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Celebrating spirituality outdoors

by
24 July 2020

Charlie Houlder-Moat celebrates the spiritual benefits of the outdoors

The Revd Thabani Isaac Sibanda

Labyrinth at St Mary’s, Watton

Labyrinth at St Mary’s, Watton

SINCE childhood, I have been drawn to nature, and my jobs — from outdoor-activities instructor to forest ranger — have reflected this passion. Now, in my vocation to Reader ministry, I feel that I am called to help people to explore God through the twin books of scripture and creation. Teaching people about the natural world will, I hope, develop the awe and wonder to inspire them to look after the planet that we all call home.

This has led me to set up Wild Church Norfolk, a movement that takes church outside the walls and is linked to the Fresh Expression movement of Forest Church, which encourages participation with creation. Although a contemporary movement, Wild Church has its roots in the long tradition of Christian spirituality that encourages us to hear God speak through exploration of the natural world.

The “outside” character of Wild Church alludes not only to the outdoors aspect, but also to those for whom this is intended. My particular vocation is to engage with people for whom the traditional model of church is not, for whatever reason, an accessible option: those outside the Church; people on the margins, like those Jesus spent time with; and now, also, those with limited or no access to nature.

Being connected to nature has been invaluable for people during the pandemic and enforced lockdown, but access to outdoor space is not afforded to all — and especially not to those who are permanently housebound. The closure of churches and the cancellation of outdoor church gatherings inspired me to get creative and move Wild Church on to the web.

Altars of gratitude

Last month, I joined in with the Wildlife Trust’s campaign 30 Days Wild (in which record numbers of participants took part), passing ideas around daily which are specifically aimed at bringing the outdoors indoors for people. Activities included logging into nature webcams; watching nature documentaries; downloading apps such as Google Expeditions and Seek; drawing something natural; offering a guided meditation using houseplants; and videoing my own walks and nature activities to share on my YouTube channel Wild Church Norfolk.

As we emerge from lockdown, we need to be ready to continue offering this further support to those who have been dipping in and out of online church and turning to prayer.

 

THERE has been a global shock to the system, and we are all experiencing it in different ways; but the collective grief and trauma will need gentle processing and exploration. Nature soothes, and Wild Church cultivates that space in which to connect and explore. In a period that has encouraged us to identify what we truly value, creation and time spent outdoors have emerged as high priorities, alongside connecting with others and seeking something bigger than ourselves.

Wild Church’s vision is to offer a holistic approach that connects with mind, body, and soul, thus enabling people to be in touch with the ground beneath their feet, the world around them, the God around and within them, and their own true self. Every Wild Church or Forest Church guide offers a model that is different in reflecting their own context, theology, and understanding, level of expertise, and what they feel God — the Spirit, the Divine — has called them to. Each guide uses their own language.

Forest bathing

I offer a “menu” of Wild Church. There are opportunities to explore spirituality, time to sit with silence, guided meditations, noise and activity, and care for creation, plus “wild walks” for worship and well-being. The Wild Church initiative has also inspired me to work with my church to make ourselves more environmentally friendly, and to increase awareness about environmental-justice initiatives both locally and nationally.

Charlie Houlder-Moat is a military-chaplaincy families worker for the Methodist Forces Board and a trainee Reader with the Eastern Region Ministry Course in the diocese of Norwich.


If you’re inspired to set up your own Wild Church:

  • There isn’t a prescribed model: all you need is a few people and some nature.
  • It’s not about moving existing church services outside, but, rather, developing a direct relationship with the natural world.
  • It could be built around a theme (e.g. a seasonal festival or a national wildlife event), or focus on a local site or walking route. Keep it simple.
  • Practical considerations: insurance, risk assessment, safeguarding, and advertising. Having a connection with a church or other organisation can help with these.
  • Equipment and resources: our basic kit includes Kelly Kettles and a fire pit, a nature exploration kit (including bug-pots and identification books), and a leader’s kit for walks (including first-aid kit).
  • My standard structure opens with a prayer (this might be led as a meditation inviting people to notice and connect with their surroundings). There might be a reflection on a Bible passage or a poem, and/or some eco-liturgy, and one or two nature-connection activities (e.g. nature hunt, nature art, “sit spot”). I have included music using a phone and amplifier, or a simple Taizé chant, but I prefer to connect with the music of nature. I also close with prayer.

Lessons learned:

  • Invest in a lapel microphone with wind-muffler.
  • Don’t limit your audience. My church congregation — who are largely retired — have got involved and enjoy doing the activities with their grandchildren, even if it has meant using online platforms to do so.
  • When online, make the gathering shorter than usual.
  • Share the ideas and liturgy/prayers for people to use in their own time while out in nature. It is not always about leading from the front.

For further information:

Forthcoming Events

18 November 2020
Books for Advent
Hear more about this year’s selection of Advent books. Free event, more details coming soon.

28 November 2020
An Advent Retreat with Poetry and Music
Join us for an online Advent retreat in association with Canterbury Press.    Book tickets

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