Richard Clarkson Reviews ‘Forest Church: Earthed Perspectives on the Gospel’ by Cate Williams

Revd Richard Clarkson

The Forest Church movement, which has been quietly growing for the past decade or so, draws threads of Christian spirituality and nature connection into regular gatherings in forests, fields and gardens across the UK and increasingly around the world. This Grove Book by Cate Williams, Mission and Evangelism Officer for the Diocese of Gloucester, introduces the thinking behind Forest Church and explores some of the missional potential of this approach.

After a brief introduction, the book answers the question “What is Forest Church?” and introduces the five Forest Churches which Williams visited as part of her research. One striking thing about these groups is just how different they are in terms of where they meet and what they do. Some emphasise space for reflection, others crafts and activities, still others have developed rituals as part of their gathering. Forest Church is clearly not a ‘one size fits all’ model to be copied which is, I think, one of its great strengths.

The book then moves on to the theological rationale for Forest Church, exploring it from a biblical, missional and ethical perspective before settling on ‘Reconnection’ as the underlying image. This chapter packs a huge amount of theology into a few pages, going deep without getting bogged down. The chapter is peppered with quotes from interviews with Forest Church participants and facilitators which gives it a real-world grounding.

The final chapter gives some guidance for planning a Forest Church gathering and is drawn from the author’s own experience. She offers a list of questions to ask when preparing such as “Are there themes from the natural seasons that are helpful?” and “Is there something to keep the children’s attention?” There is also a very helpful table outlining some ways in which Forest Churches can connect the rhythms of the seasons with aspects of the church year and other events such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch.

One thread which runs throughout the book is the question of language, which is something that many Fresh Expressions of Church have to grapple with. As Williams says in the final chapter, “A lot of the language that is routinely used in church provides a cultural barrier to people in the wider community”. For me, the book’s real strength is the range of voices drawn in from Williams’ research interviews, which show how Forest Church can help people grapple with deep theological issues like incarnation and redemption in a non-churchy way. For example, one participant says “I think what I appreciate is the rooting of things such as the Easter story in the wider universal context, you know, the regeneration of the earth.” This is something that I found to be true in a Forest Church group which I ran for a while in North Shropshire, where some of the deepest theological conversations we had were inspired by the bark of a tree or the movement of a cloud.

Overall this is an excellent and much-needed introduction to Forest Church, giving both practical and theological advice for those wishing to find out more or start their own.

Revd Richard Clarkson is Rector of five rural parishes in North Shropshire. He has degrees in Physics and Theology and has a Master’s dissertation on Nature Contemplation in the writing of Maximus the Confessor. He is a member of the Lichfield Diocese Environmental Group, a JRI director – and dad to three wild boys!

Photo: Woodland near Ombersley, Worcestershire by Martin J. Hodson