The temporary closure of our churches for worship, and the necessity for people to stay at home or isolate, has been very difficult for everyone. As the restrictions are gradually being lifted, many church congregations and local communities may be looking for opportunities to safely resume some activities. This might include making use, or more use, of your churchyard and outside areas in the parish.
Government guidance is clear that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones. This can be an opportunity to notice and be thankful for God’s creation; noticing the trees, plants, birds, and insects around you, and feeling the sunshine and wind (or refreshing rain!) on your face.
Churchyards are also often full of fascinating monuments which tell the story of your community over the centuries. Sometimes they contain imagery and poetry and express joy and faith, as well as sadness, even perhaps unease, for example monuments of people related to the Slave Trade. These can offer opportunities for reflections on life, remind people of their shared past, and encourage discussion about our place in the world, and how we might prayerfully work towards creating a better one.
Below are a range of resources that you may like to try out in your churchyard, local park, or (if you are fortunate enough to be able to) on a walk in the countryside. You may also be able to find joy and wonder from your armchair looking out the window, viewing nature photos or videos, or in your garden.
At all times, activities must follow current physical distancing and cleaning regulations. Always check and adhere to the current guidance, including any local ‘lockdowns’ that apply in your area.
You will need to risk assess your activity depending on the number of people you are expecting to attend — if there will be more than 30 a more rigorous risk assessment is required. There is guidance and a template for this kind of risk assessment available from the HSE.
There are restriction on choirs, singing and playing instruments. In a churchyard, small groups of professional singers (those who are employed to do so) will be able to sing in front of worshippers. Singing in groups should be limited to professional singers only and should be limited to a small set group of people. There should be no wind instruments or singing by non-professionals. There is more guidance here.
Check what your Bishop has decided for your diocese, and follow this ruling.
If you are planning to do Eucharistic worship outside you need to ask your diocesan bishop's permission.
Are you simply moving indoor activities outdoors, are you adapting the nature of the activities to reflect your outdoor setting, or do you want to move more fully towards a ‘Forest Church’ model? The answer will affect the kind of resources you need. None of these are wrong, but they are different start-points.
What activities within your church community are suited to being carried out outdoors? Some churches might be comfortable moving worship outdoors, whereas others might think this a step too far. Perhaps you might instead gather in small groups outdoors for prayer and reflection? Or create a nature or history trail sheet for families around your churchyard?
How can you follow physical distancing and cleaning requirements? This requires careful consideration of the practicalities.
Will you limit numbers, and if so do people need to register in advance? Perhaps you could put cones or other markings on the ground? Or ask people to bring their own picnic rugs/camp chairs? Do you need a one way system to be marked out?
You should not be handing out leaflets, or using church books. Will you ask people to bring their own prayer books and bibles from home? If you use church chairs, how will they be cleaned afterwards? Can you write the service on a flipchart, which everyone can see from where they are sitting? Could you use social media? Gates to churchyard and carparks can be left open so no-one has to handle them.
Will you keep numbers low? We suggest you do. If not, some kind of microphone and sound system will be needed. Portable, waterproof sound systems can be purchased for around £150–£200, enabling music to be played as well as public address. Waterproof systems can be disinfected between users.
Find practical guidance about how to stream your services on our website here.
You cannot move inside the church unless you have planned for this and have a risk assessment, so how will you let people know if it is going ahead or needs to be cancelled?
It is important that any immediate neighbours of the church are aware that a gathering is planned, and understand the precautions that are being put in place to ensure there is no risk to those living nearby.
It is important that your insurer is aware of what you are planning so they have the opportunity to advise on risks, and confirm that your gathering is covered for public liability.
Principles for taking church activities outdoors
- Leave the space as you found it.
- Keep it manageable. Think carefully about the group size that you can manage safely. The current COVID guidance will help you work out the maximum group size, but you should also think about what will work well with worship. You should not be shouting, so amplification may be needed to communicate effectively outside while practising physical distancing. The context is important too – you need to think about road noise, neighbours and other users of the outdoor space, such as those tending graves for example.
- Be in the space, don't try and make it like 'normal' church. It isn't. Attentiveness to place is fundamental to outdoor worship. Worship can be shorter, more informal and more inclusive.
- Allow the place itself and the Holy Spirit to lead you. Encourage people to relax and be themselves. With children that means active exploring, piling sticks, looking for signs of life and having fun. Adults can be encouraged to be mindful, to share their experiences with each other, and perhaps to create an artwork with found materials.
- If you are leading a trail around the churchyard, whether to look at memorials or nature (or both), remember to tread lightly and to help maintain physical distancing. You can point things out without handling them.
- You are visiting other species’ homes, so treat it with respect. You may not necessarily see them because until they get to know you the residents will scuttle away. But don't be surprised if they start to observe you. Birds especially are known to take an interest in spiritual matters outside. No one knows why it is but many have commented on it.
- Be mindful this may be an active place of commemoration. As in a church, be respectful to others in your demeanour and actions. While children should be encouraged to enjoy themselves, noise should again be kept down to a reasonable level to avoid disturbing others.
- Use silences far more. Listen and watch for the presence of God in the world around you.
- Go with the seasons of nature. The church seasons are, in some senses, linked. For example the birth of Christ, the Light of the World, is celebrated just after the winter solstice, so the days have become fractionally longer. Easter, resurrection and rebirth comes as spring gets going. By embracing this people will see how much more tightly bound the church calendar and nature's timings are than they might have previously thought.
- Meet in the round, suitably spaced, or go for meditative walks. If you just sit in rows and do 'normal' church outside you'll be missing a great opportunity and people will be disappointed because it'll be neither one thing nor another.
- Be sure that we are not taking from nature without giving back. There needs to be balance in the mix somewhere that includes a commitment to environmental awareness in daily life rather than just taking what we need for our spiritual wellbeing and then going back to business as usual.
- There's no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes! Sturdy footwear at least is a must, the outdoors, including churchyards, can be uneven, slippery and mucky! Always exercise reasonable care, especially if you are leading a group.
The resources below have been suggested by people around the country who regularly lead outdoor worship; thank you to everyone who has shared photos and resources with us.
Whilst this practical leaflet from Gloucester Diocese is focussed on Easter prayers outdoor, much of it is useful all year round.
Find family-friendly prayers on Graces and Prayers for the Earth.
Faith and Worship — this particular link is to the Summer prayers, but there are many themes to explore.
Wild worship field guide from The Sanctuary Centre. This “spotters guide” allows you to reconnect with the awe and wonder in God’s creation. Look out for the nature items on the list and user the related scripture to inspire worship while looking at, or experiencing, it. Great for children and all who are young at heart!
Register with the Engage Worship site to get access to free downloadable resources for outdoor worship.
God revealed in creation Prayer Stations from the Sanctuary Centre. These 12 prayer stations are designed to be used outside — either individually or as a series to form a prayer walk — and aim to help people both connect with God through creation and use natural settings to stimulate prayer for others. They can be done in any order and/or with a selection chosen to fit your specific circumstances and surrounding natural environment.
Sensio Divina — The Mystic Christ website, literally ‘Divine sensing’, a contemplative meditation to connect and dialogue with Divine presence in a place, object, or natural phenomenon (Jer 23:24) and come to a deeper understanding of God through nature (Rom 1:20).
Green Faith offer five Christian Eco-Spirituality tips, below, with resources provided under each. They have this simple but important observation, “Remember — Jesus regularly prayed outdoors. This simple reminder offers people a new way to connect with Jesus, as well as with the earth.”
- Outdoors Worship.
- Wild Worship by Rachel Summers is suggested for families/children. The link is to Wild Worship; you can also find Wild Lent and Wild Advent.
- The Celtic Wheel of the Year.
- The Book of Uncommon Prayer.
- The Earth Cries Glory.
- Creative Ideas for Wild Church.
- As well as their free resources, Engage Worship have an Outdoor Worship book.
- Worship in the Garden.
- The Lives Around Us: Daily Meditations for Nature Connections.
- Into The Garden - Cultivation as a Tool for Spiritual Formation and Community Renewal.
- The Iona Abbey Worship Book.
- Join the Forest Church group on Facebook and find resources there. People are starting to experiment with different models which follow physical distancing, for example people saying the same prayers at the same time in different places, so it’s a good resource to dip into.
- A short overview of running a Forest Church session from the Diocese of Gloucester.
- This Grove Booklet gives a nice short introduction and is only £4. There are theological chapters or you can dive straight into the practical ‘how to’ chapter.
- A blog post on devising rituals for Forest Church.
- For further information, you might want to purchase one of the following books / articles:
- Bruce Stanley’s book is one which many Forest Church facilitators read when they are getting started, and is a good starting place: “Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals Paperback”.
- A theology of Forest Church.
- You might also find inspiration in the linked but separate Wild Church, on the River Dart.
- A Rocha UK's Wild Christian scheme, is a community of families and individuals exploring the connections between Christian faith, the natural environment, and how they live. You can sign up for a free monthly email, which includes a biblical reflection and ideas on how to enjoy, nurture and defend nature.
- The Church of England's Resource Book: Times & Seasons has a chapter relating to the agricultural year. You could find suggestions here for late summer festivals and early autumn i.e. Lammastide and Harvest Festival respectively.
- See also the Church of England’s online resources on Festivals and Festival Churches.
- St Francis Day is 4 October and time for Pet Services, and pets during this period have been loyal companions. The Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals has some worship ideas.
Many nature-based charities offer activities which can be used as a part of outdoor worship. A suitable structure might be prayers to start, a nature-based activity that gets everyone looking and noticing, then gather to talk about what they have found, something that connects back to faith (thankfulness, a reading, a poem), and a liturgical ending of some kind. Here are a few examples of where you can get activities from:
The Church of England has a programme of digital recording of its burial grounds, the National Burial Grounds Survey. A map is being compiled showing the location and boundary of every Anglican burial ground, waiting to be filled in with detail. See the links below for more information, and to find out how to research and tell the stories of your community.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website; https://www.cwgc.org/
Practical examples from around the country
- St James's Piccadilly “Eco Garden Liturgy”.
- “Blessing on the Beach” from the Loaves and Fishes project (from the Environment Groups of the Blackburn Anglican Diocese and Churches Together in Cumbria, the Lancaster Roman Catholic Diocese Faith and Justice Commission, Churches Together in Lancashire and CAFOD Lancaster).
- “Outdoor worship: connecting people with God in the outdoors” from Thurloxton.
- Chipping Norton Deanery has created a set of “Pilgrim Paths”: walks with places to stop and reflect.
- A "churchyard prayer walk" from Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint.
- "Mossy Church" liturgy, from a project run on a housing estate in Scunthorpe.
- "Local Prayer Spaces" from the Diocese of Salisbury.
- St John's Sharow have created a labyrinth for spiritual reflection.
If you know of a good example, please send it to [email protected] and we may be able to include it here.
We are indebted to the many people around the country who shared their experiences and examples with us to help us create this page, with particular thanks to Cate Williams, Paul Cudby, John Rodwell, Geoffrey Hunter, Janet Stewart, and Dan Papworth.