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,
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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.