudby (second, right)

OUR shoes and socks are off, the soles of our feet are flat on the cool earth, our eyes are closed, and the meditation begins.

"The iron in your red blood cells is billions of years old," today's "Earthing Faith Retreat Day" facilitator, Bruce Stanley, says. "It came from the supernova of a dying star. The iron solidified into the rock of a new planet. Eventually, it was broken down into soil by wind and water, and the action of microbes.

"It was taken up and made flesh by plants and made its way into your body. . . Water molecules in your body were once inside the body of a sabre-tooth tiger, or ran along the River Jordan 2000 years ago. Nature reveals the characteristics and power of its maker. . . But only he who sees takes off his shoes."

Wytham Woods - 390 hectares of ancient woodland owned by the University of Oxford - has been identified as holy ground. We move into it, armed with colours from a Dulux-paint chart, charged with matching the hues: wood, bark, lichen, mud, leaves, moss, sheep's wool - all are examined as if with new eyes.

Later, we learn about bird language, and to pick up the activity of wildlife using "deer ears", "owl eyes" (for a wide-angled view), and "hawk eyes". We are introduced to foraging; we play games to help reconnect us with the natural world; and we experience nature-inspired meditation in "sit spots" of our choosing. Towards the end of the day, we share a tea ceremony, drinking in the properties of the leaves, and asking God to imbibe our lives with their characteristics.

The day is fun, relaxing, and restorative.


JO HOWARD, who is part of the Contemplative Fire network in High Wycombe, has come because, despite the network's Celtic roots, "probably more of what we're doing has ended up indoors. I'm looking for ways to take us back outside."

The Revd Matt Rees leads Home, a Fresh Expressions church in Oxford. He came because: "I think a deep connection with the natural world is vital for spiritual health. Learning how to access that myself, and how to be equipped to share that with others, is very important."

Mr Rees believes that a more nature-based theology is needed to grapple with the biggest challenge of our generation: climate change. "The Church's message has been one of behaviour change, rather than of communing with God in the natural world.

"You can get a certain way along the path with: 'God made this world; so therefore we should be thankful for it,' but if that's as deep as our theological understanding of the natural world goes, that's not deep enough to energise proper environmental care and concern."

The Revd Cate Williams, who works in an ecumenical partnership in the parish of Woughton, Milton Keynes, is particularly interested in the potential of using nature-based connection activities with children and young people.

"I've done some reading about children's spirituality and the imagination, about how we tend to tell children what to think rather than using the resources of their imagination. This is one way that we could engage the imagination and have them explore God for themselves rather than being told this is who and what God is, and you either believe it or you don't."

THE environment officer for the diocese of Oxford, Matt Freer, organised the retreat day with Mr Stanley to provide lay people and clerics with chances to experience God in nature, and to explore ideas behind Forest Church, a new expression of church that has been emerging in the UK over the past couple of years.

"The environmental movement has been so frustrating over the last decade," Mr Freer says. "A church outing to a wood would never have embraced this. Forest Church is saying we need to be open to these moments and opportunities, be- cause society needs it."

Mr Stanley facilitates the Mid-Wales Forest Church. He is also the author of Forest Church: A field guide to nature connection for groups and individuals, published earlier this year. This provides resources for those interested in the idea.

Currently, there are six similar groups in the UK: Ancient Arden Forest Church, in the West Midlands; East Midlands Forest Church; Mid-Wales Forest Church; New Forest Forest Church; Salisbury Plain Forest Church; and Stockport Forest Church. There is also interest in Germany, and Canada, and a publisher has bought rights to publish Mr Stanley's book in the United States.

A few weeks after the Oxford retreat day, I joined the Mid-Wales Forest Church on Borth beach, Ceredigion, on a cold and damp Sunday in June, to celebrate the approaching summer solstice.

We created, and walked, a labyrinth out of stones, and then tucked in to a feast of barbecued meats, homemade bread, home-grown produce, and herbal tea, cultivated on the Stanleys' smallholding.

It was fun and friendly, but, with a toddler in tow, I found it hard to connect. I also had a wobble during the opening liturgy. I can relate to calling God "the Source of All", the "Great Spirit of Creation", and the "Divine Spirit", but felt a momentary pang of unease at the mention of the sun-child, Mabon, even if the reference sought to trigger thoughts about darkness and light, and, ultimately, about Jesus.

DR JOHN BIMSON, a part-time tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, is on the core team of the Mid-Wales Forest Church. He understands some people's initial "wobbles" about Forest Church, but is convinced of the need for the Church to develop its theology and practice.

"To use Richard Bauckham's phrase, we are all part of the 'community of creation'," he says. "I think this is very strong in biblical texts; it's just neglected. We tend to think in terms of a hierarchical, or a vertical relationship: creatures at the bottom, God at the top, and we're sort of in the middle; but, actually, there's a horizontal relationship as well, in which we are part of creation.

"It's crucial that that becomes central now, because we are facing several environmental crises, and without that understanding we're not going to be inspired to act."

One of the aims of the mid-Wales group is to make the Church more accessible to people who are not Christians. "To do that, you've got to tread a delicate balance between making it user-friendly, without making it sub-Christian, or unchristian," he says.

"It's trodden that line very well, but I can understand some Christians coming fresh to it and finding it weird, because a lot of the liturgy talks about the 'Creator Spirit'. It might use 'God' occasionally, but it doesn't use conventional Christian vocabulary, and I guess that could be disturbing to some people who want something more overt."

But any idea that Forest Church is part of an organised plan or policy by the Church of England to create pagan-style churches in a bid to boost numbers - as reported in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, in articles on this year's summer solstice - is rebutted by Mr Stanley.

"It isn't even Church of England," he points out. While two groups are led by Church of England clerics, one is led by a member of a Celtic community, and another by a member of a Methodist church. Mr Stanley had a background in Anglican alternative worship, before his move to Wales in 2010.


A SIGNIFICANT moment in the formation of Forest Church was the conference "Reaching Out in Mind, Body and Spirit", run by the Church Army's researcher in evangelism to post-Christian culture, the Revd Steve Hollinghurst.

Mr Stanley attended, already nursing ideas for nature-based retreat that would help people to connect with God. These had grown out of his experience as a life coach, during which he saw the powerful effects of nature-based retreats on well-being. He also shared a love of foraging and permaculture with his wife, Sara.

At the conference, he met the Vicar of St Mary Magdalene's, in Tanworth-in-Arden, the Revd Paul Cudby, who now also leads Ancient Arden Forest Church. Mr Cudby is the Birmingham diocesan adviser for new religious movements.

"I was talking to him about what I was trying to bring to birth," Mr Stanley says, "and he said: 'That's interesting, because I'm having similar ideas about starting a group called Forest Church.' I thought, 'Well, instead of going for this retreat thing, why not start a local group?'

"Matt and Jo Arnold [who now lead East Midlands Forest Church] were ready: they just needed the seed of an idea. A couple of others also heard about it, and, again, had that same: 'Yeah, this is the name for what I'm thinking about.' They all started their own groups."

Mr Cudby says that the idea of Forest Church came after "recognition by ourselves that we were experiencing God outside in a way that we weren't inside. . . I started to look at the make-up of a lot of traditional C of E churches, and if you stand and look at the pillars, it kind of looks like we've created a grove of trees out of stonework inside. I started to think: 'Why are we doing this inside? Why don't we just go outside?'"


MID-WALES Forest Church started with a gathering of about ten people for the summer solstice last year, and offers a cycle of three gatherings: a ritual, a walk, and a workshop.

Mr Stanley says that the Mid-Wales Forest Church's emphasis is on "genuinely trying to connect with nature as we find it: studying plants and animals, and studying scientifically; learning about what this is, or what that does; but also studying or encountering it creatively so you could write a psalm or a binding prayer."

Out of the people that now come, he says, "a third - and that's being generous - would identify themselves as being Christian. Two-thirds are coming from other spiritual paths or once identified themselves as Christians."

The group is growing steadily, he says, "and feeding back to us that it's a really important part of the overall pattern of their spiritual practice. . . They are clear on what I believe; they are getting to know what other people in the core group believe; and they are free to believe differently, and we are becoming a group that is travelling together."

The Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Revd Andrew John, has written a positive endorsement of Mr Stanley's book, and has been to a number of events.


NEW FOREST Forest Church is led by David Coles, a former youth worker and Evangelical Free Church leader, and a long-standing member of the Community of Aidan and Hilda.

It started meeting in August 2012, and tends to attract between 12 to 20 people. Gatherings follow the cycles and seasons of the year, mostly drawing from the Celtic tradition.

East Midlands Forest Church (EMFC) is led by Matt and Jo Arnold. Mr Arnold has a Strict Baptist background, though the couple currently attend a Methodist Church in Nottinghamshire.

He says that the group's congregation, of about 25, is eclectic, including: people who regularly attend church; "spiritual seekers" who don't; "dechurched people that have had bad experiences of churches"; someone who is training to be an interfaith minister; and "people who go to a really lively gospel-type church who also go to a shamanic group". There is also a Baptist church minister who attends regularly. Gatherings are "pagan in style, with elements of Celtic in there", Mr Arnold says. A second Forest Church, based in Lowdham, near Nottingham, may start soon.

In the early days, the rituals were checked over by the director of ministry and mission in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham, the Revd Nigel Rooms. But now, Mr Arnold's former Baptist minister, and the Baptist minister who attends EMFC help to "ensure we don't lose our Christ-focused bearing".


ANCIENT Arden Forest Church started in Autumn last year, and is pagan in style, after Mr Cudby's sabbatical last year, during which he spent time meeting and talking to pagan communities in Britain.

"We decided that we wanted to understand paganism - perhaps because we'd begin to engage with God outside," he says. "We've had friends from the Wiccan or Druid traditions who feel it is something they can come along and be part of, because we've already become friends. They recognise this as a space where they can engage with Jesus, without someone threatening to bash them over the head with a Bible." Ancient Arden also has three Anglican priests in its group.

"We work around the Celtic wheel of the year: the two solstices, the two equinoxes, and the four quarter festivals that fall in between them; so we meet roughly every six or seven weeks." All gatherings are ritual-based.

"Some people are concerned that . . . we're trying to hide the message, or come up with some new syncretistic religion," Mr Cudby says. "It isn't about that, it's about trying to use language that doesn't have the same kind of pain tied up with it. Many of the pagan friends we have find church language quite painful because it's associated with things they've been through at the hands of people in church; so if we're going to talk . . . then we've got to find a new way to do that."

Mr Hollinghurst agrees. "What you don't want is a kind of total syncretism where you simply make Christianity whatever anyone wants it to be, because then you lose what it's about. I find lots of people with a very high admiration for Jesus - it's the Church that they struggle with.

"In contemporary society, the idea of Jesus as uniquely incarnating God is a problem for some people; so if we need to hold on to that - and we do - how do we speak of it?

"At New Age fairs, one of the things people often say is: 'So you believe everything I think is wrong, don't you, because you believe Jesus is the only way?' I say something halfway between the two, because my theology tells me that God is at work in all sorts of cultures, traditions, and beliefs. But I also think there is something unique about Christ.

"How do I put that across? I find myself talking about the colours of the rainbow, which goes down well in the context: they all have a different frequency of light, but they all come together in the white light. For me, Jesus is like that; he is the one that all things point towards, but, actually, all beliefs and cultures have right elements of that."


ALTHOUGH the various forest churches have different emphases, they have worked to agree on a loose definition of what consititutes a Forest Church.

"Lots of things could be Forest Church," Mr Stanley says. "Forest Church does, however, recognise that nature speaks about God, but also that God can speak through nature; that we can initiate learning about God, or finding meaning in nature. . .

"There's plenty of things in the Old Testament about elements of nature that are voicing something - then, without going into too much definition about what that really means, that should be part of what we're doing, and allowing that to happen."

A number of people in the Forest Church movement, Mr Cudby says, "would describe themselves as panentheistic, a Greek word meaning 'God in all things'. Romans 1.20 is where we're coming from."

Mr Hollinghurst has questions about some aspects of Forest Church, the main one being: "Is this something for Christians who want to express their faith differently, or is it actually, genuinely, a mission movement geared to connecting with those outside the Church? . . . Over time, you would want it - if it becomes a viable Christian community - to say: 'What do we do about baptism? What do we do about communion? etc.'"

Nevertheless, he remains positive: "A number of the rituals are communion services; so it's there in the fabric, in a sense, and I suspect, over time, things like that will become more commonplace."

Mr Hollinghurst is impressed by the fact that "a number of people at a similar kind of time have said: 'Yes, we want to run with this, we feel there's something in this.' I think there are a number of things going on in society, in the way people are exploring spirituality at the moment, that connect with this.

"We went through a period in Victorian times, into the 20th century, of getting rid of the natural, the spiritual, and whittling everything down to the rational.

"It's understandable, because that's what was happening in the culture. But the pendulum has swung in the other direction, in the last few decades, back to the spiritual, creation-centred, and the Church needs to re-engage with that."


Forest Church: A field guide to nature connection for groups and individuals by Bruce Stanley is published by Mystic Christ at £7.95 (CT Bookshop £7.15). More information on Forest Church can be found at www.mysticchrist.co.uk.

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