Wilding the church

Evelyn Simak / The ruined church of St Felix, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year I was part of a conversation where we talked about the need to ‘rewild the church’. Not long after I was given the book ‘Wilding’ which tells the story of the Knepp Estate in Sussex which in the year 2000 embarked on a remarkable project to rewild. Arable farming, the traditional means of using the land was ditched, staff made redundant, equipment sold off and the land left to nature. It’s a story about how the land was renewed and regenerated in extraordinary and surprising ways, by doing very little except, listen, learn, and enable nature.

As I read, connections started to emerge between what is taking place at Knepp and the pioneer ministry movement. What insights might there be from Knepp and other such projects? And are these insights that we might want to pay attention to in the landscape of the ministry and mission of the church? Here are some points that the book made for me and the connections with pioneer ministry.

1. When it’s not working you need to stop

Wilding’s author Isabella Tree describes some of the choices around the time of the Second World War that led to the highly mechanised, intensive farming practices we see as normative in our countryside. At Knepp these methods were failing. Amalgamating with neighbouring farms to try and create economies of scale didn’t work. The farm continued to lose money. The marginal land they were on simply did not supply the kind of yields necessary to make this kind of farming sustainable.

It was a tough decision to stop. Others advocated one more throw of the dice. One more season. But the brave decision was made to stop and be open to new ways of managing the land. And as soon as that happened new ways did begin to emerge that took greater notice of the nature of the land they were on, and that sought to manage and nurture the land in dialogue with its characteristics. Which leads to second connection…

2. Understand the land you have

Intensive wheat farming blinded those farming the Knepp estate to the reality that this was very marginal land for this kind of farming. As they began to listen more intently to the land it began to reveal its past, and some of the resources and heritage that was part of its unique nature. Oak trees some 300 years old, that stood dying at the centre of heavily farmed what fields, were symbols of an ecology that was being ignored and ravaged by the way the land was being used. They pointed the way toward a radically different way of managing the land.

3. Keystone species are the key to a diverse ecology

The process of listening to the land led the Knepp estate to introduce free-ranging grazing animals (pigs, cattle and horses) into the estate.  These mimicked the roles that ancient and (in some cases extinct) herbivores of the past played. Much like the reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone, these ‘keystone species’ started to have an extraordinary effect on the ecology of the estate. Biodiversity exploded in a very short space of time.

4. Wilding? Or rewilding?

Wilding is very different from conservation. Conservation tends to manage environments for certain rare or declining species. Wilding on the other hand is an emergent process. Isabella Tree calls her book ‘Wilding’, because she is keen to point out that wilding is a forward looking, surprising process. Rewilding implies a return to some previous wild state. A process which might be more like restoration that renewal. Time and time again the estate at Knepp threw up some profound surprises. In particular rare species such as nightingales and purple emperor butterflies returning, not just in great numbers, but in habitats that experts didn’t believe they normally inhabited.

Wilding the church

The unfolding story of the Knepp estate might be read as a parable for the church in the UK. We use methods that in many contexts are no longer fruitful or sustainable, and others which are resource intensive and (if not mechanistic, then) programmatic. Yet, in many ways we too are farming in the old ways on land which is now marginal, amalgamating parishes in the hope that perhaps we can find a way out of decline. We too need to stop and deeply listen to our context. When our machines have stopped and the dust settled we may just be able to discern the nature of the soil at our feet.

Is the pioneer movement a means by which some ‘keystone species’ are being reintroduced to the church? The apostles, the prophets and evangelists who have been marginal if not extinct in our church life for so long are being reintroduced and are bringing a renewed diversity. And it is a diversity which is also surprising and which confounds and challenges the assumptions of many of our experts of the church.

And it is wilding, not rewilding that we must enable. The wild Spirit of God is not our utility to be employed for our aims and purposes. Besides our memories are too short. Rewilding in ecological terms is frequently prey to the effect of the ‘shifting baseline’ – that is the baseline of biodiversity we have experienced. We remember seeing clouds of butterflies perhaps when we were young, but that may be nothing compared to the diversity from, say, before industrialisation. In a similar way we may refer to a baseline of full churches on Sunday, a well-attended Sunday school, a host of Bible study groups – but that was then and now the context may have changed radically. Rewilding might be a nostalgic project to restore a vision of the past – wilding is a willingness to cooperate with the emerging vision of nature or the Spirit.

Wilding invites humans to be facilitators of the vision of nature, or of the Spirit. In this model our role is as observers, enablers and curators. Surprise was the constant experience of those at Knepp as species returned in unexpected numbers and in unexpected places. Just as those at Knepp might have said “yes, that’s a nightingale, but we never expected it to breed there!” we might then say ‘yes, that’s church, but we never expected it to look like that!’

A wild theology?

Is this a suggestion that we should see nature as a blueprint for how to renew the church? Well no – but partly yes. Jesus used enough natural metaphors when he was talking about the Kingdom to suggest that an understanding of natural organic processes is surely a good source of reflection and inspiration for ministry. However, more deeply than that, these illustrations of Jesus point to a Kingdom attitude that invites us to participate in the life of the Spirit who is at work in the world.

John V Taylor wrote: “the chief actor in the historic mission of the church is the Holy Spirit…. This fact, so patent to Christians in the first century, is largely forgotten in our own. So we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and turned the divine initiative into a human enterprise” (The Go Between God p3). A wild theology is a theology of the Spirit. A theology that is founded in the creation story where the Spirit of God hovers in the midst of chaos as though waiting for the word of God to invite her into action. It is therefore in this space on the edge of order and chaos, the ‘chaordic space’, where the Spirit waits and acts, and where we the people of God are invited to join in. The story of Wilding is a story of joyous discovery and adventure as those involved put their enterprise and energy under the direction of natural processes they were constantly trying to understand. Might we be willing to locate our enterprise in that same chaordic space, where the Spirit is at work and we, surprised and be-wild-ered, get to join in?

12 thoughts on “Wilding the church”

  1. Paul,
    This is spot on! I was reading this book whole at the recent Rural FX conference. The parable is a hopeful one for a church on the brink of collapse. We talked about this concept a bit on the conference but my sense was it needed to be the whole conversation. Fresh Expressions is about wilding or its about nothing.

    One metaphor that came up related to this was that of wilderness and garden. The church has done gardening and still will but now is the time setting large parts free to be.

    Would love to continue a conversation of possible!

  2. Thanks Paul this is really interesting, partly because it overlaps so much with a metaphor some of us are using for a paper on pioneering that we are writing together. It seems like it might be God drawing our attention to this…

  3. Wow. This makes so much sense.. I had an interesting discussion with my church just last evening.. we are trying to look at as a body of Christ’s people – where do we go from here. Some kept saying ‘we need to get back to our roots”. Now I would say yes we do.. But that does not mean back to what we know and what we did in the past.

  4. Paul, This is a great article. I was reading Wilding during the recent Rural FX conference and the parallels were obvious. A metaphor that emerged from that gathering was the interplay between church add garden and church left to run wild. A mixed economy I guess but trying not see the wilderness on a path to becoming garden.

    I think there is a very rich conversation being had in agriculture right now. The controlled mechanised paradigm of growing food with high inputs and predictable yields is being challenged. A regenerative model is emerging where the ecosystem is ‘massaged’ to uncover amazing abundance.

    Church imagined growing with the grain of the innate abundance of the spirit filled world. Mechanised church has short term gains but ultimately does last or take root.

  5. Very thought provoking and helpful. We certainly need another way! The Holy Spirit’s way. Jesus said “ I will build My Church…..” We are His Church!!

  6. It is like planting a seed, yet being that seed. The way of Jesus is sharing what we do and the people that we are.. What we do is the Ministry of Christ, it’s what we are part of. Bringing healing as part of a different way of being human. From this there is likely to be growth as people of different faiths and no faiths become part of community (church)

  7. Hi Paul, thanks for this- am in the middle of reading Wilding, whilst thinking about how the Holy Spirit is calling me to express my ministry in this season; so this is very timely and helpful. Am currently mulling over how to (re)shape our churches and discipleship to help Christians live as the followers of the Word who spoke the universe into existence and called it good- in these times of political unrest and climate emergency how do we live the Gospel amongst our neighbours… be good to see you sometime, massive blessings.

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