Emma Pavey reviews ‘Landscape Liturgies: Outdoor worship resources from the Christian tradition’ by Nick Mayhew Smith, with Sarah Brush, published in 2021 by Canterbury Press. The book was based on research supported by the Susanna Wesley Foundation.
Along with Sarah Brush, Nick Mayhew Smith has published a collection of ‘resources to celebrate and bless the earth’ entitled Landscape Liturgies. The resource is divided into animal blessings; love feasts and community gatherings; churchyard, parish and rogation blessing rituals; water blessings and rituals; tree blessings and gatherings; fields, hills, weather and agriculture; and pilgrimage prayers and blessings.
Nick begins by describing the impetus for the book, a conversation about the significance of early Methodism holding services outdoors. The book proceeds to provide a varied and rich collection of resources for those wishing to celebrate blessings, liturgies and rituals outdoors with the same words that have been spoken across decades and, in many cases, centuries. Nick has gathered a mixture of expressions of gratitude, requests and even exorcisms. Nick notes in several places that older prayers tend to focus on creatures only inasmuch as they are useful to human needs, in some cases reflecting older theologies of God-ordained domination over the rest of nature. He helpfully draws out how some of these prayers could be re-interpreted with a less anthropocentric intention that highlights our interconnectivity and our responsibility towards the land and its other creatures. This response might also take the form of prayerful action, such as installing a ‘bee hotel’ in a churchyard.
The section on the parish includes technical installations, which makes one wonder if this could be extended to blessings for computer technology, virtual communal places and our online environment, particularly if our social media feed is the medieval peasant’s field, in daily need of both protection from curses and blessings to nurture well-being.
Because many of us – though certainly not all – are more distanced from the rhythms and seasons of farming and tight-knit, small communities, Nick’s aim with this resource is to help us to reconnect in surprising ways, to ‘find old paths that connect people to place, that represent the best instincts and ambitions of a local community to hold things in common’ (xix): all the resources are designed to be read in community. The resources for boundaries (such as ‘rogation’ and ‘clipping’ services) take on an interesting tenor and tension when placed within our modern ecclesiological and national discourse of borders and belonging, identity and welcome.
The ‘enchanted’ world of ancient prayers, curses and demons is something often snubbed by disenchanted Western modernity, and in some cases superseded by scientific knowledge; nonetheless there is a mystery and different way of knowing here to be recovered. It’s also not a difficult stretch to adapt this, as Nick does, to an understanding of how the actions of humanity are often, in effect, cursing the land and its inhabitants.
Many of the resources in the book come from range of old Christian traditions (Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, etc) and mainline denominations of the islands of Britain and Ireland, as well as from individual ministers and theologians. There are also a good number from other places that enrich the collection, such as a Syrian water blessing, an animal blessing from a minister in Australia, and a brief exploration of how Orthodox water blessings are performed in different countries.
Obviously, a book on liturgy is aimed at Christian denominations that use liturgy for worship. Within these denominations, authenticity arises from a link to tradition. It would be interesting to explore how other denominations celebrate and bless the earth, in their more ad-lib, spontaneous style, blending the discovery of old paths with the creation of new ones. This observation reflects the fact that my own varied denominations have been largely non-liturgical – actually quite anti-liturgical in some cases, seeing authenticity in spontaneity – so pre-set prayers often read like spells. This is not meant disrespectfully, quite the opposite. I can appreciate through engaging with Nick’s book the power that Christians have come to recognise and recover (as other traditions and cultures recognised long before them) of repeating and hearing the same words in the same place, sensing the connection that it weaves to place and time and others who’ve walked the land before. Christianity might feel less like an interloper in Britain than in other parts of the world where it was taken, but its history on these islands is relatively short, so it is interesting to see how the faithful and their leaders have sought to integrate their theology with this land, with the practices of daily life, and with the rest of nature over the centuries.
Outdoor worship can be a challenge to our comfort levels in terms of the British weather and also our visibility to the wider public. Nick discusses this (along with former Methodist church Youth President Phoebe Parkin) in a recent podcast from the SWF.
Although not within its direct scope, this book is therefore also helpful in thinking through how ideas of discipline, challenge and literal physicality – not to mention sacrifice and offerings – figure into our theology and faith practice.
It also calls us to think about our theology and spirituality of creation, to explore our beliefs about what it means for other creatures, trees, mountains, rocks and rivers to be alive, and how a touch of post-human panentheism might dialogue with an anthropocentric theology regarding the rest of nature.
Nick and Sarah’s book offers a varied bounty of resources for churches looking for liturgy to connect with the rest of nature, and is of great value.