Holding Space – interview with Rachel Summers

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Helen Harwood interviews Rachel Summers, a member of the first cohort of students doing the CMS Certificate in the pioneer hub, St Cedd’s, in Chelmsford Diocese. Rachel is author of Wild Lent, available in all good book shops.

HH: Can you tell me a bit more about St Michael’s, Walthamstow, the worshipping community you are part of. I know you say it is “…an Anglican Church full of candles, incense, and a sense of mystery”?

RS: It’s a black majority church in the east of London. It’s a ‘resolutions parish’, which means the place of women’s ministry is a bit of a minefield. Worship is traditional and anglo-catholic. Sometimes people find it confusing that coming from this context I’ve ended up running forest church, but I think there’s a lot of overlap. I find worship with plenty of colour, space, movement and ritual to be most accessible, and actually worshipping outside also provides this.

How did you get into pioneering and what got you looking beyond ‘the four walls of the church’?

Relationships and friendships with others, I suppose. I’ve been involved with communities online since my eldest daughter (now 14) was born, and there’s something about the immediacy and intimacy of an online relationship that’s blessed me with an abundance of atheist and agnostic friends. We discovered that searching for meaning in life, far from being something driving us apart, was one of the forces pulling us together. As I explored my Christian faith, I learned a lot from these people outside the church. I think it’s a great shame that somehow the church has given the impression that belonging means being able to tick off and understand in a rigid way a long list of faith statements, when it should be a place for us to all acknowledge we are on a journey towards faith together.

I know you have a love, indeed a passion, for the outdoors, can you tell us more about “…holding space to give others the chance to connect with creation”?

My day job is teaching forest school sessions. As my CMS course has gone on, I’ve had a stronger sense that this is part of my pioneer ministry, actually. The forest school movement is far more about facilitating and curating a space for people to connect with nature themselves, rather than teaching them particular survival or craft skills in their own right. I love to set up possibilities for experience, and allow people to travel into them themselves, rather than giving them an experience and telling them what to make of it. Does that make sense?

Cover of Wild Lent by Rachel SummersIt does indeed. You have written a book, which I know is no mean feat. I know your idea for the book came from conversations with friends and explaining how in Lent you try to take on something to help your journey towards Easter. Can you tell us more about the inspiration and application of this Lent book, is it a guide or more of an autobiography?

It’s a bit like a recipe book, or the National Trust’s 50 Things to Do Before You’re 11¾. There are activities to do through Lent organised by the type of weather or by the company you are in, so you can pick and choose what you’d like to do. I’ve split the weeks of Lent up into different themes, so that each activity has two different reflections, depending on when you do it. Hopefully this will mean that the activities and the reflections and prayers attached to them have some kind of Lenten shape, rather than just being a long list of things to do. For each activity, I’ve imagined what God might be using nature to say to me; nature as the fifth gospel, if you like. Of course people are more than able to do the activities and hear something completely different! That’s the joy and the surprise of working outdoors without walls or a ceiling.

Can you tell us a bit about being part of the first CMS pioneer hub, and the connection with St Cedd’s?

I’m taking part in this first batch of pioneers through the St Cedd’s hub. We’re following a course over 18 months, which is a bit of a whistle stop tour through theology and church history! It’s been useful to meet other people on a similar journey, and to have some time to think through issues occurring in what I’m doing.

Lastly, Rachel how can we pray for you?

As my course draws to an end, I’d really value prayer about where to take things next. And at the moment, I’m writing a Wild Advent book, so I’d be very grateful for prayer as I try to listen to what would be useful for people in this book.

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