IN HIS book Wildling: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (Picador, 2018), Isabella Tree tells the story of the “rewilding” of the Knepp Estate in Sussex. Intensive agriculture ceases, machines are sold, staff are made redundant and, in 20 years, the land is reclaimed by brush and trees and recolonized by an extraordinary diversity of different species. Nightingales return and turtledoves and white storks begin to breed in unprecedented numbers. Knepp’s story and the concept of savagery have captured the imaginations of landowners around the world.
The savage movement reflects a larger shift in mankind’s disposition to the environment. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about savagery is the abandonment of human design and mastery in favor of a process led by nature. He advocates cooperation with the emerging properties of ecology rather than the imposition of a particular use on the earth.
In light of this, the Church of England’s recent vision for a Church “where mixed ecology is the norm” is fascinating (News June 4). This may be a small change from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ popular term “mixed church economy,” but its theological implications are important; because encouraging a different and more diverse kind of ecology requires a radically different disposition than, for example, filling a particular niche in the economy at large, or trying to sell yourself to a particular audience.
THEOLOGICALLY, there is a strong connection to Wilding’s commitment to a humble disposition to a deeper, mysterious, and hidden power and agency at work, which invites human agency to participate.
Over the past decade or so, when large sums of money have been spent in mission and church planting, there has been little room for mystery or humility. Those who want to negotiate a piece of the pie need to be clear about their vision, strategy, goals and results. With little theological reflection, the mission was joined at the hip with growth (for which we mean digital growth). The mission was instrumentalized in the service of reversing the decline of the church. Our communities have sometimes been seen as custodians of the raw material needed to stabilize a declining institution.
Ecological language invokes a co-agency relationship with the missionary Spirit of God. He invites the Church to a theological vision of mission which join to with the flow of God’s self-giving life in the world, and for the fulfillment of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.
The Church becomes a key agent in the midst of this process, whose role is to listen, to participate, to discern what is happening, to keep and protect what is emerging.
This is the vision and practice of the New Testament: a movement of a community of disciples constantly seeking to follow the flow of the Spirit in building the Kingdom of God of which the Church is an embodiment and a foretaste. As Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder argue in their study of Acts, Constants in context (Orbis, 2004), the “goal of the church is not the church itself”; rather, “the purpose of the church is to show beyond itself, to be a community that preaches, serves, and witnesses to the reign of God.”
IN OUR work supporting pioneer ministers in various contexts, Tina Hodgett and I have witnessed the diversity that occurs when people courageously respond to Jesus’ call in their lives and seek to follow God’s Spirit of Mission. wherever they are.
What emerges is a range of different and often unexpected expressions of the Kingdom, from congregational factories and missionary and neo-monastic communities, to social enterprises such as bakeries or roasters, embodying Kingdom values.
We sought to describe what we were witnessing in an article and diagram known as the “Pioneer Specter”. These, along with the online tool we have now developed, are designed to support and facilitate the development of a mixed ecology. We invite the Church to begin by being attentive to its context, then to trust in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the leadership of those who are called to it, to facilitate the expression of the Kingdom.
At Knepp, years of investing in the latest technology and merging farms to seek to generate economies of scale have failed to solve the industry’s financial woes. A new beginning began when they stopped the machines, listened to the earth, and began to cooperate with nature.
Trying to save the Church by turning to a vision of itself will not work. The mission cannot be instrumentalized in the service of an institution in decline. Mission is the overflow of the life of God. Worship is our motivation for the mission, not the Church.
“Mixed ecology,” rather than being a new slogan, may well help us espouse the theology we need to find our way back.
Reverend Paul Bradbury is the leader of the Poole Missionary Communities in the Diocese of Salisbury. Eexplore the pioneering spectrum and access training on its use here