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The healing power of the garden goes mainstream

05 October 2018

Tim Wyatt reports on the ‘rich green legacy’ that the Church offers

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Gill Moore from St Paul’s, Camden Square, reacts to their award. See gallery for more images

Gill Moore from St Paul’s, Camden Square, reacts to their award. See gallery for more images

A DIFFERENT kind of church-planting was up for debate at Lambeth Palace this week. More than 100 participants from around the Church gathered on Tuesday for Green Health Live, a one-day conference organised by the Church Times on the links between gardening and well-being.

The editor of the Church Times, Paul Handley, admitted that he had been worried that the crossover of health and gardening in the Church would be too niche an interest for the event to work. But, he said, “as our understanding of pain becomes more sophisticated, so our understanding of healing grows as well.” Almost 40 churches had been nominated for the Green Health Awards.

The presentation of these awards was at the heart of Green Health Live. Eight of the ten shortlisted projects were represented at the conference, and three church projects received cash prizes (News, 5 October).

“These awards are shamelessly using the expertise you have built up to show the rest of the Church what can be done with inspiration, imagination, and an enormous amount of energy,” Mr Handley said.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, who chaired the judges

The audience also heard from experts who fleshed out how the natural world bolstered physical, mental, and spiritual health. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, the Church of England’s lead bishop on health, introduced the event by suggesting that all Christians were called to be stewards of creation, partnering with God to develop the world he has made.

“As we all know, gardening is good exercise for the body, but it can also provide excellent therapy for the mind. It’s about shalom: the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.”

The first speaker, Professor Jim McManus, director of public health for Hertfordshire County Council and president of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, told the audience that the Church had a rich green legacy to offer up to the world. “The early metaphor of the Church was as a lush garden,” he said. “Participation in health care is participation in the ministry of Christ — and the same is true of gardening.”

Gardens served as pillars of the biblical narrative, he said, noting how the arc of scripture moved from Eden, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha, and then on to paradise.

In a society increasingly filled with people out of balance — whether with creation, or with themselves through mental-health crises — Christians had something “important to offer”.

St Teresa of Avila used the metaphor of watering a garden for the spiritual life, he noted: something that began with hard work to cultivate barren ground but ended basking in the undeserved rain from heaven.

Dr Alistair Griffiths, the director of science and collections at the Royal Horticultural Society, then led the audience through a blizzard of evidence for the benefits of plant life and green spaces.

Besides providing much of humanity’s food, medicines, and clothes, there were now more than 8000 scientific studies that pointed to the part played by vegetation in human health and well-being, he explained.

Research had shown how exposure to gardens and wildlife could lower BMI and thereby help to tackle the obesity crisis, besides improving mental health, he said.

In addition, regular gardening has been proved to reduce the risk of falls and fractures among the elderly, and minimise social isolation. Digging and weeding were shown to be better exercise even than moderate cycling.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe acting head of social science at the University of Lincoln, and author of The Psychology of Gardening, Professor Harriet Gross

Spending time in gardens boosted Vitamin C levels, Dr Griffiths said. Other research showed that, the closer people live to green spaces, the more active they tend to be in the rest of their lives.

One study from 2001 even suggested that there was a correlation between the amount of vegetation in a neighbourhood and its crime levels. Planting trees, plants, and grass also helped to mitigate the rising flooding caused by climate change and reduced deaths from air pollution. He quoted one study that concluded that British plant life removed 1.4 million tonnes of pollutants from the air each year, saving more than £1 billion in health spending.

The challenge was to better communicate the staggering list of the health benefits of gardens to a society that was increasingly urban, sedentary, and disconnected from the natural world. “We spend a lot of time trying to safeguard the panda without ever thinking about how to conserve ourselves,” Dr Griffiths concluded.

During a break for lunch, those at the conference had an opportunity to try out therapeutic gardening for themselves by exploring the ten acres of historic gardens at Lambeth Palace.

In the afternoon, Professor Harriet Gross, an academic psychologist from the University of Lincoln, explored in greater depth how gardening could bolster mental health. Social and therapeutic horticulture had a long history, and was even well documented in Victorian asylums, she said; but now evidence was emerging to cement this long association.

Gardening was significant for mental health because it reaffirmed identity, strengthened relationships, and offered accessible escape from everyday life, her research suggested.

Many of the gardeners whom she interviewed even referred to their allotments as “my salvation”, or described them as “what keeps me sane”.

David Buck, a senior fellow in public health and inequalities with the health-care think tank the King’s Fund, then sketched out how the therapeutic benefits of gardening had begun to percolate throughout the health system in recent years.

When the King’s Fund published a report on gardens and health in 2016, many colleagues considered it an eccentric topic; but, in just two years, it had entered the mainstream, he said. “Social prescribing”, where GPs might send patients to experience gardens and community activities alongside the prescription drugs and medical interventions, was growing every year, he said.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesWinners of the 2018 Church Times Green Health Awards: Catherine Tidnam, Gill Moore, and Ben Ledden from St Paul’s, Old St Pancras, in London

“We have more than enough evidence to know this works,” was his message to the health system. “Don’t wait for randomised controlled trials. There is more than enough to be going on with.”

The conference closed with a short reflection, and then a question-and-answer session chaired by the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics and social-care policy, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy.

Joining the panel of speakers was the clinical director of the St Marylebone Healing and Counselling Centre, Dr Suzanne Hyde. She recounted how a GP, when breaking the news to his patients that the waiting list for urgent NHS counselling was typically 18 months, would give them a plant to care for in the mean time. “It is often the first thing that they’ve ever had to nurture themselves.”

The Guild of Health and St Raphael, one of the partners that helped to organise Green Health Live, is planning to produce audio, video, and printed resources from the conference, its director, the Revd Dr Gillian Straine, informed the participants.

Green Health Live was organised by the Church Times in partnership with the Guild of Health and St Raphael and the Conservation Foundation. Special thanks to the sponsors: the Mercers’ Company, the Mind and Soul Foundation, Allchurches Trust, the Worshipful Company of Glovers, and Taylors Bulbs.


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