Monday, 6 June 2016

Forest Gardens and the Unexpected Church

Forest Gardens and the Unexpected Church

Some time ago, I was driving home in our new car after leading a training session in the North East of England. Hoping to listen to some music on the radio I switched on the stereo system.

Having only collected the vehicle that morning, I hadn’t worked out how to change radio channels and was reluctant to be distracted from driving, by trying to read the microscopic letters that my middle-aged eyes refuse to acknowledge these days.

I had to settle for listening to whatever show happened to come on during my two-hour journey home. Towards the middle of my journey I was treated to an episode of the BBC radio programme Gardeners’ Question Time, during which all manner of aphid related advice seemed to be on offer.

Now I am not a gardener and I have to confess that I zoned out much of what they said as my mind wandered to other things. Then, in the middle of the show, my attention was grabbed by a contributor speaking about what she called ‘Forest Gardens’.

She explained that these were areas of garden that had been encouraged to grow in a free and more natural way. To be honest, if I hadn’t been forced to listen by my inability, to use a new radio and drive at the same time, I would have changed channels a long time before. Yet here was a moment when I realised this truth about gardening could be used to help me understand the church in a fresh way.

British gardening habits are still highly influenced by Victorian sensibilities and the need for order. Mirroring the new ordered approach to life, gardens (at least for the wealthy) became expressions of control and dominion with the Lord of the manor being congratulated for the work done by his underpaid workforce. In years to come slum terraces would be demolished to be replaced by modern houses with small amounts of land in which inhabitants could mirror this need for order; with close cut lawns and well stocked flower beds.

During this period you would be forgiven for thinking that such landscaping was the definitive standard for all gardens everywhere. Indeed there are examples of this view all around the former British Empire. The benefits of this style of gardening are obvious in that it allows for clarity with well-defined borders between flowers and lawn.

Forest Gardens, however, offer the possibility of seeing new flowers and wildlife that would not be welcomed in the ordered world of Victoriana. The radio expert was asked whether it was easier to cultivate this freer expression of horticulture and she, somewhat counter-intuitively, responded ‘No!’. Going on to explain her views she said:

‘….you need a different eye to even want to begin the journey. '

Setting up a contrast with the more traditional approach she continued 

‘You are less hands on, but you have to notice different things.’

In an instant I saw a comparison between the conservative evangelicalism that I had been brought into and our newly found emergent expression of church. The old offers the comfort of clear lines and a definition that allows us to believe that we are immune from the world outside of our fences.

The new, however, looks messy and doesn’t seem to provide the clarity that we think should be an integral part of the church and the gospel. There are many terms used to describe this ecclesiological expression but I have chosen to use Evangelical Morphodoxy. It is a way of describing the tension felt between being rooted in an ancient faith but being open to find new ways to shape it in every new context. The incarnational idea of morphing into the most appropriate expression of the good news seems to best show how God was revealed in Jesus Christ.

I am sure that some will equate our messiness in doing church with a lack of vision: but they would be mistaken in this view. We do have a vision but the signifiers are different from the ones that Christians have often been taught to expect. 

The reward for producing a Forest Garden is that you get to see different plants and wildlife that are not always welcome in the perfectly ordered Victorian influenced garden. The reward of having an Evangelical Morphodoxy approach is that we get to see new fruit and new life that at times is unexpected.

To start this we need to accept that we perhaps need to be ‘….less hands on’ and ‘…notice different things.’

Let the gardening begin………

This is an excerpt from my book 'Sea and Islands'. To receive a copy please send your postal address to

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