Rewilding The Dales – Part 2: Church

If the idea of rewilding our countryside evokes emotive images, both positive and negative, with many of us who live and work in and around these Dales, then the notion of rewilding the church of the Dales is equally likely to elicit emotional responses. If you like to imagine how things might be in the future, and you remain optimistic even though the world is changing fast, then please read on because there is always hope.

To say that the church is declining in these parts and that it is not what it was only a generation ago is not a slight but simply a statement of fact. Changes in our nation’s culture and the differing experiences of successive generations who’ve lived and work in this place have all played their part in its decrease. But yet if the God who was worshipped here a hundred years ago is still God, the situation we see today cannot be the end of the story.

The God who revealed himself through the Jewish scriptures is the God who made the universe, the Earth, and every living thing we know today. This world was first described as a garden named Eden. Humans existed in harmony with all other living things until the decline started. Commanded to care for creation, our ancestors instead determined to devour it for their own desires, and we who come after them continue in their ways. And yet the Bible also points us forwards to another garden and a re-created Earth, restored from what it is now, to how it was always intended to be. Because our God is not only the creating God, but he is also the recreating, rewilding God, who sees our world as it is and pictures how it will be when his restoration plan is complete. So, then, what might be involved in God’s rewilding of his church here in and around these northern Dales?

We learn in school that food chains describe relationships between organisms in terms of where their nourishment comes from. In fact, in all ecosystems, a complex web of relationships exists between countless, plants, animals, and microbes too, which together determine the survival and flourishing of that part of the natural world. The same is true for all our human endeavours the success of which is determined by the quality of the relationships between all participants. Society is relational and so is church because God himself is a relational God. God reveals himself to us through a personal relationship with Jesus, and the strength of the church itself is defined by the quality of every individual relationship within it, especially those between us and God. It is so good to see events taking place across these parts that gather those who follow Jesus and those who have yet to meet him, especially gatherings that cross historic boundaries, where people meet, and relationships grow. These are places of hope and signs of things to come.

To picture the dales landscape is to imagine wild hills and gentle valleys criss crossed by dry-stone walls and punctuated by rough stone barns and houses. Tracks, roads, and rivers break the land into a patchwork of spaces, but wild nature has no such barriers. The bridging or removal of obstacles in rewilding, allows organisms to move around the landscape, reconnect with other species, travel to breeding grounds, find food and resource, and to thrive. Christian communities too are often recognised by the walls of the buildings in which they have gathered, somewhat isolated from other communities and perhaps diminished by the confines of the spaces within these walls. And now, as buildings are closed or sold and relationships maintained outside of these barriers then I wonder if the organism that is the church may begin to flourish again in a new way, free to move, free to connect and re-connect with wider communities, and free to grow.

The principles of rewilding are actually very simple, at its heart is the idea of allowing nature to do its own thing. Much conservation work comes from a human expectation of what the natural world should look like. However, the results of this are often a conserved environment as human-made as it was before. Our Yorkshire Dales National Park is just such a place. The guidance that Jesus gave his followers, however, was simple too, love God and love your neighbour and yet we have often travelled a long way from this simplicity to complex rituals and routines of church life. Many people today long for a simpler way of being community, a greater authenticity in our relationships, and a focus on the smaller and simpler. Setting out on a daily adventure with Jesus, may not be what everyone who thinks of church pictures, yet if we were to simply follow Jesus then our communal lives might become more rich, complex, beautiful, demanding, and compelling than we ever dreamed possible.

I mentioned in my last blog that many of the animals and plants that we recognise as wildlife in this place come from other places. The presence of some, like the grey squirrel, have a detrimental impact on other species, and only their removal will allow the regeneration of habitats and the thriving of ecosystems. So too with the church, but here it is not wrong people, but habits and perspectives that are alien to the character of Christ that can become established all too easily. Busyness is a pernicious invader, especially in models of church which demand much from the few who play the most significant roles, and seemingly hope for little more than the attendance of others. But other species are often introduced with similar destructive consequences. Vanity, the need to control, traditionalism and other alien ways often sneak into our church communities. When we all recognise these things for what they are and seek instead to encourage each other to offer our own unique and God-given contributions then perhaps we will see a balance restored and an abundance of life that exceeds our hopes.

There is much to consider here. A vision of what might be. A hope that God has not finished with this place and us its people just yet. A trust that he is able to do immeasurably more than we can ever ask or even imagine and I hope, a confidence to trust him for what is coming next. There is more to this rewilding vision, but that is for another blog.

Be encouraged.

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