Forest Church – Variations on a Missional Theme?

Maypole dancing at St. Peter's Church in the centre of St. Alban's, part of their Forest Church celebrations of may Day and Mary-Tide on 3rd May 2014

Maypole dancing at St. Peter’s Church in the centre of St. Alban’s, part of their Forest Church celebrations of may Day and Mary-Tide on 3rd May 2014

Over the last two weekends I have had the privilege of sharing in two Forest Church meetings. My grateful thanks go to Steve Hollinghurst of St. Alban’s Forest Church, and David Cole of New Forest Forest Church, for making me most welcome. Together with Bruce Stanley’s book ‘Forest Church – A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals’ which I have avidly read, these brief forays with those seeking to deliberately seek out the revelation of the Divine in creation are the necessarily limited encounters I can make in the limited timespan available for me to complete a ‘Mission’ portfolio on them prior to ordination at the end of June!

The portfolio is not however the only hoped for outcome of this restricted ‘field work’ as I look forward to curacy in what I think of as a rural parish on the outskirts of suburban Basingstoke, which I already know to be stuffed full of wildlife and other encounters with the natural world just waiting for me to engage with God through them. However, much water has to go under the canal bridge before I might begin to explore any fulfilment of that element of this research!

Both Steve and David were kind enough to suggest that I contact Bruce, and other Forest Church leaders, with questions that might help me unpack the extent to which Forest Church, is missional. To my current understanding this means that the intention behind Forest Church groups, and the inspiration for their facilitators, should lie somewhere on the continuum between the ‘propagation of the [Christian] faith’ (Bosch 1991, p1) which implies something being deliberately planted from a mature source either as a seed, cutting or graft, and “finding out what God is doing, and joining in” (which is I’m pretty a sure a John V. Taylor-ism, but I can’t currently locate it), which to my mind implies something more ad hoc, though both should be Spirit led!

Tying our prayers to the seasons with ribbons tied to a young apple tree in the orchard of St. Peter's Church in St. Albans - springtime and fruitfulness all in one.

Tying our prayers to the seasons with ribbons tied to a young apple tree in the orchard of St. Peter’s Church in St. Albans – springtime and fruitfulness all in one.

When I met Steve in St. Alban’s he was adamant that that group was intentionally missional in seeking to share the Jesus-tradition (as Bruce describes it eloquently in his book) with those who find encountering God in nature as a spiritual practice more attractive to them than sitting in a stone or brick-built creation of man. This appeared to be born out in the liturgy chosen for the May Day and Mary-tide celebrations in which I joined, where Jesus was mentioned by name, and links made through the Christian tradition with Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as with the fruitfulness of creation as we tied our prayer ribbons to the apple trees in the churchyard orchard.

At Hatchet Pond near Beaulieu with David last Sunday however, as we gleefully defied the elements, the link with the Jesus-tradition was less obvious. David certainly talked of God (I think, rather than the Divine), of purification, of the movement from darkness to light and death to life, which, as well as being a very seasonal theme of Beltane is one associated in the Jesus-tradition with salvation and the forgiveness of sins. However, whilst referencing the Bible briefly, Jesus was not I think mentioned directly and no prayers of any sort were offered, nor any Christian scripture or reflection; we were simply encouraged to go off and reflect on how we might engage with these general ideas. For me, aware as I am of my own current point of transition into ordained Christian ministry, the idea of transition visible in the blossoming and procreation visible in nature, was a very good metaphor of what (I hope and pray) God is doing in my life at present. Because I understand God revealed in Christ as well as in creation I am able to make that connection, but what of others?

Both St. Alban’s and the New Forest ‘Forest Church’ groups seemed to include both committed Christians who seem to add (or retain) God’s creation to their repertoire of mechanisms for encountering God, and those who are searching from a wide spiritual playing field for an encounter with the Divine appropriate to their interests and needs. I was particularly struck by the couple who gathered at Hatchet Pond seemingly in need of spiritual solace from the natural world after having had their cat put down the previous day. If and how that need was met I was sadly unable to discover due to my own lack of acuity in understanding the usefulness of finding out. However, no mechanism appeared to exist beyond the handing out contact details if requested, for furthering the reflections of those I would describe as in pastoral need, and thus the community building that I associate with ‘church’ appeared inhibited.

So my questions are

  • Are Forest Church groups deliberately missional in their intention to share what an evangelical might describe as the Gospel, and which a Forest Church facilitator might prefer to call the Jesus-tradition?
  • If they are deliberately missional, how might this be encountered in an individual Forest Church meeting, and/or in regular attendance at a particular Forest Church gathering? Some examples would be wonderful!
  • Is forming a community built on the foundation of Forest Church gatherings a desirable part of their activities?
  • Finally, because sadly such questions can’t be easily avoided in a mission portfolio and it’s hardly likely to be a ‘bums on pews’ count, how would you go about measuring the ‘effectiveness’ of Forest Church?

I am aware that part of what Forest Church is trying to do is engage in dialogue between ancient Pagan faith and Celtic Christian practices, some of which might be compromised by any idea of deceiving people into engaging with the Christian faith as Steve has discussed on his blog last year, but I hope that interested Pagan friends and commentators might be open to the idea that sharing in Forest Church style encounters is as much a sharing of their faith base, as it might be in being open to aspects of the Jesus tradition. I am hoping that between all those facilitating, attending or simply interested in Forest Church groups, it might be possible to share stories, ideas and motivations on these questions, which is why I’ve posed them via a blog post. Please use the comments facility below, as I may need to supply a link to this post as evidence for such dialogue as little seems to have been written thus far in traditional academic sources! However, if you would prefer to do so privately, please say so in the comments (where only I can see your contact details) or in a direct message on Twitter @ramtopsrac, and I will email you.

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About ramtopsrac

Church of England Ordinand, child of God, daughter of the New Forest, wife and mother.
This entry was posted in curacy, ministry, ordination training, theology - how God fits in and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Forest Church – Variations on a Missional Theme?

  1. RosalindR says:

    Not very helpful comments as I have no experience of Forest Church. But 1. Re quote about mission being “seeing where God is at work in the world and joining in” has certainly been used by Rowan Williams. That’s where I ” date” it from, though he may have got it from someone else. But I don’t have the reference. I don’t think it is JVT. his big contribution was linking mission to the action of the Holy Spirit ( go between God) which was seminal thinking in the mid 1970s!
    Effectiveness of any mission initiative? The question at the heart of this, is what is a valid measure of effectiveness? And if we get too stuck with numerical measures, are these God’s way of measuring, or man’s ( sic) ? And, what time span are you looking at?

  2. Pam Smith says:

    I have also drawn a blank with that quote other than hearing Rowan Williams saying it in the context of Fresh Expressions and seeing his use of it referenced elsewhere.

    In terms of measurement, I’ve come across this issue when asked for mission stats in my first year of being priest in charge of i-church, and am still waiting for an answer about which set of numbers should be measured – from many thousands of page clicks to round about 15 very committed members, with a range of numbers in between for things like book clubs and worship. Rosalind’s questions are all very pertinent. For a portfolio, I wonder if it would be enough to propose how you might answer them – the one about timescale being particularly important. This question does, of course, strike to the heart of fresh expressions. At one and the same time we’re meant to be bringing more people in by providing different ways of ‘being church’ (not sure if that’s still a current phrase), while still somehow adding to the numbers that are being counted by the existing church to prove that we are effectively adding to what is already provided. There’s a real tension there, so it doesn’t surprise me that some formats for fresh expressions that attract countable numbers of people and usually in impressive numbers are the ones that we see as ‘successful’ in missional terms. However, God’s extravagance, which we see around us in Creation, is also at work in mission – how do you count the effectiveness or lack of it for two people who are trying to deal with losing a pet? Is that more important that droves of people coming along for activities? Scripture would suggest that the numbers are not the primary aim, the one lost sheep being sought while the 99 sheep are left.

    • ramtopsrac says:

      I think I may finally have found the original JVT quote & it is very creation linked: “Mission,… means to recognize what the Creator-Redeemer is doing in his work & try to do it with him.” (‘Go-Between God’ 1972, p37)

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