Exploring the abundance of summer

This article originally appeared in the Oxford Times

The summer is here – the abundance of life is clearly all around us – nature is busy doing its thing! It is a time when we perhaps feel more connected to the earth. Delights for our senses are everywhere, from the sweetness of freshly picked strawberries and peas, to the wonder of so many shades of green around us.

It is a time of year when we might start to sense and know more fully that we are all connected to nature. It isn’t just something that we watch on TV, or that we venture into to walk the dog. In fact it isn’t something we go into at all, rather we are part of it. Really we are indistinguishable from nature.

This realisation can be profound. It has the potential to help us change the way we view nature, and also how we look after it. It is also good for us! Growing evidence suggests that embracing nature connection boosts our physical and psychological well-being and deepens our ecological sensitivity.

Nature connection is also central to the Forest Church movement that has been steadily growing over the past two years (now with over 13 groups in the UK and a presence in four countries) and is asking the question of what ‘being church’ whilst participating with nature might look like? There are a few Forest Church groups in the Oxford area exploring this question and connecting with their local nature in different ways. In Carterton a group has, for example, been exploring bushcraft skills and orienteering at Kilkenny Country Park, whilst Wychwood Forest Church started with a sponsored walk in the Charlbury area.

Oxford Forest Church recently met at Wytham Woods again (we are wanting to see it in every season for a year). It was a week before the Summer Solstice, so we reflected on the gifts of the sun, the light, warmth, colour and abundance it brings. It was also a week after Pentecost, so we celebrated the presence of Spirit who gives life in all its fullness. Thanks to Dr Andy Gosler (a University Research Lecturer in Ornithology & Conservation) we were treated to a close-up encounter with a nest of Great Tit fledglings – and we took time to engage with nature silently. We closed our time with a tea ceremony, using tea made of three plants from the summer’s abundance – chamomile for peace and rest, dandelion leaves for cleansing, and elderflower for strength of voice and song. We passed the tea around with the words “may the blessing of God’s abundance be with you”.

As you enjoy the abundance of summer why not take time to purposefully head outside to appreciate nature, and how you’re part of it? Use all your senses. You could walk outside barefoot, like St Francis did, so he would experience no disconnect between himself and “Sister Earth”.

May the blessings of God’s abundance be with you, wherever you find yourself this summer.

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Find out more about Forest Church groups in the Oxford area here.

Matt Freer is a freelance project manager and Environment Advisor for the Diocese of Oxford, where he co-ordinates the EarthingFaith.org network

From tiny seeds in the dark…

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A couple of weeks back I spent a Saturday afternoon with forty other people of all ages in the beauty of Wytham Woods. It was the first gathering of the Oxford Forest Church group, and we’d come together to explore nature and connect with God.

On that clear crisp afternoon we spent time both together and alone, with space to be and to breathe in the woods. Amongst the fallen leaves we reflected on the coming darkness of advent. Our surroundings gave us much to reflect on. From the way the leaves were being shed so that the tree can survive the winter; to the way those same leaves provide essential nourishment, protection and darkness for the tiny seeds from the tree to find life in the spring.

Research has started to attribute certain health and behavioural issues, at least in part, to a growing absence of time in nature. John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist, is credited with saying, “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking about the mountains.” And for many of us time outside enjoying nature is good for our souls, as well as our minds and bodies. Wonder and awe are important sources of our spiritual growth, and such transcendent moments, when we feel deeply connected to something bigger than ourselves, often occur in nature. This nature connection can also have a positive impact on wider environmental issues – after all we don’t protect what we don’t care about, and you don’t tend to care about what you’ve never experienced.

That afternoon in the woods was a chance for us to mindfully engage with nature and prepare for the darkest part of the year, and the busyness of the pre-Christmas rush. It was food for the journey, engaging us spiritually in fresh ways. Of course none of this is new or restricted to the concept of Forest Church – it draws on much older traditions when sacred places and practices were outside, and it is just one expression of perhaps a wider thirst for a deeper connection with nature and something bigger than ourselves.* But it could be part of what we need to be physically, mentally and spiritually healthy – as well as respond well to the signs of our times.

As we embraced the falling darkness in the woods at Wytham we reflected on what we wanted to take into this time of advent. Like the tiny seeds beneath the fallen leaves all around us, it might be little and fragile – but making space to participate with nature this advent may be just what we need for mind, body and soul, and enable us to hear the familiar story in a fresh way.

This article first appeared in The Oxford Mail

* Nor, for that matter, is it restricted to Oxford – groups are springing up all over the country – see www.forestchurch.co.uk.

For more information about Forest Church and groups in the Diocese of Oxford see www.earthingfaith.org/forestchurch

Earthing Faith Gathering – 7.30pm on 6th June 2013

Earthing Faith Gathering - 6th June

The Earthing Faith gathering on 6th June, from 7.30pm until 9.30pm, will introduce the idea of ‘Forest Church’ and explore how we might nurture expressions of this way of being church in our local areas and hear from those already running such groups.

The ethos of Forest Church is a fresh expression in nature, and draws on contemporary research that highlights the benefits of spending time with nature in wild places.

Moments of wonder and awe are important sources of spiritual growth and they often occur in nature. The idea of Forest Church is to embrace this and provide spaces for us to connect and journey with God in nature. There are a number of Forest Church groups already meeting across the country and Bruce Stanley, who will be with us for the evening, has written a book called Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection For Groups and Individuals (details of book here).

Join us for the evening to explore, practice and discuss the ideas. Hear from others doing similar things. You might also want to discuss plans of how you might start your own Forest Church or incorporate into your church activities.

Venue: the evening will take place in Wytham Woods on the edge of Oxford and will be largely based outdoors.

Times: starting from 7.30pm until 9.30pm on Thursday, 6th June 2013

The evening is free of charge and open to anyone, but we do ask you to register using the form below – you will then be able to download the details for details of where to meet etc.

Please note: The evening activities will require walking in the woods and uneven surfaces so participants will need to be physically fit to walk in such terrain. Undercover facilities will mean the event will happen whatever the weather – so participants will need to dress appropriately for all weather conditions.

The evening will follow a daytime retreat day at Wytham Woods that costs £22 and is limited to 25 places – for more details and to book for the day click here.

Questions? Contact Matt Freer, Diocesan Environment Officer.

Earthing Faith Retreat Day – 6th June 2013

Connecting with God and nature

contemplative in style + practical in nature

Thursday, 6th June 2013

Wonder and awe are important sources of spiritual growth for many of us, and such transcendent moments, when we feel deeply connected to something bigger than themselves, often occur in nature.

Join us for an exploration into nature based Christian practices and natural theology with guest facilitator Bruce Stanley, author of the new book Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection For Groups and Individuals and hosted by Matt Freer, Diocesan Environment Officer.

This retreat style day will explore the relevance of natural theology to our faith, with lots of space for guided practical exercises interwoven as we walk through the woods.

What is Forest Church? The idea is a fresh expression in nature, and drawing on contemporary research that highlights the benefits of spending time with nature in wild places. Read about the new book here.

The day will take place in Wytham Woods just outside Oxford and will be largely based outdoors.

Cost: £22 per person, which will include refreshments, but attendees are asked to bring a packed lunch. Spaces are limited to 25 people, and booking for the day is essential.

Please note: As the day will require walking in the woods and uneven surfaces participants will need to be physically fit to walk in such terrain. Although we hope for a sunny day participants will also need to dress appropriately for all weather conditions.

Questions? Contact Matt Freer, Diocesan Environment Officer.

* Sorry the day is now fully booked – come to the evening gathering instead – see below *

Can’t make it? Join us for the Earthing Faith network gathering in the evening instead.

The next Earthing Faith network gathering will take place in the evening of the 6th June at Wytham Woods – 7.30pm-9.30pm. The focus for the evening will be to introduce the idea of Forest Church and explore together how we might nurture expressions of Forest Church in our local areas and hear from those already running Forest Church groups. This will be free of charge and open to anyone, so if you can’t come to the day itself please also feel welcome to join us for the evening. Join the Earthing Faith network mailing list to automatically get more details.

Forest Church

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Forest Church is a fresh expression in nature, drawing on contemporary research that highlights the benefits of spending time with nature in wild places and much older traditions when sacred places and practices were outside.

The idea provides for a fresh way of connecting with God in nature, and local groups are springing up all over the place, including in the Diocese of Oxford.

Forest Church registered groups:

Not yet registered groups:

  • Forest Church group in Carterton – has been exploring outdoor and bushcraft skills, led by Rev. James Maddern (meet at the Metal Horses, Kilkenny Country Park, nr Shilton Park, Carterton. All welcome, no experience required). Current plans: 6th July 2014 2.30pm – 3.30pm Forest Church Communion and 20th July 2014 2.30pm – 3.30pm Forest Church Activity Party

Find out more about Forest Church – and if there is a group near you – at www.forestchurch.co.uk. There is also a lively Facebook group, as well as a book (see below) full of resources, practical advice and theory to guide you in nature connection and in setting up a group.

Forest Church: A Field Guide

The guide book, Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection For Groups and Individuals by Bruce Stanley, introduces readers to the idea of nature connection and Forest Church and provides a plenty of ideas and inspiration for anyone thinking of starting a Forest Church.

Copies of the book can be ordered for £7.95 on the Mystic Christ website.

Here’s what others have said…

Bruce Stanley’s easy to read, inspiring, practical book is written with his skills as a life coach and a naturalist to the fore. He takes spirituality beyond its traditional confines of building and doctrine to a new kind of church that is earthed in experience of the outside world and the One who made it. His refreshing, inclusive and enthusiastic approach is timely and will speak to today’s hunger for a church that can reach wider and touch deeper simply by starting with the ground we stand on.
Tess Ward, Chaplain and author of The Celtic Wheel of the Year.

I sense that ‘Forest Church’ by Bruce Stanley will become a vital textbook for many of us who long to reconnect faith, being human and the natural world. Drawing on his own extensive experience, insights from other nature-experts and the spiritual practices of those who have never forgotten our belonging to the earth, this ‘Field Guide to Nature Connection’ engagingly offers a wealth of insights, ideas and resources to enable us to participate with nature. Time to get out into the forest!
Ian Adams, author of Cave Refectory Road and Running Over Rocks.

Don’t read this book if you’re not ready to be surprised – and quite possibly delighted. Our alienation from the natural world is well documented, and Bruce Stanley offers tried and tested ways to explore the connection, whether in urban park or remote forest – with the possibility of personal renewal and even encounters with the divine.
Olive Drane is author of Spirituality to Go, Fellow of St Johns College Durham, England and Affiliate Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, California.

The spirituality of nature and children

Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost half of children a generation ago. In the following article Matt Freer, Environment Advisor to the diocese, explores the growing gap between children and nature, and asks what roles can the church play in response?

Nature Activities to use with children can be found here.

Earlier this year the National Trust launched a report entitled Natural Childhood, which explored ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – a term first coined by US based writer Richard Louv, in his bestseller Last Child in the Woods, to describe a growing dislocation between children and nature. For example, in the UK less than a quarter of children regularly use their local patch of nature compared to over a half of all adults when they were children.

In a single generation since the 1970s children’s ‘radius of activity’ or ‘home habitat’ – the area in which children are able to travel on their own – shrank to one-ninth of its former size. In 1971, 80% of 7-8 yr olds walked to school, often alone or with their friends, whereas two decades later fewer then 10% did so – almost all accompanied by their parents.

The reasons for this gap between children and nature are numerous. Changing attitudes to risk are cited. More gadgets, TV channels, the internet and probably more comfortable bedrooms, make it easier and more appealing for children to be indoors. Increased traffic, fewer parks and green spaces, larger school catchment areas (so friends live further away), as well as greater fear of crime and media coverage on ‘stranger danger’ – all make it harder and less appealing for children to be outdoors, and start to paint a picture as to why children are not outdoors as much as they might used to have been.

But does a disconnect with nature matter? Growing evidence suggests it does. Researchers have attributed, at least in part, increasing rates of obesity to a decrease in the time children spend outdoors, as well as an increase in Vitamin D deficiency. Childhood behavioural ‘disorders’ have also been linked to an absence of time in nature. Other less tangible consequences include declining emotional resilience and a declining ability to assess risk – both vital life skills. There are also implications for wider environmental issues. People don’t tend to protect what they don’t care about, and you don’t tend to care about what you have never experienced.

But are there also spiritual implications of this disconnection with nature? An important characteristic of the natural world is that it doesn’t come with an instruction manual, or a set range of possible outcomes; instead it holds infinite possibilities. Through nature, we are introduced to transcendence, in the sense that there is something more going on than the individual. All of which is important to spiritual growth.

Research into spiritual experiences of childhood has perhaps unsurprisingly found that many transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature. And it isn’t just exposure to the natural world in its vast beauty – majestic mountains, wild forests, vast sea views – but also far more ordinary natural surroundings, for example, in the back garden, staring at the sky or watching animals.

I’m sure many readers can recall significant moments when something that amazed you has affected your spiritual journey. Wonder and awe are often sources for our spiritual growth – and often that wonder and awe stems from our relationship with nature. Most people are either awakened to or are strengthened in their spiritual journey by experiences in the natural world.

In light of that what are the implications of a growing nature gap on our spiritual development, and that of our children? Are we in danger of loosing, or at least missing opportunities for, the sense of awe and wonder that is so important to spiritual growth?

What role can the church play in providing space to encounter nature? We would love to hear your ideas and responses – join in the discussion below and share your ideas.

First published in the July 2012 edition of The Door.

Matt Freer is the Environment Advisor for the Diocese of Oxford. He and his wife have bought together a range of Nature Activities aimed at nurturing a sense of awe and wonder to use with children (and adults) – you can find them at: www.aeker.co.uk/blog/nature-activities/