WHETHER it is Celtic-style nature immersion, a vision of the impending eschaton, or just an awful lot of bare bottoms, naturism offers considerable scope for Christian reflection.
For those of us who join in, the joys are as simple as life offers: a human body — and the sea. Others might argue there are a few square inches of cloth missing.
I waded into the French Atlantic last summer, surrounded by hundreds of brown bodies splashing cheerfully in the surf, and realised that this is the only communal activity unchanged since the dawn of human history.
It is a paradox, then, that such a minimalist holiday choice comes with a large amount of baggage — of the cultural sort, at least. Many of those who feel comfortable baring all among strangers become strangely shy about it when they get back home.
HAVING spent my adult life visiting naturist sites across Europe, thanks to the influence of my German aunts, I have long stopped being surprised at sharing the sands with so many devout churchgoers.
At my first naturist resort in the south of France in 1991, the amiable chap next door turned out to be a Roman Catholic priest from Ireland called Pat. He spent his days lying peacefully on the balcony with a hat over his face, yet felt obliged to keep his naturist experiences firmly under wraps back home.
"Some people may think you are a hedonist, or warped in some way, which is not what social nudity is. They will never understand, or don’t want to," Ruth says. She is a Reader in her 60s who was a long-standing naturist when she entered lay ministry a few years ago.
Although a passionate advocate for the "complete joy" of social nudity, which she frequently enjoys on holidays with her husband in the Caribbean, she understands that some people are embarrassed when the topic comes up.
I SPOKE to six ministers for this piece, including Ruth. All of them are long-term naturists. Three did not want their full names published, and a fourth requested total anonymity.
If you have never knowingly met a naturist, such reticence helps to explain why. Yet the most recent survey by Ipsos-MORI suggests that there are about four million British naturists.
Two priests I spoke to — both of them men in their 70s — independently made the point that naturist clergy might keep quiet for practical reasons. Edward, an NSM, said: "I do tell some churchpeople, and have never had a negative reaction; but I also think a few people might be shocked, because of their own inhibitions about being naked with others. I am concerned that being entirely public about naturism might diminish my effectiveness as their priest."
Robert, a retired priest, became a naturist after his ordination, and has only cautiously opened up about it over a number of years: "I am very selective about whom I tell, perhaps less so since I have retired. My hesitation is that I would not want it to get in the way of close pastoral relationships, bereavement counselling, family problems, and so on."
AT THE other end of the coyness scale is Bob Horrocks, aged 59, who has chaired the Christian Naturist Fellowship (CNF) since 2009. Bob is also Team Rector of the Seven Saints Team, in the diocese of Manchester.
The CNF has about 850 Facebook followers, and 200 active members. Besides regular events around the country, including eucharistic and prayer services, it also holds group holidays, particularly to the naturist-friendly Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands.
"We have a lot of ministers in the CNF, representing the full spectrum of denominations from Roman Catholic priests to pioneer church-planters.
"I first came across naturism unexpectedly on a beach in Fuerteventura. So I stripped off to swim, and, when I walked back to my towel afterwards, I thought: 'Should I be doing this?'
“It drove me to the Bible to see what the scriptures had to say on the issue. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the negative views were cultural and not biblical.
"I believe naturism is not only permissible within Christianity — it also enriches my faith and spirituality, particularly in quiet times and times outdoors. There is an openness before God, and what I would call ‘Eden’ moments."
Bob and other Christian naturists often cite a Grove booklet, Christianity and Naturism, which examines a range of biblical evidence and church traditions. One of its authors, the Archdeacon of Buckingham, the Ven. Karen Gorham, appeared in the tabloid headlines recently because of this modest tome when she was appointed Bishop of Sherborne.
Vivienne Heenan, a priest in her 60s with permission to officiate on the Isle of Wight, has attended a CNF holiday, and has been a naturist since early adulthood. She never thought about hiding her naturism when she became a Reader in the mid-1990s, and ordained in 2006.
"I haven't had any negative reactions, in either a church or non-church context, but mostly genuine curiosity. People ask me whether I'm embarrassed, or how I have the courage. But they accept that naturism is normal in certain circumstances, and are fine with it."
When asked about her faith and her naturism, Vivienne talks about how the naturist ethos tends to be more accepting of the whole person. "I have a lot of scars due to various medical interventions, and I actually feel easier about my body in a naturist context."
NATURISTS are well placed to engage in a full-bodied embrace of creation; but they do not hold a copyright when it comes to outdoor nudity. Skinny-dipping at remote lakes, rivers, and beaches is as old as humanity, and something that any Christian might like to experience.
Indeed, nudity is certainly not sinful per se in Christianity. Our Christian ancestors rarely wore anything to go swimming, up until the mid-19th century. Naked baptism is accepted by nearly all scholars as the norm in the Early Church.
In the Old Testament, four prophets talk about going naked as a prophetic sign: Isaiah, Saul, Micah, and Job. A fifth could easily be added in the shape of the first man himself.
I am studying a Ph.D. in theology at Roehampton University on the nature rituals of the early British Church, and discovering that there is a precedent for naked bathing to be found among our earthy Anglo-Saxon and Celtic predecessors.
My personal heroine is the 11th-century St Ethelfleda, of Romsey Abbey, who stripped every night of the year to say her prayers in the River Test. She lived to advanced old age, helped no doubt by her invigorating regime. If Christian naturists ever look for a patron saint, I would recommend this inspiring nun.
AS MUCH as I enjoy the friendly atmosphere of naturist resorts, it is only in the wild where souls and bodies can be bared together in meaningful harmony. While staying at a busy French naturist resort, a beautiful site called Arnaoutchot, I set off for a long walk along the empty coast. After an hour of brisk walking there was not another soul on the horizon, just the seabirds and crashing waves.
Then the lightning hit. A black cloud rolled in from the Bay of Biscay. I scrambled desperately up the dune at the back of the beach, taking refuge in a hollow in the sand, watching the bolts fizz into the sea and wondering if one had my name on it.
As nature pulsated around me, I felt naked like never before, a primal part of creation more reminiscent of the solitary Adam than a slightly adventurous holidaymaker. Within minutes, the storm passed, and, as the sky turned blue, I felt dressed by the sunshine, scarcely naked at all.
Indeed, long before he had company, and even longer before the fig leaves, Adam was alone and in absolute harmony with nature. Perhaps this is recoverable in Christian tradition and practice, the idea that everyone can be comfortable in their own skin.
Or perhaps the more positive attitudes towards the human body found in earlier Christianity could help with the modern distress about self-image and over-sexualisation of the body.
One thing is for sure: being caught naked in the middle of a coastal thunderstorm certainly teaches you how to pray.
The UK's leading naturist travel agency is Chalfont Holidays: chalfontholidays.co.uk
The French naturist resort of Arnaoutchot is on the south-west Atlantic coast: www.arna.com. A week’s tent/caravan pitch in the summer costs €300-400, or €800-900 for a chalet for four.
The official French tourist board publishes information on naturist holidays, including an online quiz to see if you have the “soul of a naturist”: naturism.rendezvousenfrance.com