'There is no inconsistency between creation and salvation': the parish, nature, and human flourishing

During long months of the pandemic, millions of us turned to nature. Our research on the mental health impacts of the pandemic showed going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health. Websites which showed footage from webcams of wildlife saw hits increase by over 2000%. Wider studies also found that during lockdowns, people not only spent more time in nature but were noticing it more. It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point our fundamental human need to connect with nature.

So said the UK's Mental Health Foundation, introducing the theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week: nature.  This builds, of course, on an increasingly well-recognised body of research, ably summarised - with compelling personal accounts of mental health - by Lucy Jones in Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild (2020) and Isabel Hardman The Natural Health Service: how nature can mend your mind (2021).  Hardman refers to "our innate need" for nature, describing how our well-being cannot be considered apart from it:

we have tried to cut our umbilical cord with the natural world and things aren't working out for us as a result ... We have to see the Natural Health Service as something integral to our way of life.  Instead of looking for ways to let nature in, we should be asking why our default when designing anything, whether it be a physical building or a theoretical system, is to shut nature out.

Reading the Mental Health Foundation's statement during this Rogationtide might make us think of those aspects of nature which are traditionally integrated into quite ordinary Anglican life and can therefore contribute to the vision communal flourishing and well-being that is a concern of the Rogation Days.

The rhythms of nature are built into the Anglican liturgical calendar.  Rogationtide, Harvest Thanksgiving, and the Ember Days 'at the Four Seasons' ensure that the cycle of the seasons is caught up in the Church's prayer and thanksgiving.  This encourages a greater awareness of our dependence upon the created order, acknowledging nature as gift.  In the words of the Rogationtide prayer found in the Ireland 1926:

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we live, and move, and have our being; who dost cause thy sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendest rain both upon the just and the unjust ...

Similarly in PECUSA 1928:

Almighty God, who hast blessed the earth that it should be fruitful and bring forth whatsoever is needful for the life of man ...

The liturgical year itself is also a gathering up of nature.  The celebration of Christmas in midwinter, Easter and Whitsun amidst the joys of springtime, Saint John Baptist's Day in midsummer, All Saints as autumnal days lengthen: each of these feasts gather up seasonal themes and draw us to see how the created order is itself an icon of God's gracious purposes.

The iconography of nature is also often to be found in the parish church. The flowers and grapes carved into the wood of pulpit and prayer desk.  The scenes of nature caught in stained glass.  The outline of flowers embroidered in the design of stoles.  These, of course, are easily overlooked but teaching can draw us to see their significance, signs of the goodness of the creation and of how the order of redemption is not a denial of the creation.  They are, then, icons of the truth declared by Athanasius:

the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation.

The wood of the Communion Table is a particular sign of this, rooting the holy mysteries in the natural order, as we eat the bread and drink the wine.  In the words of Malcolm Guite:

This table too the earth herself has given

And human hands have made ...

The oak once held its branches up to heaven,

Blessing the elements which it became,

Rooting the dew and rain, branching the light.

Then there is the green space often found around the parish church: the trees, shrubbery, grass, and flowers of the churchyard.  The Diocese of London's 'Churchyards for London' programme - "a project to survey the fauna and flora, habitats and ecology of churchyards across Greater London" - is an example of how such space can be cherished and stewarded.  Again there is a deep symbolism in such green space, echoing Eden, reflecting the garden of the Resurrection, and anticipating the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2 reminding us that the New Jerusalem has much green space).  It also points to how Christianity redeems and fulfills the disparate shards of truth in the nature religions, as Wordsworth said in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets regarding the land around the parish church:

Those forest oaks of Druid memory

Shall long survive, to shelter the Abode 

Of genuine Faith.

The work of the Quiet Garden Movement shows how such space can be "places where people can find welcome, stillness and spiritual refreshment", allowing the Church to point to prayer as a part of human flourishing and well-being.  In the words of Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich:

The natural environment of gardens with their mixture of tending, cultivating and sanctified neglect, are places that draw me into the heart of God. They are places where I can dwell deeply, through being in the slip-stream of prayer, contemplation and renewal, and find life again in all of its abundance.

The natural seasons as part of the liturgical calendar; the iconography of nature in the parish church; the churchyard as a garden and place of quiet prayer.  These are characteristics of the ordinary Anglican experience which should be cherished, taught, and encouraged.  They also point to the dramatically short-sighted character of some features of contemporary Anglicanism: of attempting to purify the liturgy and spirituality of 'cultural accretions'; of favouring abstraction in church furnishings; of dismissing the physicality and geography of the parish church. Amidst signs of contemporary cultural desire for a renewed and deepened relationship with the created order, recognising its importance for human flourishing and well-being, we should be nurturing those quiet, traditional - too often overlooked - aspects of the Anglican experience, and confidently sharing the wisdom they embody.  

This also has a wider significance for the Church's life and mission, demonstrating that - contra the New Atheist critique of religion - Christianity has a rich, vibrant, and generous vision of human flourishing.  As Andrew Davison has put it:

isn’t it an absolutely central part of Christian mission today to present and embody accounts of what it means to be human that are attractive, sane and wise?

(The painting is by contemporary artist Vanessa Bowman, 'Abbotsbury and Honeysuckle'. The photograph is of carvings on the pulpit of the parish church.)


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