Outdoor worship can bring us closer to our faith

Ian Bradley
The Times

For the past six months we have been told that it is much safer to meet outdoors than inside. Most churches seem to have paid little heed to this advice. Instead of moving worship outside in what was a glorious spring and a reasonable summer, they first closed their doors and have in recent weeks begun to open up their buildings for limited numbers of socially distanced and mask-wearing worshippers.

In other countries the response has been very different. In Denmark beach churches have sprung up and there have been numerous congregational walks through woods and forests, reflecting the Scandinavian enthusiasm for pilgrimage. There have been some initiatives to take worship outdoors here — I have heard of one Methodist congregation in the northwest that has been meeting on a farm. Yet on the whole British churches have preferred to remain inside or online for their worship.

It was very different in the early days of Christianity. Bishop Germanus, visiting Britain from Gaul in 429, was struck by the number of Christians who worshipped outdoors under trees. St Columba’s biographer, Adamnan, noted that communion was often celebrated outside on the island of Iona.

There is one relatively recent British initiative which is seeking to promote outdoor worship. Forest Church is a loose grouping of congregations around the country who meet outside at least eight times a year, and sometimes more often, on a pattern determined by nature.

Taking worship outdoors — it is not too late in the year to try it — is one of the most direct ways in which Christians can show their solidarity and interdependence with the natural world. It may also begin to reverse centuries of encouragement by the church of human domination of the environment, through a misinterpretation of God’s command to Adam in the Book of Genesis to have dominion over the rest of creation. There are other ways to “green” Christianity, including pilgrimage and the revival of traditional rituals such as well dressings, and winter wassailing and carolling outdoors.


A guiding principle of Forest Church is “don’t over-organise”. It recognises that our appetite for controlling and containing has not only contributed to the global environmental crisis but also disrupted the natural patterns and rhythms of Christian life. Jesus told his followers to take a lesson from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, to worry less and not be so averse to risk.

A new book by Steve Aisthorpe, a mission worker for the Church of Scotland based in the Highlands, calls for a “rewilding of the church”. Taking his cue from recent rewilding initiatives in agriculture and forestry, he argues that something similar needs to happen with the Christian faith, which has been domesticated and reduced to safe predictability. “God’s rewilding of the Church,” he writes, “is reflected in a simplification, a flourishing of the small and simple and the rapid decline of the large and complex.”

Taking more worship outdoors over this coming autumn and winter would make an important contribution to rewilding the church. Christianity in Britain has become an indoor religion and with that goes an inward focus and a failure to engage with the rest of creation. It’s time to take off our masks, put on our woolly hats, scarves and winter coats and, in a sensibly socially distanced fashion, emulate our ancestors in meeting under the trees, by the lakeside and in suitable public spaces. That way, we might even be able to sing our faith again.

Ian Bradley is emeritus professor of cultural and spiritual history at the University of St Andrews. The latest edition of his book, God is Green: Christianity and the Environment, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd, £12.99


Comments are subject to our community guidelines, which can be viewed here.

    The Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum is supporting plans to convert St Fillan's Episcopal Church in Killin (aka 'the tin tabernacle' built in 1878) into a Pilgrim Church open to all and offering hospitality to walkers and cyclists at the westerly destination point of the Three Saints Way pilgrim route. This is also the mid -point of the Iona - St Andrews Pilgrim Way which one day will become a reality. The local Rector of the SEC Strathearn Churches is a keen proponent of Forest Church, mentioned in Ian's article, and we hope the Pilgrim Church in Killin will become a focal point of outdoor worship. Please keep this project in your thoughts and prayers!
    It is illegal to meet outside of the church curtilage in groups of more than six people as far as I understand it.
    Bravo Bradley! Outdoor services now! C of E priests have stopped doing pastoral visits, stopped visiting hospitals, stopped giving services...what do they do with their time? Read luke 13 and lead us out of this mess, more people are dying from suicide (18 a day) and depression than ever before.