Updated: Jan 18, 2022
Wild Church: Could worshiping in nature resuscitate Christianity?
By Josiah Neufeld JULY 29, 2021
One long-shadowed evening in June 2019, the setting sun and a horned moon shared the sky over a cone-shaped hill above the cornfields of southwestern Wisconsin. In a clearing on the hill’s shoulder, a circle of beings sat around a snapping bonfire. One by one, they introduced themselves: “I am a sycamore tree in the Allsopp Forest, and I speak on behalf of all the trees in the Little Rock area.” “I am honeybee. I speak on behalf of the bees and insects of the world.” “I am the salmon of the Salish Sea.” “I am giant kelp. I speak for the kelp forests of California.” “I am the Appalachian Mountains and my body bears many scars.” A few miles to the west, trees along the Mississippi River were up to their necks. The river was swollen far beyond its banks, and had been for two hundred days and counting. To the south, people were shoveling mud from their houses and farmers were writing off $4.5 billion worth of corn crops. The warming of the planet had contributed to the most catastrophic floods the Midwest had ever seen. Around the fire, everyone knew things were off-kilter. “We meet in this council because our planet is in trouble,” said the leader, speaking with a solemn, measured cadence. “Our lives and our ancient ways are endangered. It is fitting that we confer, for there is much that needs to be said, and much needs to be heard.” The speaker, a United Church of Canada minister from Ontario, wore knee-length jean shorts and a floppy sun hat and had recently doused herself in vanilla-scented organic insect repellent to keep away the biting gnats. Photograph from wildchurchnetwork.com The creatures assembled around the fire were, in fact, pastors, priests, and lay leaders from churches across Canada and the United States – UCC, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic, Mennonite, and non-denominational. They belonged to a loose affiliation of congregations known as the Wild Church Network. None of the ministers around the circle would return to a building. Not because of the flooding, but because Wild Churches don’t have buildings. They meet exclusively outdoors, even in winter. They do this because they believe trees and birds and rivers and stones are sources of divine revelation, just as much as the Bible or the saints. “We are at a turning point in our culture,” Victoria Loorz, a cofounder of the Wild Church Network, told me, “a turning point defined by ecological destruction as well as societal and ecclesial ending.” She believes that if humans hope to survive on this planet, we will have to find a more compassionate and interdependent way of living with the species around us, a shift Buddhist eco-philosopher Joanna Macy has called “The Great Turning.” The Wild Church, Victoria said, is helping birth that new way of being. “We see this as a reformation.” Wild Church liturgies invite the natural world to participate. Earlier that morning, I’d watched an Anglican priest lay out the bread and wine of the Eucharist on a mat of decaying leaves under a grove of craggy burr oaks and slender maples. The ritual opened with a welcome to “all sentient beings” and a reading from the Book of Job: “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you.” Bruce Stanley, whose manual, Forest Church, helped popularize the outdoor church movement in the United Kingdom, calls nature “the Second Book of God” and quotes American conservationist John Muir: “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God than in church thinking about the mountains.” One Wild Church convenes in a beech grove in New Hampshire, another among the cedar pillars of British Columbia’s coastal forests, another on the Colorado grasslands. But they aren’t just choosing novelty settings for worship. Sometimes Wild Churches gather on landscapes desecrated by humans: next to a salmon-spawning stream choked with logging debris or a sun-scorched asphalt parking lot or a graveyard of charred trees. They do so to lament a broken relationship in a communion that includes humans, nature, and God. My plan had been to attend the gathering as an observer, not as a participant. But Victoria Loorz had other ideas. When I’d emailed her to ask if I could attend the Wild Church gathering as a journalist writing about a spiritual and cultural shift, she’d replied enthusiastically. “Something is happening that is bigger than any of our little church experiments,” she wrote. But later she emailed to say she wasn’t sure everyone would appreciate a journalist taking notes at the very first Wild Church gathering. The network had come about organically, and nearly everyone would be meeting each other for the first time. But by the time Victoria’s follow-up email arrived in my inbox, I had rented a tiny Chevy Spark and was driving south on Interstate 29, heading for a Dominican monastery on a forested hill in rural Wisconsin. When I met Victoria at the check-in desk, we sorted things out. I agreed to sit out any sensitive discussions and she encouraged me to participate in the rituals and sharing just like everyone else. “Who knows, maybe you’ll go home and start a Wild Church in Winnipeg,” she said. Ismiled at her suggestion, but inwardly I cringed. I’d just managed to give religion the slip. I had no intention of joining another church. Or worse, starting one myself. Yet some creature inside me did perk up when Victoria mentioned a Wild Church in Winnipeg. That creature yearned to worship among trees, even to exalt the trees themselves. As a university student, I’d spent six summers replanting logged forests in northern Ontario. I could still remember standing at the sheared edge of a forest where a wall of mature pines, shaggy with moss, sprang up from the splintered wreckage of the cutblock. It was an otherworldly verge, a place where it was easy to imagine hosts of the dead raised from the soil by the last trumpet, foliaged and alive. Sometimes I’d unbuckle my planting bags and step through that magical plane into the still-breathing sanctuary of the forest and lie down on a mattress of moss and stare up at the points of pines pinned against the enamel sky. There was nowhere I felt more alive. Though I had experienced Christianity from the inside and found it unsatisfying and conflicted, I still wanted to examine it from the outside, to sort the truth from the falsehood, the history from the myth, the oppression from the liberation. For the twelve-hour drive to Wisconsin, I borrowed an audiobook of Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong’s three-millennium journey through human history from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the events of September 11 in search of an answer to whether religion was to blame for human violence. Her calm, erudite voice carried me over the border and through looping interchanges and across the mud-brown sea of the swollen Mississippi. By the time I arrived in Wisconsin, we’d only just reached the Crusades. But already Armstrong’s bias was clear: she believed compassion and empathy were the enduring fruits of religious faith, more than violence, which resulted from agrarian civilization, empire, and industrialization. Yet, here in Trump’s America, I doubted whether religion and empire could ever be separated. Would the Wild Church prove me wrong? Around the fire, the Wild Church leaders were acting out a ritual designed by Joanna Macy to “give voice to the suffering of our world.” Each member of the circle spoke in the voice of a creature or landform native to their watershed and came bearing a message for their human listeners. After speaking, each one dropped their creaturely persona and took a seat on one of the logs arranged in a circle, human once more, ready to listen. A family therapist from California with short blond hair and oak leaves tucked behind her glasses spoke for Grandmother Oak, five centuries old, the oldest oak in the Ventura River watershed, burned to death two years ago by a fire that devoured more than 280,000 acres of forest. “I lay in ruins,” she said, “my main branches splayed on the ground in three directions, smoldering for weeks. Older than colonization, I was not able to survive the Thomas Fire, a beast spawned by climate catastrophe, human hubris, and carbon addiction. Kyrie eleison.” “I am the Appalachian Mountains,” said a skinny West Virginian with round glasses and a swoop of chestnut hair that kept falling into his eyes. “We were once the world’s most diverse hardwood ecosystem.” Then came humans, who built roads and gashed the mountainsides to extract coal. “Violent scars cut into our body. Our clean streams ran black. We ask that you would care for our bodies like you would care for the body of your lover. That you would know our bodies like you would know the body of your lover. That you would be gentle with our bodies.” The sun dipped behind the treeline, stealing the gilding from a row of maples and oaks. Overhead, the blue sky darkened. Bats flickered. Snowflakes of ash drifted onto knees and shoulders. I squirmed on the log I was sharing with Grandmother Oak, hoping I could avoid speaking. Everyone else around the circle seemed to have a biologist’s knowledge of their region and a preacher’s performative powers. I hadn’t prepared any animal story to share. I’d liked the Wild Church folks as soon as I met them. They were enthusiastic about their faith, but not in a way that made me feel excluded or that I needed to share their beliefs. The reality of climate change loomed in the background of every conversation. During our first supper in the monastery cafeteria, I sat across the table from Stephen Blackmer, an Episcopal priest from New Hampshire who’d spent the first three decades of his career as a forest conservationist. At age fifty, burned out and despairing over the impact of climate change on the New England forests he’d spent a lifetime protecting, he heard a voice telling him to become a priest. When he read the Bible for the first time, he noticed the trees: from the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis to the tree of crucifixion to the Tree of Life in Revelation. Blackmer anticipated a period of intense suffering for all life on earth. He wanted to be ready to bear witness to it on a spiritual level, like a monk tending a candle during the Dark Ages. The Wild Church people were convinced that, as much as the church needed to regain an environmental lens, so the environmental movement needed a spiritual grounding in order to stick it out over the long haul. Victoria Loorz had spent years traveling North America, attending climate rallies with her son, Alec. He’d been twelve when he watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Almost overnight he became a child activist. As a young teen, he led a campaign to sue all fifty state governments for inaction on climate change. But after six years of traveling and speaking, both Alec and his mother were burned out. Victoria said she’d seen the same thing happen with other young people. They’d been full of energy at first. But once they’d understood the true scale of the crisis they were up against, many of them realized that nothing they ever did would be enough to avert it. Spirituality could sustain people for the long term, Victoria believed, even when the outcome of their actions was far from clear. Activists needed to develop “a deep connection to the earth, a kindred, loving, reciprocal relationship with the land and creatures and waters and place that holds you while you do what you’re called to do.” If you learned to love the earth, Victoria said, you would go on caring for it as you would a dying parent, not because you thought you could save her, but because you loved her. “The cosmology of a savior who will rescue us from this earth is not sufficient for such a time as this,” Victoria told me. The Wild Church folks understood that Indigenous spiritualities hadn’t lost their connection to the land the way Christianity had. Earlier in the day, I’d attended a workshop led by Laurel Dykstra, an Anglican priest from Vancouver who had spent a week in jail for protesting a pipeline in solidarity with a coalition of Coast Salish nations. At the trial, the witnesses Laurel chose to call were “saints and ancestors; endangered, locally eradicated, and extinct species; victims of climate catastrophe.” Laurel led the workshop under a maple tree, in Birkenstocks, a bulky pair of camouflage cargo shorts, and a charcoal T-shirt decorated with a teal squiggle made up of two gender signs and a deer antler. “Wherever two or three are gathered …” Laurel began, opening with familiar words from the Gospel of Matthew. “Wherever two or three are gathered, there we have sexism and racism and power dynamics.” Gesturing with a tattooed arm at the trees around us, Laurel spoke about “knowing our own stories in the context of colonization.” It was a confident voice, but one that asked for respect rather than demanding it: “Why might you want to listen to me? Because I screw it up all the time. One example: Often, after participating in ceremony with Indigenous people I’ve had the desire to take the special or sacred object to have a souvenir to put on my altar. And the teaching I get from elders is: ‘Put that down! That leaf, that rock, that branch has done its work and needs you to let it go.’ Hanging on is causing harm. It’s the thing that colonists do.” Sitting on the bench with these tree-hugging Christians, listening to their laments, I felt their yearning to disentangle their tradition from centuries of dominion and colonization and anthropocentric ego. In the old theology, God gave humans the power to rule over nature and Christians the right to claim lands inhabited by others, to exploit the resources they found there and convert all unbelievers by any means necessary. European colonists drafted new constitutions for the lands they conquered, constitutions that recognized the rights of the colonizers but provided none to the land itself. They pressured Indigenous peoples – often violently – to embrace Christianity and dismissed Indigenous beliefs that mountains or rivers or groves had spirits of their own. In 1967 historian Lynn White Jr. described Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” and Christianity’s victory over paganism “the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.” I wanted to believe that the Wild Church was a sign of Christianity emerging from the cocoon as something new and beautiful and alert to the crisis at hand. But I wasn’t sure if the Wild Church movement could really slough off centuries of dominion so quickly. A decade ago, Bron Taylor, an American scholar of religion, had written about new eco-centric forms of spirituality that were emerging, spiritualities that placed the natural world at their center instead of God. He doubted if traditional religions, Christianity included, could adapt in time to avoid losing environmentally conscious adherents to these alternatives. The evidence so far seems to be bearing him out. Recent studies show that Christianity, globally, has scarcely greened its theology since White’s indictment half a century ago. Nor have churches taken significant action to address biodiversity loss or human carbon emissions. In spite of some hopeful signs, such as Pope Francis’s 2015 climate-change encyclical in which he characterizes human abuse of the earth as violence against our mother, the old ideology is still largely hanging on. Just before the council around the fire, I’d participated in another ritual led by Victoria Loorz. She’d instructed each of us to go out and find a living thing to listen to. I wandered away from the group and eventually found myself sitting at the foot of a towering oak, curved like a giant bow. It was starkly dead. Its knotted branches, bone-white and stripped of bark, ended in blunted, broken fingers. Its trunk was already tilted toward the ground where it would eventually lie. A spaghetti tracery of insect paths riddled its wood. Mushrooms had colonized the trunk, green and white, arranged in tiers like balconies on a high-rise apartment complex. An eruption of tiny violet mushrooms bubbled from a white gash in the tree’s flesh. The tree was being devoured from the inside out. In death, it fed other lives. My eyes followed its arc upward to where the lowering sun lit the topmost branches. A craggy saint, it seemed to be saying: “Look at me. I am beautiful, even in death.” I sat in the grass and touched the tree’s body. I felt, in that moment, a strange impulse. I leaned over and kissed the tree, pressed my warm, living lips against its dry, barky, dead ones. I smelled its dusty fragrance. I thought that I could love this tree and it could love me back, even in death. Victoria had spoken of a reciprocal relationship to the earth, of knowing that you were loved and held by the earth itself. I longed for that kind of communion. I also longed to belong to a community like the Wild Churches, a community of people who loved the earth, who felt her suffering on a spiritual level. But the words that kept bouncing around in my skull as I sat under that rotting oak were, weirdly, not some call to wilderness worship, but a line crooned by Ted Neeley as Jesus in the 1970s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I could see him in his fraying flower-child robe, with his windblown hair, and hear his earnest quaver: “To conquer death, you only have to die. You only have to die.” Cheesy, yes, but also as true as anything I could think of right then. Christianity, broadly speaking, still had some dying left to do before it would be ready to rise again with its roots deep in the earth.