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Angela Tilby: Nature and scripture are not in conflict

14 April 2023

Buckingham Palace

The Green Man motif, featured on the invitation for the Coronation, designed by Andrew Jamieson

The Green Man motif, featured on the invitation for the Coronation, designed by Andrew Jamieson

THERE has been much debate about the Green Man motif on the invitation to the Coronation. Some have seen it as an expression of the King’s environmentalism, others a sign of a mythical, half-pagan “merrie England”. Whatever their historical origin, and there have been various theories, male faces sprouting foliage and carved in wood or stone are a common motif in cathedrals and other large churches (Books, 21 October 2022). They are a little startling if you are unused to them: staring eyes, foliage for hair, sometimes with leaves flowing out of mouths and noses. They are not very “Christian” in any obvious sense.

Yet there is a connection between Christian places of worship and the world of nature. It was not out of whimsy that Gregory the Great insisted that missionaries to England built churches on the site of pagan shrines. Churches and nature both, after all, express design in creation and our human place in a world that is bigger than we are. Pillars are not unlike the trunks of mighty trees; the decorated roofs of churches form a canopy, which, perhaps, echoes the forest.

In the age of reason, church architecture veered away from this, constructing churches with minimal echoes of nature; boxes for listening to sermons. Modern secular architecture often abhors nature, expressing the coldness of rationalism in unrelieved straight lines, concrete, and glass. And yet the moss and the mould creep in, in relentless defiance, taking their revenge on our narrow, functionalist minds. Of course, there remains an interesting tension between the natural world and the Church — I sometimes think that the occasional differences of opinion between clergy and flower-arrangers are an atavistic battle for control: the flower-arrangers representing the sacred grove beyond the Church, the clergy fighting back.

Yet there is no true conflict between nature and scripture. The Psalms speak of nature praising God. The trees of the forest clap their hands, the mountains skip like rams, and the little hills like young sheep. Abraham is said to have planted a grove in Beer-Sheba (Genesis 21.33). The unification of worship in Jerusalem was not so much to exclude nature as to concentrate worship in the royal city. The Jewish temple was full of motifs from nature, from the pillars carved from cedars of Lebanon to the brass sea, representing the whole world, and taken up in Revelation as a sea of glass mingled with fire before the throne of God.

It is, sadly, true that Christians have sometimes tried to live as though the supernatural and the natural were at war with one another. But a more honest theology sees the natural and the supernatural as conjoined, interflowing, nature a flawed but genuine likeness of heaven. The cross is a tree. The empty tomb opens eternity. In such a magnificent universe, the Green Man has his place.

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