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Comment: What priests can learn from gardeners

15 June 2020

If the Church wants new things to happen, perhaps it should look for signs of new life which grow slowly, says Max Bayliss


IN THE fury of a Twitter storm, or amid the anger and angst stirred by the sharing of another inflammatory article on Facebook, I like to leave my laptop and phone in the flat and head out into the garden in search of peace and stability.

The college gardens have, for me, been a place of great refuge and solace during the past few months. I take exercise in them, rest, read, chat to the gardeners, and pray. I know that I am deeply fortunate to have such a haven. I feel for people who do not have access to gardens, and I fear for a world in which their value is commodified. I’m blessed to live in a community which values its gardens.

I have long associated this sanctuary with our other holy places. The vaulted ceilings of bark and lichen are breathtaking, canopies of leaves like stained glass stream green light on to the nave below, as a chorus of birds chant in their elevated quire. Gardens are places where I feel like I can commune with God in a natural, easy way. In this midsummer’s daydream of mine, if I associate churches with gardens, then the priests are the gardeners. What sage advice should I glean from the example of my green-fingered friends?


ANYONE who wants a garden to be “oven-ready” has missed the point of gardening. Only a fool expects a new garden to be instantly mature. Perhaps that is why God started with a garden: to be patient with it, to let it grow in its own time, and to watch it happen. Just because you have to work at something, doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect. When Adam ate of that forbidden fruit, he lacked trust and humility, but he also lacked that quality of keen patience, which any gardener must know.

Being a priest, I would like to suggest, is more like being a jobbing gardener than it is being a landscape designer. Parish priests would do well to see themselves in this guise, as tending a garden on behalf of a community rather being the owner strolling in it, benevolently opening its gates for the locals to peer in at privileged times.

We are part of a team that has been given stewardship of a garden, and we have to tend it, be faithful to what we’ve received, and work to make sure it’s still there for future generations. It’s the gardener’s job to nurture the garden and look for signs of new growth.

Sure, there is a bit of creativity and imagination, some weeding and reshaping, but there is more patience and care. It is not our job to change the world: the world is already changing dramatically all the time (and, besides, I think that’s the laity’s charism). It is our job to be faithful to what we have received, and, where organic change occurs, to respond to it with wisdom and experience, making sure that it contributes to the life of the garden rather than detracting from it.

Impressive results — “fruits”, if you will — come only after pruning, watering, feeding, fussing, and not fussing, and, above all, time, in which things die and decay and are eaten and transformed, and the warmth of the sun shines on it, giving growth.

In this garden, we are to cultivate the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are not to cultivate the fruits of this world: money, power, expediency, popularity, idolatry.

Always looking for “new ways of doing church” seems to me like a craven worship of the prevailing cultural idol of consumerism and entertainment. If the Church wants new things to happen, perhaps she should, instead, look for signs of new life which grow slowly, fed by the deep streams of living water, whose roots are in the dependable soil of scripture, reason, and tradition, rather than seeking salvation in the Force 8 Pro Jet Hot Tub gimmick on the new decking surrounded by artificial turf.


THE Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: growing, transforming, spicy. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be innovative, canny, or afraid to get our hands dirty (all essential qualities of any gardener worth his or her salt). What I’m saying is that we need to see the hidden value of patience and the warmth of love, and to trust that the ground that we’re tilling, where the C of E already has deep established roots, is a fertile gift from God. It might not seem glamorous, but this marginal ministry is vital.

The clergy seem to be suffocating on a lot of hot air and indignation, and need the oxygen of the great outdoors. Maybe the best thing to do in a world of vapid virtual reality and ambitious hasty solutions is to slow down and be real. Perhaps, if you’re looking for a prophetic edge, go and cultivate a herbaceous border.


The Revd Max Bayliss is Chaplain of Queens’ College, Cambridge.

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