IN HER book Wildling: The return of nature to a British farm (Picador, 2018), Isabella Tree tells the story of the “rewilding” of the Knepp estate, in Sussex. Intensive arable farming ceases, the machinery is sold, the staff are laid off, and, over the course of 20 years, the land is reclaimed by scrub and trees and recolonised by an extraordinary diversity of different species. Nightingales return, and turtle doves and white storks start to breed in unprecedented numbers. The story of Knepp and the concept of wilding has caught the imagination of landowners around the world.
The wilding movement reflects a wider shift in humanity’s disposition to the environment. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about wilding is the relinquishment of human design and mastery in favour of a process led by nature. It advocates a co-operation with the emergent properties of ecology rather than the imposition of a particular use on the land.
In the light of this, the Church of England’s recent vision for a Church “where mixed ecology is the norm” is fascinating (News 4 June). It may be a small shift from Archbishop Rowan Williams’s popular term of “a mixed economy of church”, but its theological implications are significant; for encouraging a different and more diverse sort of ecology requires a radically different disposition than, say, filling a particular niche in the wider economy, or trying to market yourself to a particular audience.
THEOLOGICALLY, there is a strong connection with wilding’s commitment to a humble disposition towards a deeper, mysterious, and hidden power and agency at work, which invites human agency to participate.
In the past ten years or so, as significant sums of money have flowed into mission and church-planting, there has been little room for mystery or humility. Those wanting to negotiate a slice of the pie must be clear of their vision, their strategy, their objectives, and their outputs. With little theological reflcetion, mission has been joined at the hip with growth (for which we mean numerical growth). Mission has been instrumentalised in the service of reversing church decline. Our communities, at times, have been looked on as repositories of the raw material necessary to stabilise a declining institution.
Ecological language invokes a relationship of co-agency with God’s missionary Spirit. It invites the Church into a theological vision for mission which is about joining in with the flow of self-giving life from God into the world, and for the fulfilment of Jesus’s vision of the Kingdom of God.
The Church becomes a key agent in the midst of this process, whose part is to listen, to participate, to discern what is taking place, and to guard and protect what is emerging.
This is the New Testament vision and practice: a movement of a community of disciples constantly seeking to keep up with the flow of the Spirit in the building of the Kingdom of God for which the Church is an embodiment and foretaste. As Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder argue in their study of Acts, Constants in Context (Orbis, 2004), the “purpose of the church is not the church itself”; rather, “the point of the church is to point beyond itself, to be a community that preaches, serves and witnesses to the reign of God.”
IN OUR work supporting pioneer ministers in various contexts, Tina Hodgett and I have witnessed the diversity that occurs when people bravely respond to the call of Jesus in their lives, and seek to follow God’s Spirit of mission wherever they are.
What emerges is a spectrum of different and often unexpected expressions of the Kingdom, from congregational plants and missional and neo-monastic communities, to social enterprises such as bakeries or coffee roasteries, embodying the values of the Kingdom.
We sought to describe what we were witnessing in an article and diagram known as the “pioneer spectrum”. These, and the online tool that we have now developed, are designed to support and facilitate the development of a mixed ecology. We invite the Church to start by being attentive to its context, and then to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the leadership of those called there, to facilitate the expression of the Kingdom.
At Knepp, years of investing in the newest technologies, and amalgamating farms to look to generate economies of scale, all failed to solve the estate’s financial problems. A new beginning started when they stopped the machines, listened to the land, and began to co-operate with nature.
Trying to save the Church by looking to a vision of its former self will not work. Mission cannot be instrumentalised in the service of a declining institution. Mission is the overflow of the life of God. Worship is our motivation for mission, not the Church.
“Mixed ecology”, rather than being just a new slogan, may well help us espouse the theology that we need to find our way again.
The Revd Paul Bradbury is leader of Poole Missional Communities in Salisbury diocese. Explore the pioneer spectrum and access training on using it here