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Where love meets the land

by
22 October 2021

Nick Mayhew-Smith introduces outdoor blessings, rituals, and liturgies drawn from 2000 years of Christian tradition

Nick Mayhew-Smith prays over the ancient yew tree in the churchyard at St Mary and All Saints, Dunsfold, in Surrey

Nick Mayhew-Smith prays over the ancient yew tree in the churchyard at St Mary and All Saints, Dunsfold, in Surrey

WHEN Christians move their worship outdoors, interesting things start to happen. Church history is dotted with invigorating reform movements that sprang to life in streets, fields, parks, and marketplaces, and on riverbanks. Their messages of renewal blow like a stiff breeze through the institutions of established religion.

From St John the Baptist onwards, our ritual life has spilled out across the landscape to great effect. Nature has served as a backdrop and sometimes even a participant in the worship of a community.

My latest book, Landscape Liturgies, published last month, is a compilation of an array of alfresco devotions that have helped to shape outdoor worship of every kind. It is striking how many of them have retained their relevance or spiritual significance, even though the practice of open-air ritual has rather fallen into abeyance over the centuries. Discovering a beautiful blessing from Anglo-Saxon times over a water course polluted by negligence offers much food for thought on the wisdom of our ancestors — not least the ever-present need to atone for human failings in the care of our natural resources.

From blessing bees to praying over ancient churchyard trees, giving thanks for the first fruits, and worshipping God at important natural landmarks, this rich heritage of services is testament to a sensitivity towards creation that runs deep and long in Christian theology.

Many and varied are the reasons behind such an impulse. It would be a stretch too far to say that most of them are motivated by what we would call environmentalism today, and yet all of them bear witness to the widest possible potential for ritual and liturgy to spill out of the confines of a building and flourish in the great outdoors.

The research behind my compilation was funded by the Susanna Wesley Foundation, at Roehampton University, and stands as testament to the origins of Methodism, born in the open air.

The Wesley brothers were, of course, improvising after finding the church doors closed to them. Yet they seemed to relish the opportunities for fresh horizons, and continued preaching in the open air right up to their final years.

Other evangelists have found that outdoor ritual patterns work well as a way of connecting communities to the places where they live, holding services at important points in the landscape. And still others have been spurred on by a wish to extend the Church’s ritual action to encompass all of creation — a sympathy for the natural world that certainly stirs the Celtic spirit, among many other traditions.

From the Early Church right up to the modern day, these practices have bequeathed numerous rituals, blessings, liturgies, and worship events that can take place beyond the confines of the church building.

Perhaps the most visible expressions of traditional outdoor worship in the British landscape today are Remembrance Sunday services at war memorials, Palm Sunday and Good Friday processions, and the revival of Rogationtide and its route around the parish. It is possible to continue this trajectory deeper and further still, to make meaningful connections and positive interactions with the natural world.

People flourish as surely as any flower or tree when they find a place to put down roots, make connections, and occasionally bask in the sunshine. In recent times, movements such as Forest Church and creative books about wild worship have sprung up to fill this space. I would only ever seek to augment this fertile field by emphasising that the soil and the roots run much deeper than might seem obvious.

 

IT WAS compiling the section about Rogationtide processions which gave me one of the biggest insights into the full scope that outdoor ritual offers a worshipping community.

Today, the Rogation procession is largely seen as an exercise in boundary-walking, following and thereby affirming the limits of the parish, praying for a propitious year for all those who live and work within the designated area. As such, it has certain shades of management, even ownership, of the parish itself — a way of marking and remembering borders.

But to focus on this aspect is to miss the more boundless and joyful potential that such outdoor worship can offer.

The first processions in the vicinity of a church in early Ireland and Britain were much more of a tour of natural sites of importance to the community rather than any sort of boundary-marking; an exercise that paid respects to spiritually significant places within the remit of any given church community.

These processions visited sites of what might be called sacred power, such as holy wells, ancient trees, stone crosses, and places where significant events had occurred.

A Rogationtide procession today could be framed in just such terms: a means of marking out places that are important to a modern community, bestowing a blessing on a recycling centre or a sports pitch, a reservoir or a bridge, a field or a hill. And, indeed, there are services suitable for all such places found throughout my book.

In promoting the practice of incorporating important landscapes and landmarks into the life of the worshipping community, one can open up an entire world of outdoor spirituality that offers something both new and exciting, but also very old and much neglected in Christian tradition. As such, it touches on a spiritual activity that seems to have remarkably enduring popular appeal, reaching people who might be less keen on formal church attendance. It offers, if you like, a pilgrimage on a parish level.

And where better to start nurturing such devotion than the churchyard itself? With that in mind, the first liturgy in the book is a short blessing service for bees and beehives, drawn from the Russian Orthodox tradition, with a suggestion that installing a churchyard bee house could be a powerful statement of intent.

The service begins by focusing on the usefulness of bees to human needs, which could be a rather narrow motivation for environmental action; but, like so many of the services that I have discovered, it widens its scope considerably to reflect on the place of the natural world in God’s creation, on aesthetic as well as utilitarian values.

Installing and blessing a small bee house could, therefore, be a small matter with very large significance — rather like the pollinators themselves, given their importance in keeping ecosystems alive.

The Orthodox service suggests that bee blessings should be held annually on the feast of St John the Baptist, 24 June, making the perfect midsummer event.

As a way to demonstrate continuity between the life of the Christian community inside and outside the four walls of the church, there is little that could be easier to implement and explain. Planting some bee-friendly bushes in a churchyard would be an act of pastoral care as real as any other form of church outreach.

 

CHURCH leaders and theologians have been vocal in urging communities to incorporate the natural world in their corporate worship in recent years, and the collective wisdom of 2000 years provides attractive and authentic resources for achieving just that.

At best, outdoor rituals can offer a ritual language that helps communities to make meaningful connections to the natural world; a meeting place that is truly inclusive in a sense that touches on the cosmological, welcoming both bees and people alike.

Reviving rituals lost for centuries can have great popular appeal and local relevance, and might generate interest from a community in ways that a church-based service could not.

These landscape liturgies are time-honoured traditions in the main, rooted in historical precedent, but able to be revived in ways that resonate with current ecological concerns, providing a bridge between formal church life and a more diffuse sense of spirituality in nature.

Seasons are marked, landmarks are celebrated, and the worshipping community’s interests are closely and publicly aligned with the needs and concerns of the people it cares for. Sometimes, when it is difficult to bring people in to church, it might be easier to bring church out to them.


Dr Nick Mayhew-Smith is the author of
Britain’s Pilgrim Places, which became a BBC TV series, Britain’s Holiest Places. It is published by Lifestyle Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.99). Landscape Liturgies is published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop SPECIAL OFFER price £13.59).

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