I have been asked to contribute article for the Arthur Rank Institute Magazine Country Way. Here is what I’ve written.
Once a month for the past nine months, a group from the Diocese of Canterbury has experimented with taking church outdoors. This is a congregation that meets at a church but then goes out to experience God by walking in the countryside: kind of ramblers’ church, this is Walk Church.
Walks can take between 90 minutes and two hours and involve stops to hear the day’s Gospel reading, offer reflections, pray and share our responses. There may be a period of walking in silence while we pay attention to what we see and hear around us. There is also plenty of fellowship and chat. Someone usually brings some cake which we share as we stand by a path or sit under a tree, an informal communion.
Churches are often served by good networks of footpaths, a reminder of their once central position in rural communities. With our walks, we create a community of faith as we journey together, tell stories, share food, listen to the Bible and pray. We never really know how things will go. There might be a wonderful offering of food on a cold winter’s day, or we may have random incidents which we can’t predict, such as the person who trod on an upturned horseshoe (fortunately with no serious injury). Each meeting is a pilgrimage and an adventure.
Part of the purpose of Walk Church is to train ourselves to keep our senses open to the what there is to be seen and experienced around us – a bee swarm, the tragic remains of a run-over grass snake, a biting, piercing wind. With different people and different paths each time, Walk Church is a community that keeps remaking itself.
The numbers taking part have ranged from 20 to 6. While popularity might be expected to be weather dependant, our most recent walk, on a bitterly cold January day with a driving wind, attracted 18. Right from its inception, Walk Church has demonstrated an appeal across the generations with families, young people and dogs invariably part of the group.
The inspiration for Walk Church is twofold. First, there is the growing popularity of communal walking, with burgeoning numbers of organised health walks and rambling groups. We wanted to explore whether there were people who were uninspired by the experience of sitting in a pew but who still wanted to explore questions of faith and pray together with others in a more open, less formal setting. In fact, most sessions of Walk Church have attracted a mix of committed churchgoers and people who are not part of any other congregation.
Secondly, Walk Church is also about working out how faith can help us better value our natural world. Indoors, we have struggled to make the environment a theme that is exciting for our worship, but being outdoors will hopefully excite our imagination and passion. We may appreciate in our heads that there is a looming environmental crisis but how can we respond if we don’t have passion?
The writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry said *: “We need to fall in love with the natural world again… We take care of the things which we love.”
* Start the Week, Radio 4, 1 May 2017