09 October 2013 a post by Bruce Stanley

If you kneel down in the woods today – Church Times feature.

Forest Church has been gaining interest in recent months. Christine Miles packed her cagoule and went to find out more.

[You can add your own comments, questions and clarifications below.]

OUR SHOES and socks are off, the soles of our feet are flat on the cool earth beneath us, our eyes are closed, and the meditation begins.

“The iron in your red blood cells is billions of years old,” says Bruce Stanley, today’s earthing faith retreat day facilitator. “It came from the supernova of a dying star. The iron solidified into the rock of a new planet. Eventually, it was broken down into soil by wind and water and the action of microbes.

“It was taken up and made flesh by plants and made its way into your body. Nature is pattern and connection. Some of the carbon from your first breath is locked up in the wood of a rainforest tree. Water molecules in your body were once inside the body of a sabre tooth tiger, or ran along the river Jordan two thousand years ago.

“Nature reveals the characteristics and power of its maker. . . But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. . .”

I take in a long, slow breath, consciously connecting with a sense of the universe, of natural history, and the Creator God behind it all.   

With Wytham Woods — 390 hectares of ancient woodland pored over for research and owned by the University of Oxford — having been squarely identified as holy ground, we move off, armed with colours from a Dulux paint chart, charged with matching the hues; wood, bark, lichen, mud, leaves, moss, sheep’s wool: all are examined as if with new eyes.

Oxford Deepening Nature Connection retreat

Later, we learn about bird language and to pick up the activity of wildlife using “deer ears”, “owl eyes” (for a wide-angled view), and “hawk eyes”; we’re introduced to foraging and try some wild foods; we play games to help reconnect us with the natural world, and we experience periods of nature-inspired meditation in “sit spots” of our choosing. Towards the end of the day, we share a tea ceremony together, drinking in the properties of the leaves, and asking God to imbibe our lives with their same characteristics.

For me, the day is fun, relaxing, restorative and meaningful: I leave with a heightened sense of God’s presence, and of his bounty, provision, generosity and goodness.

JO HOWARD, who is part of the Contemplative Fire network in High Wycombe, has come because, despite the network’s Celtic roots:  “probably more of what we’re doing has ended up indoors. I’m looking for ways to take us back outside.”

The Revd Matt Rees leads Home Community, a Fresh Expressions church in Oxford, and is co-director of StillPoint, a project which aims to deepen spiritual practice. He came because: “I think a deep connection with the natural world is vital for spiritual health. Learning how to access that myself, and how to be equipped to share that with others, is very important.”

Mr Rees quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, about her concerns of the effect having sacred and holy buildings has upon us, “and that by designating those as the holy place, by inference we’re also saying things about other places, that they are not holy in the same way. One of the things we need to recover is a sense of ‘every bush is burning,’ as it were: that God’s presence infuses all that is.”

Mr Rees also believes a deeper creation-based theology is needed to grapple with arguably the biggest challenge of our generation: climate change.

“The Church’s message has been one of behaviour change, rather than of communing with God in the natural world. You can get a certain way along the path with: ‘God made this world, so, therefore, we should be thankful for it’, but if that’s as deep as our theological understanding of the natural world goes, that’s not deep enough to energise proper environmental care and concern. Theology has got to move beyond thankfulness, to a more mystical understanding of the essential unity of all things.”

The Revd Cate Williams, who works in an ecumenical partnership in Woughton parish, Milton Keynes, is particularly interested in the potential of using nature-based connection activities with children and young people.

“I’ve done some reading about children’s spirituality and the imagination; about how in churches we tend to tell children what to think, rather than using the resources of their imagination. This is one way that could engage the imagination and have them explore God for themselves, rather that being told this is who and what God is, and you either believe it or you don’t.”

MATT Freer, environment officer for the Diocese of Oxford, organised the retreat day with Mr Stanley, to provide lay and clergy with chances to experience God in nature, and to explore some of the ideas behind Forest Church: a new expression of church that has been emerging in the UK over the last couple of years.

“The environmental movement has been so frustrating over the last decade. A church outing to a wood would never have embraced this. Forest Church is saying we need to be open to these moments and opportunities, because society needs it,” says Mr Freer.

“We’re so busy, with 24-7 lifestyles and in front of screens, yet research shows if you get into nature it makes you feel better, it makes you feel healthier. But also spiritually, you’re much more aware of God’s presence with us, and his involvement, not just in our lives and our species, but in the whole of creation. I think that for me is what is exciting about Forest Church.”

Mr Stanley facilitates the Mid-Wales Forest Church. He is also the author of Forest Church: A field guide to nature connection for groups and individuals (published by Mystic Christ Press in March this year), which provides guidance, meeting ideas and rituals for others interested in Forest Church.

Currently, there are six in the UK [at time of writing]: Ancient Arden Forest Church, in the west midlands; East Midlands Forest Church; Mid-Wales Forest Church; New Forest Forest Church; Salisbury Plain Forest Church and Stockport Forest Church. There is also interest in Germany, and Canada, and a publisher has bought the rights to publish Mr Stanley’s book in America.

And a few weeks after my Oxford retreat, I join the Mid-Wales Forest Church on Borth beach, in Ceredigion, on a cold and damp Sunday in June, to celebrate the coming summer solstice.

Solstice beach labyrinth near Both

We create a labyrinth out of stones, walk it in our own time, and then tuck in to a feast of barbecued meats and homemade bread — made and cooked in situ — home-grown produce and herbal tea, cultivated on the Stanley’s smallholding. 

It is fun, and friendly, but, for me, with a toddler in tow, it’s hard to connect. I also have a wobble during the opening liturgy. I can relate to God being called “The Source of All”, the “Great Spirit of Creation”, the “Divine Spirit”, but feel a momentary pang of unease at the mention of the sun-child Mabon, even if it is referred to to trigger thoughts about darkness and light, and, hopefully, about Jesus himself. 

Dr John Bimson, part-time tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, is on the core team of the Mid-Wales Forest Church. He understands some people’s initial “wobbles” about Forest Church, but is convinced of the need for the Church to develop its theology and practice. To this end, he has taught a module called ‘Sustaining the World’, at Trinity since last year, and a ‘Mission, Environment and World Development’ module for the last six, both of which look at environmental issues from a theological perspective.

“I start from the Biblical texts that I think are relevant, and look at what they say about our place in the world and relationship to the rest of creation, and also God’s relationship to the rest of creation, which are often left out in a lot of standard biblical study, or even more broadly standard theology.

“To use Richard Bauckham’s phrase, we are all part of the ‘community of creation’, and I think this is very strong in biblical texts, it’s just that it’s neglected. We tend to think in terms of a hierarchical, or a vertical relationship, where there are creatures at the bottom, there’s God at the top and we’re sort of in the middle, but, actually, there’s a horizontal relationship as well, in which we are part of creation.

“It’s crucial that it becomes central now, because we are facing several environmental crises, and without that understanding we’re not going to be inspired to act.” 

Dr Bimson attends Mid-Wales Forest Church’s once-a-month gatherings, in addition to his Sunday morning parish church. “I’m interested in nature, the environment, and relating to God through nature. For me this isn’t a substitute for ordinary church, it’s a complement to it. Conventional church doesn’t supply me with worshipping God through nature, so I find the two together are the perfect mix. I couldn’t do without the ordinary, but I like having this [expression] as well.

One of Mr Stanley’s aims with Forest Church is that it is more “user friendly to people who are not specifically Christians, in the hope that they will discover something about the Christian faith,” says Dr Bimson, “but to do that you’ve got to tread a very delicate balance between making it user friendly without making it subchristian, or unchristian, in some way. “It’s trod that line very well, but I can understand some Christians coming fresh to it and finding it weird, because a lot of the liturgy talks about the ‘creator spirit’, it might use the word God occasionally, but it doesn’t use conventional Christian vocabulary, and I guess that could be disturbing to some people who want something that’s more overtly Christ centred.”

But any idea that Forest Church is part of an organised plan or policy, by the Church of England, to create pagan-style churches in a bid to boost numbers — as reported in The Times and The Telegraph in pieces reporting on this year’s summer solstice — is refuted by Mr Stanley. “It isn’t even Church of England,” he points out. While two groups are led by Church of England clergy, one is led by a member of a celtic community, another by a member of a Methodist church. Mr Stanley, meanwhile, has a background in Anglican alternative worship, prior to his move to Wales in 2010.

A key moment in its formation was the Reaching Out in Mind, Body and Spirit conference, run by Church Army researcher in evangelism to post-Christian culture, the Revd Steve Hollinghurst.

Mr Stanley attended the conference with a notebook of ideas about hosting a nature-based retreat that would also help people connect with God.

His retreat jottings — under the working title of “forest church” — were a result of his own journey: from his experience as a life coach, during which he saw the power of nature-based retreats on wellbeing; to a shared love of foraging he shares with his wife, Sara, and their subsequent studies in permaculture; from his own experiences of connecting with God in nature, and from talks and workshops the couple have led on foraging and permaculture-inspired spirituality.

At the conference, Mr Stanley met The Revd Paul Cudby, vicar of St Mary Magdalene church in Tanworth-in-Arden, who now also leads Ancient Arden Forest Church. He is also the Birmingham advisor for new religious movements. “I was talking to him about what I was trying to bring to birth, and he said: ‘that’s interesting because I’m having similar ideas about starting a group called ‘Forest Church’. I thought, well, instead of going for this retreat thing, why not start a local group.

“A couple of other people at the conference, Matt and Jo Arnold [who now lead East Midlands Forest Church], were [also] ready, they just needed the seed of an idea. A couple of others also heard about it, and, again, had that same: ‘yeah, this is the name for what I’m thinking about. They all started their groups without any training or workshops, so they were kind of ready.”

Mr Cudby is married to Alison Eve, singer and harpist with the band, Eve & The Garden. He says the idea of Forest Church came “following recognition by ourselves that we were experiencing God outside in a way that we weren’t inside.”

Having asked others, and found most people agreed, “I started look at the make-up of a lot of traditional CofE churches, and if you stand and look at the pillars, it kind of looks like we’ve created a grove of trees out of stonework inside. I started to think, why are we doing this inside, why don’t we just go outside if everyone says they feel closer to God, why don’t we do it?”

MID-WALES Forest Church started with a gathering of about ten people for the summer solstice last year and offers a cycle of three gatherings: a ritual, a walk, and a workshop.

As a keen amateur naturalist and environmentalist, Mr Stanley says the Mid-Wales Forest Church emphasis is “on genuinely trying to connect with nature as we find it: so studying plants and animals and studying scientifically, so learning about what this is or what that does, but also studying or encountering it creatively, so you could write a psalm or a binding prayer, those kind of creative exercises that are about drawing meaning.”

Out of the people that come, “a third — and that’s being generous — would identify themselves as being Christian. Two thirds are coming from other spiritual paths, or once identified themselves as Christians, 100 years ago,” he says.

The groups is growing steadily, “and feeding back to us that it’s a really important part of their overall pattern of their spiritual practice, and we’re journeying together, they are clear on what I believe, they are getting to know what other people in the core group believe, and they are free to believe differently, and we are becoming a group that is travelling together.”

Moments to stop and hear a site-relevant poem

The Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Revd Andy John, has written a very positive endorsement of Mr Stanley’s book and has been to a couple of events. “I’d quite like, personally, for the encouragement it would give, to be a Bishop’s Mission Order, but they don’t have those in Wales,” says Mr Stanley.

New Forest Forest Church is led by David Coles, a former youth worker and evangelical free church leader, and a long-standing member of the Community of Aidan and Hilda.

It started meeting in August 2012, and gatherings tend to attract between 12-20 people — mainly people who have had previous contact with Mr Coles’s work as a retreat and quiet day leader. Gatherings follow the cycles and seasons of the year, mostly drawing from the Celtic tradition. “Columnbanus said, if you want to get to know the creator, get to know the creation, so I think the potential [of Forest Church] is to reengage people’s understanding of God through creation: it’s Romans 1:20. I like The Message version: ‘But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.’ We’re giving the opportunity to take a long and thoughtful look.”

East Midlands Forest Church is lead by Matt and Jo Arnold. Mr Arnold, a teacher, has a Strict Baptist background, though the couple currently attend North End Methodist Church in Newark. “The minister’s wife comes along, and the minister comes along when he’s able to. We’ve got people who go to church, and people who are spiritual seekers who don’t go to church. We’ve got dechurched people that have had bad experiences of churches in the past, we’ve got unchurched people, we’ve got a person who is training to be an interfaith minister, we’ve got someone who is a pantheist, people who go to a really lively gospel-type church who also go to a shamanic group, plus the occasional minister dropping in. We also have a Baptist church minister who’s started to come along regularly.”

Mr Arnold says that the main influences on East Midlands Forest Church (EMFC) gatherings are “pagan in style, [with] elements of Celtic in there.” They meet monthly in three locations, offering a cycle of two rituals and one workshop.

Typically, between 12-15 people attend. “We have had 24 in the past but that’s a bit big. We are hoping to start another one in the area next year; a CofE pioneer minister and his wife are interested in setting one up. Some people are travelling nearly 40 miles to get to ours.”

In the early days, the rituals were checked over by the director of ministry and mission in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, Nigel Rooms. But now, Mr Arnold’s former Baptist minister and the Baptist minister who attends EMFC help keep an eye on the rituals, “to ensure we don’t lose our Christ-focused bearing” and to consider, “how far can we take this without losing its authentic Christianity,” says Mr Arnold.

a group gathers in a circle for the beltane ritual

Ancient Arden Forest Church started in Autumn last year, and is pagan in style, following Mr Cudby’s sabbatical last year, during which he spent time talking to pagan communities in Britain. “We decided that we wanted to understand paganism, perhaps because we’d begun to engage with God outside. We’ve been drawn to Celtic Christianity for as long as we’ve been married. So we wrote letters asking to just spend some time with people, and find out what they believe. They are just friends of friends.

“We’ve had friends from the wiccan or druid traditions who feel it is something they can come along and be part of, because we’ve already become friends. They recognise this as a space where they can engage with Jesus without someone threatening to bash them over the head with a Bible, it’s a safe space for people where they can engage in a trusting relationship with other people.” Ancient Arden also has three Anglican priests in its group, two on its core team.

“We work around the Celtic wheel of the year: the two solstices, the two equinoxes and the four quarter festivals that fall inbetween them, so we meet roughly every six or seven weeks. All [gatherings] are ritual based, mostly constructed by Alison,” says Mr Cudby.

All their rituals involve “a very conventional contemporary druidic ritual format,” says Ms Eve. “What’s important about what we do, is that we take this pagan shape and we give it a Trinitarian focus. So, when we weave our circle — and we’ve now got a song that we sing when we weave that — we start by saying: ‘we weave our circle in the name of the Christ of peace, and the three of grace,’ which is very much a Celtic way of talking about Christ and the trinity, so that’s what we use to weave our ritual space.”

“Some people are concerned that what we’re doing is that we’re trying to hide the message, or come up with some synchrotistic religion,” says Mr Cudby.

“It isn’t about that, it’s about trying to use language that doesn’t have the same kind of pain tied up with it. Many of the pagan friends we have find church language quite painful because its associated with things they’ve been through at the hands of people in church, so if we’re going to talk, if we’re going to dialogue, to understand, then we’ve got to find a new way to do that. Forest Church is a part of that, but it is only one part of that, as it always [has to be] two way.”

ALTHOUGH the various forest churches have different emphases, they have worked to agree on a loose definition of what consititues a Forest Church, which Mr Stanley lists in his book. “I’m quite happy that lots of things could be Forest Church, it certainly doesn’t require a forest,” says Mr Stanley. “Forest Church does, however, recognise the possibility that nature speaks about God, but also that God can speak through nature directly; that we can initiate learning about God, or finding meaning in nature, it being the ‘Second Book of God’, or the ‘Book of Creation’.

“You’re emersing yourself in a gospel, if you like, you’re emersing yourself in something that reveals God. A core definition has to be that you participate in nature, so that you’re making space for nature to be a voice in that.”

“So, if the heavens declare the glory of God and the whole of nature cries out to God, the trees clap their hands and the mountains, and all the rest of it — there’s plenty of things in the Old Testament about elements of nature that are voicing something — then, without going into too much definition about what that really means, then that should be part of what we’re doing, and allowing that to happen.”

One characteristic of what consitiutes Forest Church is that it is something that couldn’t be done easily inside, says Sara Stanley.

And it isn’t church just taken outside. “If, however, instead of having, let’s say morning prayer, if you didn’t sing a hymn but you allowed the dawn chorus to provide the musical element, then that is Forest Church, because nature is becoming part of it. Equally, your meditation might not be: ‘consider the lilies. . . ’ why not consider some lilies, then nature is then becoming part of what it is that you’re doing.”

According to Mr Cudby, “Quite a few people in the Forest Church movement would describe themselves as panentheistic. It’s a compound Greek word meaning all things in God, God in all things. Romans 1:20 that’s where we’re coming from.”

In his book, Mr Stanley points out that the ‘Second Book of God’, as he calls nature, doesn’t contradict the ‘First Book of God’. He also cites Jesus as a natural theologian. “Cast your attention on Jesus, [and] you realise that Jesus was a natural theologian, you look in so many places, in the Sermon on the Mount, or certain parables; he’s using nature to describe what God or God’s Kingdom is like, so, there is the object of our faith; a proponent of this. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

IS FOREST Church an addition to church, or church full-stop? “There does seem to be some confusion about that,” says Mr Stanley. “The truth is it can be both.” Like Mr Bimson, Naomi Starkey, who is in training for the ministry, attends Mid-Wales Forest Church in addition to St Idloes, Llanidloes, where her husband is vicar.

But for Mr Cudby, “the idea is to create a space for those who don’t want to come to ordinary church. We don’t generally advertise it amongst church-going people, because it will then get filled up with people who already go to church. What we are trying to do is provide a space for people who don’t want to go to church.”

The Bishop of Penrith, the Rt Revd Robert Freeman, has “a causal interest” in what’s happening with Forest Church, says Mr Stanley. “And just out of interest he said: ‘how is this church?’ and I said: ‘well, what defines church’, and he said, ‘sacraments: communion and baptism.’ There’s no reason why we can’t do those, we haven’t but there’s no reason why we couldn’t.”


“I would have to ask questions about some aspects of Forest Church,” says Mr Hollinghurst. “One question would be: ‘is this something for Christians who want to express their faith differently, or is it actually, genuinely, a mission movement geared to connecting with those outside the Church?’

“I’m not sure that it knows yet which of those it is, and, actually, you might get a different answer if you talk to different people.

“From my end it’s very much about a missional engagement with our culture. I think from some other people it’s more about where their own faith is. Now it can be both, of course, but those kind of questions are being thought out, and that’s a very relevant question.

“Another important question in its recognision is: is it church for the people who go? Is it their expression of Christian community? And I see no reason why it can’t be. I suspect, for many at the moment it’s in addition to, but not entirely.

“Over time you would want it — if it becomes a viable Christian community — to say: ‘well, what do we do about baptism? What do we do about communion?’, etc.

“If you look on the website, a number of the rituals are communion services, so it’s there in the fabric, in a sense, and I suspect over time things like that will become more commonplace, that would be my expectation.”

MR HOLLINGHURST is excited about the potential of Forest Church, partly because of the fact that “it’s very spontaneous, and that a number of people at a similar kind of time have said: ‘yes, we want to run with this, we feel there’s something in this.’ I think there are a number of things going on in society; in the way people are exploring spirituality at the moment, that connect with this.

“We have all these religious festivals [through which] we’re recapturing a lot of connections to the natural word and the seasons, things like Midsummers Day. But I think we went through a period in Victorian into the 20th century [of] getting rid of the natural, the spiritual and whittling everything down to [the] rational.

”It’s understandable, because that’s what was happening in the culture. But the pendulm has swung in the other direction in the last few decades, back to the spiritual, creation-centred, and the Church needs to reengage with that.”

Mr Freer acknowledges that some Christians will be afraid of what’s happening, “more from the point of view of not understanding,” he says.  “The world sees the Christian faith as saying we will dominate creation and subdue it. There’s a lot of history there that shows the Church hasn’t been dominating and subduing creation, that that’s been branded on us, but [at the same time] we’re scared of sounding new agey and druidy. There’s also something about being scared of wild places that’s inbuilt into us.”

Has Forest Church caught on to the zeitgeist? “The State of Nature report that’s just come out shows that we’re failing miserably. Is there a zeitgeist? I’m not sure that there is. There’s growing evidence from lots of schools of thought that are very interesting, [and], yes, the growth in earth-based spiritiualities, but I’m interested in how nature is a good antidote,” says Mr Stanley.

“In [the author and journalist] Richard Louv’s stuff on nature deficit disorder, and his famous book The Last Child in the Woods, he talked about how western kids have far less exposure to nature than their parents. And he’s written The Nature Principal for adults: how being in nature is just good for us.

“In other pasts of the world people have cottoned on to this and embraced it, so in Japan you can do state-funded forest bathing, so you can get a prescription to go and spend time in nature and the science behind the benefits is really quite solid, about how your killer immune cells have increased and your stress chemicals go down, like we know people in hospital beds with a natural view rehabilitate quicker.

“I wish there was a big zeitgeist but I think there’s a small move, it’s significant enough that there are a few groups doing this.”

Mr Stanley is available for nature connection workshops and for introductions to Forest Church workshops and discussions.

This is an extended version of the article that first appeared in the Church Times and appears by their kind permission.

[You can add your own comments, questions and clarifications below.]

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Your comments:

Having missed the original article I found this interesting and informative and has given me some more food for thought regarding the Forest Church we are working towards developing here

#1. By Diana Greenfield on October 11, 2013

Thanks Diana – it seems to me that the emphasis of the article was on two questions: Is this Christian and is it Church? Very Church Times considerations perhaps.

#2. By Bruce Stanley on October 11, 2013

The use of the word ‘forest’ for this form of church/ is interesting - forest does not mean just trees - more it is about wild places - ‘forests’ can include ‘heath’ the abode of the ‘heathen’ - those on the edge.

#3. By Peter J Pillinger on October 12, 2013

Thanks Peter. It certainly was never meant to be literal. Thanks for expanding the idea further.

#4. By Bruce Stanley on October 12, 2013

This is a very interesting development, and it is really nice that it is Pagan-friendly. It does feel rather as if these Christians are “stealing Paganism’s clothes” without really understanding Pagan theology.

I am uncomfortable with the evangelical subtext here. Great if you want to attract the unchurched, but please don’t try to evangelise Pagans - we have our own traditions. It is nice that you include Pagans.

Also, please show Pagan traditions a bit of respect by spelling them with a capital letter - it’s Wicca, Druidry, and Paganism. You don’t spell Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism with a lower-case letter, so please don’t do it with Pagan traditions. It’s offensive. (I guess you have reproduced the article verbatim from the Church Times, who probably spelt them that way, so I should really be moaning at them!)

Anyway, this is a very interesting development and thanks for investigating.

#5. By Yewtree on November 28, 2013

Hi Yewtree

Thanks for your comment. Do remember that there is quit a difference between what, generally Forest Church is; what specific Forest Church groups do – and what Christine, the Church Times reporter wrote.

I would hope, for example, that within this site and the Forest Church book, you would find the capitalisation you highlight above – like you say, that together with the emphasis of their article, is theirs including any evangelical tone. I think she was concerned with two questions, is it church and is it Christian, for a Church Times audience.


#6. By Bruce Stanley on November 28, 2013

Hi Bruce. Thanks for replying. Yes, I guess the Church Times is more concerned with the boundaries of Christianity, the concern for evangelising, etc.

I think the questions “is it church” and “is it Christian” are also interesting from a sociology of religion perspective. I made a study of syncretism of various forms, and there are some interesting considerations about what works and what doesn’t. I think that if you are going to borrow rituals and festivals from another tradition, the history of interfaith relations between your tradition and that tradition matter; the symbolism and meaning of the rituals in the tradition of origin are very significant; and so on.

For instance, I have borrowed the practice of lectio divina from Christian mysticism, and I am sure that by transferring it into a Pagan context, it changes its meaning. I am careful to acknowledge that when I run workshops on it.

#7. By Yewtree on November 28, 2013

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