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First it was messy; now it’s wild: children and the environment

22 October 2021

Julie McKee hears about the latest C of E venture to help children engage with God’s love of the planet

Children from St Lawrence’s, Barnwood, Gloucester, plant native wild-flower seeds at Barnwood Arboretum, during an “Explore Creation” Sunday-morning session, in November 2019

Children from St Lawrence’s, Barnwood, Gloucester, plant native wild-flower seeds at Barnwood Arboretum, during an “Explore Creation” Sunday-morning s...

WHEN Chad Chadwick’s seven-year-old twins suggested finding a way to “walk” to COP26 this year, he couldn’t have expected the response that their idea would generate.

Mr Chadwick, a youth-mission enabler in the diocese of Peterborough, and his family, worked out the distance between their home in Northamptonshire and Glasgow, and decided to cover the 353 miles in their own way (from 1 January to 31 October) through walking, scooting, and other outdoor activities.

“[The twins] said to our friends and family, would anyone like to join us in working out the distance from your own front door to Glasgow, and then you could do it, too,” Mr Chadwick explains. “So we called it a Christian pilgrimage. Loads and loads of non-church people signed up, because it’s a positive response, not a fear-based response.”

It is an example of how, when it comes to the environment and faith, children are often leading the way — and how the appetite to be proactive is there, too.

In his church, Mr Chadwick is involved with a new diocesan outdoor-church network that already has 45 members, bringing together leaders who have been trying Muddy Church, Forest Church, Wild Worship, and other ways of caring for creation.

“In many ways, we’re following the children’s lead; so if it rains, we go puddle-jumping; if it’s windy, we fly kites,” he says. “Children are very quick to want to get outside, and they really want to make a difference. If only we’d open the door and give them an opportunity, they’d jump at the chance. Then we’ve got a frame of reference for having a difficult conversation about the reality of the climate crisis.”

Lucy Moore is hoping that a new outdoor spin-off of Messy Church, Messy Church Goes Wild, of which she is a founder, will harness its values and ethos in a way that enables children to explore their faith — including care for the planet — outside.

“Weaving together the environmental concerns that there are with young people today; this affinity of people to meet God in the great outdoors, and the pandemic throwing us outside anyway, has all come together in this lovely movement of Messy Church Goes Wild,” Mrs Moore says.

A multi-author book is planned for publication in April 2022, “with different Messy Church writers talking about different aspects of caring for the planet through Messy Church in a creative and hospitable way,” Mrs Moore says. At the same time, Messy Adventures — a resource book with 12 units, and an emphasis on science and faith — is also being compiled, and will be published in August 2022.

“We hope [it] will be a resource to give Messy Church leaders the confidence and resources to get outside,” Ms Moore says. “It’s being piloted in a mixture of urban and rural churches between October this year and June next year, and their experiences will all feed into the finished product. We’ll do some roadshows in August and September next year, to demonstrate the sort of activities we’re talking about.”

There are already signs that helping children to engage with creation is bearing fruit, in the experience of the diocesan environmental lead for Durham, the Revd Danie Lindley.

During the summer, she worked on a multi-faith drama project in Gateshead, “Passion for the Planet”, involving schools and the wider community, seeking to enthuse them about the environment. The letters and poems that children wrote as part of it have since been used both as prayers, in the liturgy in the deanery-wide Climate Sunday online service in August, and in Messy Church services run at the churchyard of St Alban’s, Windy Nook, in Gateshead, where she is Priest-in-Charge.

“What I’ve found is that children are much more aware of this than we realise — and, younger than I thought, about what it means for global warming. [The children] wrote things like: ‘I’m angry, I’m furious, how dare you do this to our world.’ Others were very much: ‘This is God’s world and we need to look after it.’”

“Equality is the theme that seems to [stand out],” she continues. “The children I work with are from quite deprived areas . . . but they’re really moved by stories of children who have less.” This particularly came through in discussions about access to clean water, and stories about families displaced in other parts of the world.

Now the challenge is to share the work and experience of the project with the wider Church. “There are pockets of things happening all over Durham diocese,” Ms Lindley says. “What we do next is really important, I think, and how we engage the children and young people in the run up to, and following, COP26. We’ve got another Messy Church planned, and are trying to respond to where the children are at.”

In St Lawrence’s, Barnwood, in Gloucester, Petra Crofton has been running an monthly outdoor faith programme with families since before Covid, “Explore Creation”. Each session includes a short, interactive talk about God, the Bible, and creation care, followed by outdoor exploring, trails, and activities, crafts, and games.

During the pandemic, only the trails could run, but, this September, the church began a year of science and wildlife activities (funded by Scientists in Congregations), under the banner “Wild and Wonderful”. It also coincides with the launch of Ms Crofton’s book Science Geek: Eco Christy and her secret logbook (Lion Hudson), an adventure novel about caring for creation. Ms Crofton is running activities that follow the book’s themes and story at St Lawrence’s, as well as book clubs at the local primary school.

The Explore Creation programme has definitely struck a chord, Ms Crofton says. “The kids always want to come back and bring their parents and friends; so I’ve been amazed . . . they have a natural interest and sense of awe and wonder.

“The main thing, I think, that is really important for children is that we encourage them and give them hope, because if they get scared and anxious about the climate, that’s really bad for their mental health. We need to encourage them to be responsible stewards, but we must always give them hope and courage.”

Mr Chadwick agrees. “A lot of children and young people really struggle with the anxiety around the climate crisis, because there aren’t many positive options when it comes to a response,” he says. “When the Church offers children and young people a positive response, then our communities are interested.”


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