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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Rewilding the Church

In biodynamic farming (of which I am a longtime practitioner), a salient principle is that the individuality of the farm, in addition to crops, domesticated animals, pastures, and orchards, should also contain water—streams or ponds, for example—and wild places, such as woods, coppices, or meadows—which are the homes of a great variety of flora and fauna. The idea here is to practice biodiversity. As Alan York, the late, great master of biodynamics says in the film The Biggest Little Farm (which everyone should see), “Diversity, diversity, diversity.” Don’t plant just one variety of peach tree—plant thirty. Don’t raise only one kind of domestic animal—raise as many as feasible. On our small ten-acre farm, which is bordered on two sides by a State wilderness area, we grow more than fifty kinds of vegetables in garden, not to mention the small orchard I planted. We also raise a dairy cow and her calf (their names are Fiona and Seamus, if you want to know), heritage hogs (American Black Guineas), honeybees, chickens, and ducks. We also forage from the woods and meadows: mushrooms, blackberries, huckleberries, black walnuts. We house our hogs under oak trees in order to fatten them on acorns and we practice sylvo-pasturing with our chickens and cows to some degree. We heat our house with timber from our woods (mostly from trees damaged by storms) and add venison and the occasional wild turkey or rabbit to our diet. Trying to demarcate the lines between the wild and the cultivated here is an almost meaningless activity. In short, we are part of nature and nature is part of us.

Some of my friends are advocates of the “rewilding” movement, a “conservation effort focused on restoring sustainable biodiversity and ecosystem health by protecting core wild/wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and highly interactive species.” I like the idea, but, as with so many conservation groups, the rewilding movement is not too keen on the human species in their quest for a “dynamic but stable self-regulating and self-sustaining ecosystems with near pre-human levels of species diversity.”That’s a red flag for me.

I like something about this concept of rewilding, but I think humans need to be part of the picture. As with arguments about “overpopulation,” it seems some of the avid rewilders think too many people are crowding out native species—but they never volunteer to undertake the heroic work of making more room by their own absence. Overpopulation, that is, is a problem of other people.

But I get it. What I think we need is a rewilding of the human race, not necessarily to a return to the days of hunting and gathering and cave-painting, but in reintegrating our relationship to nature—in much the same way a biodynamic farm combines cultivation and wildness.

And part of this rewilding of the human race, for me at least, includes a Rewilding of the Church.

Some people like to think of Christianity as originally an urban movement, one that initially flowered in cities—like Jerusalem or Rome or Corinth or Alexandria—and that this urbanity is part of the religion’s DNA, as if the guy who started the whole thing wasn’t a carpenter from the sticks and his first followers weren’t rural fishermen and shepherds. Maybe Christianity is an urban phenomenon, but that urbanization has impoverished it. But even the earliest urban Christians were far more embedded in nature than we are; and for a long time throughout Christian history elements of the Church resisted the hegemony of the urban Church, nowhere more clearly than in the Celtic Church. As H.J. Massingham (whom I more and more regard as a saint and prophet) writes, “Thus religion, learning, the arts and crafts, agriculture and the contemplation of wild nature as the manifestation of God, were integrated as aspects of one whole.” [1]

This is what a rewilding of the Church would accomplish. But how do we get there? What I have to offer is speculative, but still based on long years of contemplation and practical work in the world, both as a scholar and as a farmer.

First of all, as I wrote recently, the idea of a house church is very useful. As my friend Chris recently informed me, it should properly be called art of “the independent sacramental movement.” It was a group I did not know existed, let alone that I belong to! As I have mentioned previously, the frustrations we experienced (and continue to experience) with the Church in the Time of COVID became too much for us to bear, and my younger children, we felt, (my youngest is ten) needed to be immersed in the sacramental world. It’s not that I no longer consider myself Catholic (I do), but I have had a pretty plastic notion of Catholicism for a good long while that extends to the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican branches of the family tree. In fact, the original subtitle for my The Submerged Reality was “Ecology and Ecumenism” (or something to that effect). The Year of This Our Contagion required me to interrogate this understanding even further, to the point that it seemed to me that one of the main roles of the episcopacy—of whatever jurisdiction—is characterized by holding the sacraments hostage, or at least by holding that threat. I know this is controversial.

My model and inspiration for this rewilding concept is the ancient Celtic Church, which was not only almost entirely rural and connected to the wild, but was equally distant from the meddling of hierarchs far-removed from the day-to-day working out of the faith in actual, living communities. These communities were suspicious if not dismissive of the authority claims of ecclesial power structures, though they certainly had their own trusted bishops (Patrick and Aidan, for example). Being in Ireland and Scotland at far remove from Rome or Byzantium in an age before postal service, let alone mass communication, the influence of popes and cardinals was almost a non-issue.

Rewilding the Church could have a profoundly vivifying influence on a faith ossified by centuries of the corruption and abuse so endemic to bureaucracy. Imagine Christians living a sacramental life in all of its dimensions—Eucharistic as well as in relation to the natural world. As my friend Chris (who is studying for the Episcopalian priesthood) recently told me, “I’d bless rivers, fields, woods… everything.” Amen.

My thought is that the faithful should feel free to take things into their own hands. I know—this is controversial. Eventually, bishops may catch on—but they’d have to stop being middle-managers and, like Aidan and Patrick, get a little dirt on their hands. I fear, however, that they will probably respond like Dr. Leo Marvin (in the film What about Bob?) when Bob Wiley teaches Leo’s son Sigmund how to dive.

Here comes the bishop!

Such a rewilding, an absolute and sincere sophianic gesture, could save Christianity from its rapid decline as it holds onto the structures that no longer function. The structures, the hierarchies of whatever jurisdiction, are not the Church. We need to remember that. Now is the time.

Steve Winwood in the wild.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. H. J. Massingham, The Tree of Life (London, 1943), 47.

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