Exploring Church in the Woods…

As the sun shone a group met in the idyllic Wytham Woods for a day’s experience of Forest Church.

It was a day that would help deepen the experience of participants on every future walk they take in the woods or the countryside. Games, meditations, spiritual exercises and lessons in surveying the landscape were all part of the retreat that was led by Bruce Stanley, author or Forest Church, a Field Guide and organised by Matt Freer, Diocesan Environmental Officer.

The Forest Church website describes the concept as a fresh expression of church drawing on older traditions when sacred places and practices took place outside. It draws on research that shows the benefits of spending time with nature. The website quotes Martin Luther: “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Groups and activities vary across the UK, from walking groups to groups that follow a liturgy or ritual. A passion for foraging with his wife Sarah led Bruce to form his own Forest Church. ‘God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.’

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The day began with everyone tucking into biscuits and flapjacks, sitting on hay bales on the edge of the ancient Wytham Woods, which is owned by Oxford University and is the most researched area of woodland in the world.

Bruce began with an exercise using strips of colour, cut from a Dulux paint chart, and so we started a journey into the woods that certainly changed the way I will see a country walk in a big way. We were given three colours each, and asked to look around us, and as we walked through a sheep-filled field, find objects in nature that matched those colours. This could prove more or less difficult depending on the colour. (Obviously sky blue and any shade of green or brown were not too difficult. Lobster red on the other hand, unless you were prepared to wait until later in the day and not wear sunblock, might be more challenging.)

 

The top of the field provided an amazing view over Oxford, where Bruce encouraged us to look with ‘hawk eyes’, focusing in on details of the landscape; ‘owl eyes’, surveying the landscape as if through a wide angle lens, and to listen with ‘deer ears’, cupping our hands around our ears to focus on the sounds in front of us and behind us.

We continued into the woods using ‘fox feet’, i.e. walking as quietly as possible, to avoid disturbing the wildlife. “Fox feet work best when you are on your own,” said Bruce. “Birds are aware of the energy you are taking into the woods. If you go into the woods on a walk full of thumping energy birds see you coming a long way away. They will send messages three birds’ territories away and there will be a lot of other animals listening to bird language.” Once in the woods, Bruce explained how, beyond the traditional five human senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), it is generally thought we have 11, including awareness of balance, where your limbs are in space, direction, appetite and hunger, temperature, time, humidity, pressure and the seasons. “Some researchers go beyond that to 55 or 56 senses,” says Bruce.

From there we were simply told to go off and ‘get lost in the woods’ – that is wander for 10 minutes to find an isolated ‘sit spot’ where we were to sit for 10 minutes and observe the forest, discarding our learnt knowledge, Latin names for plants and to take in our surroundings using our senses.

This was fascinating as I found myself a spot near a half fallen tree, looking at how it fitted into the wider landscape of different trees and listening to the birds. I did find myself getting irritated by the sound of aeroplanes overheard, something I would normally be oblivious too.

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This was an exercise we repeated later in the afternoon in the same space. “This time I want you to connect not with your thinking and intellect but with your imagination. Try and imagine the life cycle, the process this tree evolved from. Look at the inter-relationships between the different things,” Bruce told us. He opened up a wicker basket, filled with treats, including dandelion honey, dandelion coffee grounds and biscuits made from the seeds of plaintain. He pointed out various plants with healing properties. “Most medicines of the western medical tradition came from a plant base,” he said.

So what did participants think of the event? Paul Tew, who runs a house church in Wroughton, came along after he read an article in Third Way magazine. Paul said: “I am always looking for new expressions of church and spirituality coming from a strongly charismatic background. I’ve found the day very helpful. I love nature but I’m not a nature expert. This is very helpful in terms of trying to explore my senses. I found a lot of explanations very helpful in formulating what I already do and the meditation exercise are new areas for me.”

Cate Williams, of Milton Keynes, a member of the Woughton Evangelical Partnership, simply wanted to book herself onto a retreat. She said: “I like to be outside if I’m on a retreat. I like to go out for walks and the Forest Church way of thinking appealed to me. It helps that it’s a glorious sunny day, it’s not chucking it down. It’s great to just be slowing down and being outside with nature helps with that. “At the back of my mind I’m thinking of whether there is a place for a Milton Keynes Forest Church or retreat. A lot of this works well with children and I wonder whether to run something for the children based on this one Sunday morning.”

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For more on the national Forest church movement see www.mysticchrist.co.uk/forest_church

For what’s happening in this Diocese see www.oxford.anglican.org/mission-ministry/environment/resources/forest-church/ and www.earthingfaith.org or contact the Diocesan Environment Officer – Matt Freer.

All photos © Elizabeth M. Lettmann / fotoglass.eu

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