by Janet Carpenter
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019

For the past four years I have attended the Modern Church annual conference, which takes place over three days at High Leigh Christian Conference Centre at Hoddesden, Hertfordshire.

High Leigh is a very attractive venue, standing in 40 acres of beautiful parkland. It was once the home of committed Christian William Barclay (of Barclays Bank), but became a conference centre after his death in 1921.

The theme of the 2018 conference was Ritual, Worship and Culture – more than 100 Modern Church members and visitors attended, with approximately equal numbers of ordained and lay people. In addition to the usual excellent speakers there were a number of workshops, of which we could choose two. I had no hesitation in making my first choice: ‘Forest Church’, which turned out to be a highlight of my stay at High Leigh.

The weather was perfect for our introduction to Forest Church, but apparently it takes place whatever the weather, with everybody dressing appropriately. About 15 of us gathered under the appointed tree, sitting on rugs or small stools, with Tim Stead, one of the convenors of Oxford Area Forest Church.

Tim spoke about the basic theology behind this movement - the notion that ‘God is one.. and all that is, is one in God’. Humans have developed a tendency to divide, separate and exploit that which is naturally one, to the point of threatening our own habitat and so our own quality of life, as well as other aspects of nature. Very fortunately, we do now seem to be waking up to the predicament we are in and the damage we are doing. Gradually we are beginning to recognise that we need to re-connect - with each other and with nature. This is what Forest Church seeks to engage with.

Each Forest Church is unique, but we learned that Oxford gatherings normally have four elements: Gathering; Awareness; Communing and Returning. Due to time constraints, our experience was only a taster of the real thing; but we ‘Gathered’ in our circle and introduced ourselves briefly to each other and Tim read an appropriate poem/prayer. In ‘Awareness’ someone might share some knowledge of the particular location or wildlife (but we didn’t do it on this occasion). ‘Communing’ was the major element as each person took a slow, mindful walk into the landscape. We were advised to try to put aside head knowledge and become open to experience - and especially to become aware of our own experience within as we walk through, or sit, in the midst of nature, just noticing what is present for us (both positive and negative) and allowing it to be there. After just a few minutes of ‘mindful walking’ I found it very calming and altogether different from my ‘normal’ mode of walking. I was drawn to the beautiful bark of a eucalyptus tree and had to pick a leaf (actually feeling a bit guilty!) to smell and carry with me. I sat on a fallen tree and noticed so many sounds (insects, birds, a man mowing in the distance, even some far off traffic), but none of them were intrusive; everything was ‘just there’. I was quite sorry that after 15 or 20 minutes it was time to return to the group.

We learned that ‘Returning’ is marked in a number of different ways, but all are aimed at enabling each person to incorporate into themselves whatever they have experienced and to reconnect with one another before heading back to everyday life. There may be exchanging of one another’s experiences of being alone in nature on this occasion, singing, sharing a drink and simple food, a final blessing or reading.

My workshop choice was definitely the right one. Is it ‘church’? For me... certainly! 

Janet Carpenter helps to produce the parish / community magazine for St Bartholomew’s, Kirby Muxloe in the Diocese of Leicester.