A Vision For A Rural Minster or “House of Prayer” in North East Cumbria
There are many pressing reasons to explore an alternative way of being rural Church in the present global context: cultural; social; theological; ecclesiological; or just simply because our current mode of Western existence is unsustainable.
A great sea change is happening in Western culture at the moment. Global economic crises, global environmental crises including climate change, food and water shortages, concerns over the massive economic and global development of large countries and their enormous energy demands (such as India and China), the power of huge international corporations, the importance of faith issues in the context of both national (eg multifaith societies) and international concerns (eg Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine) are all live issues that have the potential to impact our daily lives if they don’t already.
Furthermore, concerns over the future price and availability of oil and gas, the intransigence of most Western countries to seriously tackle difficult issues with a long-term perspective, the controversial development of nuclear power and the advocacy of genetically modified crops all point towards what is, for some, a terrifying prospect of the future.
The economies of scale, outsourcing, exploiting the differences in workers’ wages and rights between developing and developed countries, and the insatiable need for ever-increasing profit margins has resulted in more and more power residing in the hands of the boardrooms of multinational companies who are no longer answerable to the public, or even to a single government. The Government continues to aggressively pursue an agenda of “economic growth”, failing to recognise the fallacy of such a concept in a finite world. This affects the jobs we do, the way we farm, the companies we work for, where our food comes from, where our clothes come from, where our power comes from and how it is generated – a whole host of issues that are a part of our everyday lives, and over which we have no control.
All these issues have impacts on local situations. In the rural context, when we consider the countryside in the UK, what do we see? Idyllic rolling hills? A beautiful quilted patchwork of fields separated by beech and hazel hedgerows? A haven for precious wildlife? Peaceful country lanes for walking and proud hills for climbing? Quaint and picturesque villages to explore? This romanticised view of the countryside was invented by Wordsworth, Coleridge and others at the turn of the 18th/19th century partly in reaction to the grim horrors of the Industrial Revolution; the fantasy is still being perpetuated as the desirable future for the countryside by the UK government under the pseudonym of “sustainable tourism”. Hence the Government’s abortive attempt to sell off Forestry Commission land. But the British countryside, and with it, rural communities and the rural church, are under enormous pressure, and this vision fails to understand both the integrity of rural living, and our necessary material relationship with the land, which, if understood correctly, has the potential to become a source of healing from some of our current degenerative and destructive modes of existence.
In the countryside, and in contrast to the Romantic view, we have seen the collapse of rural economies: local village shops struggle to survive and then die as the cheaper and more convenient supermarkets move in and take the money out: £1 spent in a local shop circulates, on average, through ten other hands within the local economy; £1 spent in a supermarket is lost to the local economy immediately. Public transport is virtually non-existent: my nearest shop is over 12 miles away and there is no bus service at all – a 25-mile round trip to buy a pint of milk or visit the doctor. Local services, especially roads, telephone and broadband, and electricity, are difficult to maintain and are frequently interrupted. The population is ageing with fewer young people choosing rural livelihoods and often unable to afford to stay even if they so desire. These are all matters that face us every day.
Rural house prices have escalated, and, even with the current housing-market ‘slump’, still remain out of the reach of local people earning a farm-labourer’s wage. Elderly farmers work far beyond normal retirement age, well into their seventies, with no-one to take over the farm. When they finally have to give up, estate agents parcel off the farmhouses with paddocks to sell to wealthy people from the suburbs drawn to the idyll of country life, who want a “lifestyle” or “equestrian” property. The rest of the farmland is sold to increasingly larger farms. Larger farms means fewer farms, which again leads to increasing unemployment and fewer jobs as machinery continues to replace people. Tenant farmers don’t even have a property to sell at the end of their working life and their prospects are dire.
The Government’s approach is to encourage these developments and sees the future of the countryside as the amusement park for the cities. In such a future, the countryside is made up of massive farms of a thousand acres and more, run on highly mechanised lines, using genetically modified crops and expansive monocultures, with enormous inputs of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, and fossil fuels. The number of people working on the land continues to decrease to a bare economic minimum.
Apart from farmers, the population in the countryside will comprise B&B owners, professional commuters, and “tele-workers” who are the only ones who could afford the high cost of rural properties. Rural economies will be highly dependent on the (volatile and often frivolous) tourist industry, with income derived from country hotels, B&Bs, and the provision of “country” recreational activities (like “Center Parcs”) for those from the cities and the suburbs on holiday, and coming to enjoy the “National Parks” or the “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. Indeed, there are large swathes of England that already look like this.
But is this a satisfactory future for rural England? Is the countryside simply one “resource” among others to be incorporated in the economic models? What has happened to the relationship between those few inches of topsoil and our very existence on this planet? What is the correspondence between this vision and the creation stories of Genesis?
If we are not convinced of the integrity of this vision, what could the countryside look like in the future? How might genuine rural communities exist, and would they have any answers to offer to a post-industrial existence? What is the role of the rural church in all this?
Despite its numerically small size, the rural church has, I believe, a crucial role to play in living out a parable for a different way of being in the world – a way that addresses all of these issues and offers hope for the future based on the imperative of the whole gospel. This short paper does not attempt to answer all the above issues, but hopefully shares a vision for a way of living that does.
In a report called “The Rural Church: Towards 2000” published 20 years ago by the Rural Theology Association, Rev’d Anthony Hodgson, one of the authors in the report, and founder of the Little Gidding Fellowship in the 1970s, advocated, in the context of rural ministry in the Church of England, the establishment of Christian communities, under the auspices of the bishop, with one or more priests, based around a farm, sharing daily prayer and working the land. In this way a prayer-grounded, land-based Christian community, that links prayer with working with the land, could become a life-sustaining centre for the surrounding rural communities and churches.
This idea is not new. It was practised in the north and west of Britain, and in Ireland, during the sixth to eighth centuries and beyond, and was known as a “minster”. There is some evidence of a small Christian monastic community at Bewcastle during the seventh and eighth centuries that would have lived a life of shared prayer throughout each day and worked on the land. We know that St Cuthbert used to visit this area on his pilgrimages across the north of England, and there is abundant evidence from place names and holy sites that various Christian communities have existed around the Bewcastle and Stapleton areas over the centuries. With such a strong Christian heritage perhaps here and now are the time and place to explore the possibility of renewing this ancient way of being church in an informal, semi-monastic context.
In his book Parochial Vision: The Future of the English Parish, published in 2004, Nick Spence says:
The parish was a comparatively late ecclesiastical development in England, emerging from the ad hoc network of ‘minster’ churches that covered the country in the seventh and eighth centuries.
These ‘minsters’ – the word is simply the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Latin monasterium – were localised, collegiate churches, staffed by a team of peripatetic clergy who travelled into their ‘parochiae’ (larger precursors of the parish) to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.
England was theoretically Christian by AD 686, yet the top-down nature of the conversion meant that the average man and woman had only the slenderest grasp of the faith. It was in the century and a half following this date that the real conversion of England was effected, primarily by Celtic monks (though the term Celtic is much misunderstood today) who travelled, preached and evangelised from their minster bases. Strange as it may seem, these minsters are well suited to modern England. Firstly, for the first time in 1,300 years the population has little or no grasp of the Christian story. The country is a mission field again… Minster churches were evangelistic foundations, their task being to take the word to a people who lived in a distinctly sub-Christian culture. Modern minsters need to have the same basic outlook.
Second, minsters were collegiate churches. Minster churches pooled people in such a way as to foster fellowship and teamwork. Modern minsters would do the same, countering the parish’s isolationism, encouraging specialisation and offering greater opportunity for lay participation.
Third, minster churches were localised affairs, eschewing the traditional one-size-fits-all approach in favour of local circumstance. They varied from tiny buildings to massive complexes, such as the one Bede lived in at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. The modern minster needs to reflect this localisation if it is to reach a nation which varies from inner city Manchester, through suburban Southampton and semi-rural Kent, to wholly rural Cumbria.
Fourth, the minster’s collegiate nature allowed it to pool resources as well as people. Archaeologists have located on minster sites evidence of cooking, eating, reading, writing, praying, sleeping, teaching, guesthouses and workshops. Modern minsters would pool a locality’s congregations and resources in such a way as to provide the services (in all senses of the word) that, through no fault of their own, current parish churches are unable to deliver.
Finally, minsters worked in tandem with local, village congregations, which they visited and taught over the years. Residents occasionally travelled to their local minster church for feast days but otherwise lived as the local presence of that church. Modern minsters would thus dovetail their ministry with suitable local parish and cell churches, equipping and helping them to be the presence of Christ in their localities. In this way, the modern minster system would reshape rather than replace the existing parish structure.
So how could such a rural ‘minster’ serve a local area effectively today, Hodgson asks? Firstly, he responds, by taking on the task of prayer for the world and the neighbourhood through its daily round of shared worship. This is already happening in our parishes as the Rector prays at 8am every morning in Stapleton Church. Rarely more than two or three attends these services but, as Jesus promises, it is precisely enough! Nevertheless, distances involved, the nature of farm work, commuting to work, getting children off to school in the morning, after-school activities and meetings in the evenings, mean that others who would like to be involved find it difficult. A Christian community, living on the same site, would provide more opportunity for others to share in the daily life of prayer. Indeed, the morning, midday and evening prayer are already offered at the Bewcastle House of Prayer at Greenholme.
Secondly, as a land-based community using labour-intensive methods for cultivation and animal husbandry, guided by the principles of “natural” farming methods such as permaculture and biodynamic farming, it can demonstrate the value of an ecologically and environmentally sustainable alternative to agri-business as a way of building up the health of rural society again, including the possibility of offering work to those who are increasingly without work, and accommodation for those who can least afford it. By focussing on subsistence first, dependence on the increasingly volatile wider economy is greatly diminished, thus, paradoxically, making the community more economically sustainable.
Such a centre would be an expression of, and a part of, the wider church, under the authority of the bishop. Indeed, the Bishop of Carlisle is wholly supportive of this project. It could become a living, breathing focus for the local rural community, since many who lived off-site could be involved in the work and worship of the community as time permitted them. The many activities undertaken on site would include working to improve the health of the soil that sustains us, manuring and mulching; looking after the animals, such as hens, a few sheep and a working horse; bee-keeping and honey extraction; pruning and harvesting; communal cooking and eating; experimenting with growing different plants for food; building affordable, energy-efficient and ecologically sustainable housing, such as straw-bale housing, cob-building, round-wood timber framed housing, woodland homes, yurts etc ; maintaining renewable energy systems; developing local skills through traditional craft workshops, such as felting, weaving, basket-weaving and green woodworking; nurturing woodland through planting broad-leaf trees and traditional coppicing; gathering wood and preparing logs for heating and cooking; creating wildlife habitats using hedgerow fencing and wetland habitats; as well as being a place of prayer, study, research, teaching, hospitality, music and friendship. The produce from the land would be used firstly to sustain the community and those helping out, and surplus would be sold locally, either to shops in Brampton or directly on site to people in the surrounding communities.
The centre would, therefore, house communal eating facilities and a range of different types of accommodation. People would have their own space to live privately with the option of eating together several days a week, for example. There would be an oratory for prayer, a library and simple study and teaching facilities. It could be a place where the surrounding parishes could come together to work, for Bible-study, to worship and pray, to eat together, to play music and read poetry, and from where lay-ministry teams are supported and sustained. There would therefore be a range of different types of space within the community. It would not replace existing parish churches, but rather act as a centre to support their life and help give substance to their worship.
As a place of Christian hospitality it would provide a safe and gentle refuge for a range of people to come and stay for anything from a few days to a few months, or years; from elderly relatives who need looking after, to Christian leaders and others who need space to recover from the madness of the world, to young people who want to taste and see what a Christian community centred on a life of prayer reconnected to the soil looks like.
Finally, in seeking to live gently on the earth, it would use renewable energy based on relatively simple technologies, such as solar-heated water, wind and micro-hydro electricity generation, and seek to move away from the use of all fossil fuels and oil-based derivatives. It would minimise and recycle waste, treating its own sewage through the use of wetland reed beds and composting toilets to create “humanure” in a way that regenerates creation, as all other creatures apart from humanity have always done. Rainwater would be collected from roofs and filtered and stored for later use as necessary.
In short, it would be a place of inspiration and beauty, of authenticity and simplicity, of joy and hope. It could give a glimpse of the renewal of creation promised in Christ’s resurrection – a living message of hope – an offering of the Church to the world.
Although for some the answer to this question is obvious, there are others who are, perhaps, more used to seeing Church as a religion practised solely on Sundays, Harvest, Christmas, baptisms and funerals, with little relevance to ordinary life. For those who see themselves in the latter category, some words of explanation may help.
The whole cosmos exists because God imagines it to exist – “Let there be…”. Creation’s very existence is the outworking of the love of the Trinitarian God. God, out of love, makes “space” in his own being by emptying or withdrawing himself to allow Creation, something that is other than God, and an object of his love, to exist. It is the Father’s gift of love to the Son, which the Son lovingly offers back to the Father in the love of the Spirit. As the Psalmist says in the 24th psalm:
The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is: the compass of the world, and they that dwell therein.
Adam was created as the priest, or gardener, of this creation. The book of Genesis describes the creation of man in terms different to the rest of Creation: man was created, not by the spoken word of God (“Let there be…”), but by being shaped out of the dust by God’s own hand. Having formed and shaped the soil, the substance of creation, God breathed his life into this lifeless earth by His Spirit – mankind – a product of earth and heaven. Then man was called God’s image – that is, the image of the God who empties Himself to make space for the world as the expression of His love. Man and woman were created to love both each other and the world God created, of which humanity is the heart – imaging God’s own sacrificial, Trinitarian love, to give themselves for the life of Creation. Man and woman are created to be the personal response of the stuff of creation to God.
You never enjoy the world aright,
till the Sea itself floweth in your veins,
till you are clothed with the heavens,
and crowned with the stars:
and perceive yourself to be
the sole heir of the whole world,
and more than so,
because men are in it
who are every one
sole heirs as well as you.
Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God,
as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres,
you never enjoy the world.
Here is profound imagery about the place of humanity in the world. This living and breathing soil, this one in whom heaven and earth meet, is called to be God’s image, His joy, and His presence to Creation: to be the one that enables, energises, delights in the whole of Creation to grow into all its divine fullness, and thus to offer the fullness of Creation’s worship before the footstool of heaven, gathering Creation up in his own body. This is a high priesthood: to represent God to creation, and creation to God.
Adam failed. Humanity failed. The story of Genesis is a description of how we have abused the gift we were called to bring to maturity, and hence perfection, when we took the fruits of the earth to further our own selfish ends, thus destroying our priesthood by replacing God with ourselves. As an integral part of Creation, we therefore abused, not only Creation, but also both ourselves and our neighbours. And as a direct consequence of our abuse of the created order the whole of Creation itself falls into chaos, darkness, disorder, and death. How could it be otherwise, if Genesis is right in its extraordinary claim for the pivotal role of humanity in saying that we are the personal response of Creation to God and his mediating presence back to Creation?
In this reading, the entire cosmos is disrupted and thrown off its course. Humanity, in Adam, was intended to lead Creation towards participation in the dance of love in God’s communal, Trinitarian being. This was the task given to Adam as The Gardener of Eden. Humanity, as the reflection of God’s own communal being-in-love, was created as the link, the join, the interweaving thread that connects God to his Creation. When the thread is cut and the link is broken, the relationship unravels, and fear and darkness flow into the whole of Creation – the earth groans, birds, animals and plants compete, and violence replaces the love the Creator bequeathed. Vestiges of this love and these relations remain: in the way, for example, in which a mother hen will hide her chicks under her wing; or the way in which a frightened horse will make a choice to trust its gentle rider and so overcome its fear.
It is not difficult to see how many of the earth’s environmental and societal problems are a direct consequence of mankind’s greed, which is actually a covetousness of creation, itself a form of idolatry of the self. This is the fear that “sin”, or disconnection from God, introduces – a fear that cripples because it cannot trust that in giving to God, “all manner of things will be well.” The relentless pursuit of economic growth, of ever-increasing “standards of living”, of rampant consumerism, of the increasing gulf that disconnects ever more people from the earth that feeds us all, of mechanisation and mass production, of the push towards “virtual reality” (whatever that is) – all these expressions of so-called “progress” are actually driving us further and further away from our calling to be God’s image in Creation. A vast number of the problems in the world, both in our society and with the environment, can be traced very easily to this radical disconnection with who we are created to be.
But this “sin” is not something we can just “fix”. Sin, disconnection from God and the “sting” of death, has a strong historical dimension to it. Our actions have consequences not only in our own lives and the lives of others, but also in the rest of Creation through our intimate connection as part of it. The “bad” history created by sin cannot be fixed just through attempting to change our present or our future, even if we had the power to change ourselves. Part of the integrity of Creation is precisely that what we do matters – and that includes our “bad” history, and the bad history of all that have gone before us. It is as if all our activity in time is part of building a great city or growing a great garden – indeed that is what it means to husband Creation. But we are powerless to undo what is in the past. The damage that has already been done, that ripples in myriad unseen ways throughout the entire interconnected matrix of Creation, and the damage that we introduce each day through our activities and choices, requires a healing from beyond ourselves before it can be restored. It requires a cosmic healing. This is the weight of sin.
This is the world awaiting the coming of the Second Adam. In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ the stuff of Creation is taken up by “the Lord of all mankind [as he] hasten[s] with eager zeal that he might mount upon [the tree]”, which “trembled as the warrior embraced [it]”, as the author of the seventh century poem, the Dream of the Rood, puts it. (This is the poem an extract of which is engraved on the side of the seventh century Ruthwell cross, the sister cross to our own one at Bewcastle.) The “young hero (who was God Almighty)” “embraced” creation in order to restore mankind, and thus the cosmos, back on its path towards God, to renew and restore the divinising interface between God and his creation. This is the language used in the seventh century to describe Christ overcoming the evil of sin, the disruption of Creation. It required the eternal God, Himself, to become the living soil, “sinful flesh” as St Paul puts it, in order to redeem both our history and our future, and thus the history and future of the whole of the cosmos. And that is what the Cross is all about.
So humanity is lifted up and replaced on the throne of the Priesthood of Creation in the Second Adam. Thus, in the Gospel stories Creation is: renewed and transformed from water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana; sanctified by Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan; brought to stillness by Jesus from the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee; multiplied in Jesus’ breaking and sharing of the bread and fish on the mountain; blessed by Jesus in the healing water at the well of Bethesda; the medium through which Jesus healed the haemorrhaging woman when she touched his woven garment; the healing soil that made whole the blind man when Jesus smeared his eyes with the spittle and the mud; and countless other examples; indeed all of Jesus’ miracles can be seen as the restoration of the wholeness and beauty of Creation, the abundance of life and joy. This is Creation as it was intended to be – the Second Gardener has arrived!
Jesus took the soil of his body, the stuff of the earth, and lead it to death on the cross. He took the weight of sin and plunged to the very depths of the sickness of Creation, to the desolation of death: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This was the only path through which healing could come – the unravelling of the sickness of sin that had worked its way through the entire body of the cosmos, like some ugly and unstoppable cancer.
And having been to the depths he transformed the soil of his body in his Resurrection. The tomb was empty! The molecules and atoms that made up his body, and that were taken from the soil through the food that he ate, the water and the wine that he drank, and the air that he breathed, were raised from the dead, transformed into a new creation and lifted into heaven. And, of course, it is through the transforming presence of the Spirit upon the fruit of the earth that we meet and eat the hidden and present Christ in the act of Holy Communion. All our relationship with God takes place through his Creation; as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said, Christianity is the most materialistic of the great religions. The Fall was a failure of the first Adam to fulfil his priesthood of Creation, the purpose for which he was created; the Second Adam came, not just to restore, but to fulfil that relationship with Creation, that it, and we, may participate in God’s own being of Love, and so, like the extravagant beauty of a rose, fulfil the purpose for which we and all creation were brought into being. Hence in St John’s gospel (as it could only be), in the very first encounter with the resurrected Christ, Mary “mistakes” Jesus for “the gardener”!
At Pentecost, Jesus sent the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to breathe the redeemed life of the New Creation into his apostles, saturating, soaking, baptising them. This is a re-echoing of the creation story of Genesis. This is the new future, new life, new humanity and thus new creation, redeemed from its “bad” history, healed and restored, by the work of the Second Person of the Trinity on the cross. The Spirit, as the Lord and Giver of Life, brings the possibility of the future new creation into the present moment. He brings the resurrected and transformed creation, through the waters of baptism from the death of the old into the birth of the new. The “now” of life is, through the presence of the Spirit, the presence of God’s eternal love in the infinitesimally small. In prayer and in interweaving community with the whole of Creation (human, animal, plant, geodic, cosmic) resides the fulfilment of restored humanity, the Church. The being of the Church, then, as Christ’s Bride, is nothing less than the joy of renewed humanity offering the fullness of the re-vitalised and re-newed Cosmos in worship to God. It is the Father’s treasured dowry to his beloved Son, enlivened with the overflowing fullness of God’s Spirit, resurrected to new life in Christ.
This is what the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, saw over two and a half thousand years ago:
The wolf shall lie with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.2
To return to the question with which this section began, then, what does sustainable living, food and farming have to do with prayer and living in Christian community? Hopefully the answer is now obvious. Creation and the way we, as humanity, live in relation to it is not ‘an issue’ among others: it is the centre of the redemptive work of Christ, the heart Genesis and John, the story of the Exodus and the Promised Land, the promised blessing of the Covenant, taken up by the (cosmic) Second Adam of Paul’s hymns in Colossians and Phillippians, the promise of the transformation of Creation in Romans, who still bears the scars inflicted this side of resurrection, though now transfigured by glory. The hymn to Christ in St Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse:
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
For by him all things were created;
things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers
or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning and the firstborn
from among the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood,
shed on the cross.
Hence from this all sorts of implications flow for the way we live, especially in our world environmental crisis, which our Archbishop considers as one of the greatest crises facing humanity at the present. We, as the Church, should be re-discovering and proclaiming the true meaning of Creation, and our role in it. As the ‘royal priesthood of all believers’, which is the restored priesthood of Creation, we should have been the prophets calling the rest of the world back into a right relationship with the rest of our body (ie the earth from which we come), and showing the world how to live in that right relationship and offering it up in joy and delight to God.
Instead, this understanding appears to have been lost in the modern, industrial, mechanised, mass-production, and consumerist Western world. It is to our shame that we, as the Church, have largely so far failed to take this calling seriously in modern times. Again, vestiges can be seen in many so-called “primitive” religions, such as those of the Aboriginal and the native American cultures, to which many of the “new consciousness” movements look for inspiration. But in our own country the Celtic and Saxon churches had a strong grasp of this calling. The hagiographies of Brigid, Cuthbert and Guthlac, for example, portray a vivid and deepening relationship with Creation resulting from a deeper relationship with God. And the sides of both the Bewcastle and Ruthwell Crosses display creatures gorging themselves on the fruit of the vine – a clear reference to the dependence of Creation for its fulfilment on the Church bearing the fruit of Christ (Jn 15).
It is this heart to search out the old (Celtic and Saxon) ways of being Church in this part of the Britain, in a new context in relation to Creation, through prayer and work, that we are keen to explore in the possibility of a rural “house of prayer” or minster.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)
The machine-made life will not work; it ends as we are seeing it end – in chaos, massacre and a lunacy of dominion by evil men. It is the interaction between man and nature which alone can make the full man at one in his middle status between God and the living dust of the earth. There is a kind of music in the order of the universe which penetrates man by and through the earth… The earth lives down to the smallest particle of soil and so by contact with it protects man from yielding to a mechanism of daily life that, as we now see, can corrupt all his values and make that life far more insecure than that of the most hunted of wild animals. In losing touch with the organic processes of the earth man is fouling the sources of his own being.3
A central part of the calling, then, is to live and work gently with the land as an act of prayer. The whole of creation is held in God’s hands, the presence of his Spirit sustaining all life. The promise of renewed creation that we celebrate at each Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is what we seek to realise on the land. Methods of husbandry that embody this relationship will therefore be integral to the way we work.
In June 2008 the UK Government signed up to the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). It was signed by 57 other countries, although not by Australia, Canada, and the USA. Among its findings and recommendations is a recognition that smaller-scale farms, focussed on “agroecological sciences will contribute to addressing environmental issues while maintaining and increasing productivity.”
However, one of the central objections to any move away from agribusiness models of farming is the contention that no other methods can provide sufficient food for the world. The high yields per acre or hectare from large-scale farms are cited as evidence of the superior productivity of this intensive approach to agriculture.
These claims are refuted by several recent scientific studies in the USA that demonstrate a substantially higher energy ratio from organic and Amish farms relative to surrounding conventional farms. The energy ratio measures the energy value of the outputs from the farm relative to the purchased energy inputs, and is thus a key factor in considering the sustainability of food production from these contrasting methods of farming. For example, in a comparative study in 2002 centred on the Land Institutes’s experimental organic Sunshine Farm in Kansas, energy ratios for the Sunshine and Amish farms varied between 0.7 and 2.5, averaging around 1.5 (ie on average they produce 50% more energy than is bought in). Sunshine Farm, itself, delivered an energy ratio of 2.5, that is, it produced two and a half times more food energy than it used in fuel energy. This contrasts with the energy ratio of conventional farms of generally between 0.3 and 0.6, averaging around 0.4 (ie they use two and a half times more energy than they produce). In terms of output of energy per hectare, Sunshine Farm produced 23GigaJoules per hectare (GJ/ha), compared with between 7 and 18GJ/ha for the conventional farms. Quantitative assessments such as these demonstrate the fallacy of the conventional arguments in defence of the agribusiness approach to farming.
Natural farming methods, therefore, provide a serious and positive answer to the questions around gentle husbandry of the land and sustainable food production. They abandon intense meat production since this is an extremely inefficient use of land. They tend to eschew farm specialisation, the development of monocultural crops, and the use of agrochemicals and mechanisation. This means that other methods of growing and producing food must be developed, usually through the recovery of the agricultural wisdom from more “primitive” societies, coupled with experimentation.
For example, permaculture seeks minimise external (and internal) energy inputs into the farm, concentrating on the development of perennial, and hence evolving, mixed and layered food ecosystems that replicate the sustainability and stability of natural ecosystems. This is achieved through careful design of the food ecosystems and using a wide range of different and often surprising plants, taking account of factors such as proximity to dwellings, the natural preferences of the plants, shelter and edge effects, shade and sunlight exposure, aspect, altitude, exposure, soil type, water availability and content etc. Soil development is encouraged naturally through the use of legumes, mulching to return all carbon-based material back to the soil, and minimal interference with soil structure. Such practices encourage a wide diversity of wildlife, which naturally means sharing the produce with this wildlife. Careful design incorporates several different functions to each element of the design. For example, grey-water waste can be gravity-fed through a series of reed-beds, providing a wetland habitat for birds and insects. The reed-beds towards the downstream end of the system can empty into a large pond planted with reedmace, which provides edible seeds, stem, and roots. The pond can be stocked with hardy fresh-water fish, such as carp, providing meat. The surface of the pond can be used to reflect sunlight towards some sheltered species that might require more sunlight than other species.
The focus on energy use, as pointed out above, is an important one, since modern Western agriculture employs, on average, 100 calories of energy (usually from fossil fuel sources) to produce 10 calories of food energy.4 In other words, our current food production is being massively subsidised by an energy source that will cease to exist and is, therefore, by definition, unsustainable. As oil and derivative prices (such as manufacturing, fertilisers and prepared animal feeds etc.) increase in the future this will become more and more obvious and conventional farming techniques will become more and more marginal, especially in this country on an open world market. The future of conventional farming practices in this country is very bleak, particularly for small-scale, family-run hill farms, but also in the long term, for the large-scale agribusinesses. One of the aims of permaculture is to reverse this equation and hence produce food gently and sustainably by working with creation, rather than heavy-handedly oppressing it into submission and servitude.
Another element in the growth of natural farming is a recognition of the importance of the influence of the moon on plant growth. We are all familiar with huge effect of the gravitational pull of the moon on the world’s oceans resulting in the fortnightly tidal cycle. Yet its influence on other aspects of animal and plant life has not been recognised in mainstream scientific literature. One of the key principles of biodynamic farming is to work with the effect that the moon has on the monthly growing cycles of plants, pulling sap towards the extremities of the plant during the waxing cycle, and releasing it to fall back towards the roots during the waning cycle, in much the same way that the tides operate. Working with lunar cycles in this way has been shown to have profound effects on the health, vigour, growth, and productivity of plants.
But beyond all discussion about relative productivity and methodologies of farming lies the fundamental principle that the soil, and all it sustains, is holy because God is holy and he created it. God creates nothing but life, since he is life. This means that all that we do, whether with the soil, with plants, with wood, with animals, is a form of prayer, of communion with God as his co-workers in his creation. We see this quintessentially in Holy Communion, where Christ meets us, and we receive him, through the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands – in the bread and the wine. Therefore all that we do, we do as prayer, with our hearts, hands, minds, and spirits. As HJ Massingham says, machinery puts distance between us and the good earth, with the great danger that the prayer of our hands is turned into the mechanisation of production.
The primary purpose of the community, then, is prayer. This would be centred in the shared daily offices of morning, midday, and evening prayer, with compline at the end of the day. As the offices form the rhythm of each day, shared meals form the heart of communion – both in eating the gifts of the soil together and in giving thanks to God for his generosity and the abundance of life. For each meal is a partaking in the life of a plant or animal that has died to give us life. Our daily lives are sustained by the life of some other creature of God’s Creation given up for us. Each meal is thus a sacrament. Shared meals, and the hospitality offered at meal-times, are therefore an integral part of the prayer-life of the community as much as work on the land and time for daily study. Festivals, music evenings, community feasts, teaching sessions, and other occasional events form part of the wider rhythm.
The subsistence of the community should aim at self-sustaining, in terms of food, water, waste, energy, building materials etc. To attempt to achieve this alone, or as a single family, is a recipe for stress, disillusionment, depression and illness. We are created, however, to live and work in community, in the image of the Triune God who is the communion of Father, Son and Spirit. This does not mean it is easy. Indeed, our fallen natures mean it is a constant struggle to overcome our inherent selfishness. Nevertheless, without the burden of salaries, the manual work of many hands can achieve much. It may take longer, and take more people, but we are building a different economy, not invented by profit, and so our measurements are different to those of the business world.
Of course, some money will be required to pay council tax bills, run vehicles, maintain any machinery, buy certain goods such as salt, coffee, etc. A certain amount of produce will therefore need to be sold, or income generated, probably through the sale of the produce of traditional crafts, and through donations from hospitality. Some members of the community may want to keep some form of external work. This would need to be worked out together.
Notwithstanding issues and practicalities that need thinking through, hopefully this paper presents a vision that starts to answer the questions set out at the beginning in a positive way that is filled with hope and joy, as well as with hard work, because it is centred on the God who redeems his Creation.
Rev’d Dr RPC Brown
1.Thomas Traherne, No. 28, “The First Century,” Centuries of Meditations
3.HJ Massingham, England and the Farmer, 1941).
4.DA Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture, New Society Publishers, 2006
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