A Parish Priest’s Tale

by Freddy Denman
(from GreenSpirit, Summer 2000)


Cornwood Church

I am an Anglican priest, ordained in 1970, and now a Vicar of two rural parishes on South Dartmoor. I’m 54 years old and suddenly feel in my prime! Why? Because I’ve stumbled across Creation Spirituality. It would be nearer the truth to say Creation Spirituality found me – I’ve been brought up to believe God always takes the initiative and comes looking for us. But then I’ve always been told that life begins at 40. How wrong for me! It seemed that I had staggered through that decade burdened by the breakdown of my marriage and a midlife crisis! But so often experience teaches ‘for breakdown, read breakthrough’. And as I look back from where I am now, how true that is: in the words of Edith Sitwell, ‘nothing is ever lost, all in the end is harvest’. Poetry and prose mean so much to me especially words that seem to jump out at me when I read them, like Eliot’s ‘In my end is my beginning’ and ‘to arrive at where we started’ and ‘know it for the first time’. I feel that with Creation Spirituality – it’s a ‘coming home’ – a feeling that this is what I’ve always believed but been too afraid to say it!

I could be like some of my colleagues who have reached the age when retirement is in 10 years time and you sink into a routine of just keeping the parish ticking over with the same old stuff you’ve trotted out for years. But I’m beginning again! Unlearning so I can receive new things. Every day is a fresh beginning, a ‘greening’ – God is always young – the newest thing in the universe. I am at my prime!

The breakthrough or change began in the summer of ’98 with the death of a boy in the village: an eleven year old playing in a tree from which he fell, never to regain consciousness. The village was stunned and the whole community turned out for the funeral. It’s at times like this that one realises how inadequate are the services provided by the Church. I decided that the funeral would be entirely what the family wished for and I involved them and the village in planning for it. At this time I had been reading about the Goddess tradition and especially the old Celtic vision of the afterlife. I decided to use a guided visualisation of the boy’s journey across the sunless seas to the beautiful island of Avalon, the Isle of Apples, the Summerland. There it is always summer and the trees are in fruit and blossom at the same time, and loved ones and ancestors welcome us to this Paradise.

The church was packed with about 400 people, many of whom were children. Afterwards parents told me how thrilled they were that I had offered a ‘vision’ and symbolism for the children to hold on to. It had made all the difference, and what might have been a terrible ordeal especially for young people became a truly spiritual experience.

This began a change in the spirituality of our village. Shortly afterwards there was the death of Princess Diana, and peoples’ reactions of grief. Her funeral service made a great impression, and I felt the Church of England got it right for once. But whatever ones thoughts about Diana, something happened during those days, and especially on the funeral day. I realised people were hungry, nationally and locally, for spirituality. I began to sense the gulf between religion and spirituality: the Churches were failing to deliver the goods. Folk wanted something more – something deeper. Diana’s death and funeral had opened doors – touched ‘deepdown things’.

In October of that year the Diocese of Exeter called its Triennial Diocesan Conference and met at Woolacombe Bay Hotel, North Devon. It was a lovely venue, and a good range of outside speakers was brought in to fire us. One of the speakers was Dave Tomlinson who now convenes an unusual Church called Holy Jo’s which meets in a pub in Clapham, South London. It was through him that I learned I was becoming a ‘post modern’! Dave’s book The Post Evangelical is a read I recommend. Not that I was ever an evangelical – I was brought up and trained as a spiky Anglo- Catholic. I learned at that conference through his enlightened and charismatic lecture that we are really moving from one age to another – from the modern to the post-modern.

My generation – the one that makes up the traditional congregation – does not understand this. But it has been a joy to see the world through fresh lenses. This is what I understand by post-modern: it is a world which sees itself through biological rather than mechanical models: where we see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than over or apart from it. This is a view distrustful of hierarchies, male-dominated institutions and centralised bureaucracies. Networks and local grass-root activities take precedence over large-scale structures. Books may be replaced by screens. This is a world hungry for spirituality yet dismissive of systematised religion, a world in which image and reality are so deeply intertwined that it is difficult to draw the line between the two. So the world acts in a postmodern way when it picks’n’mixes; it is laid back and playful, it distrusts logic and rationality, and is suspicious of history and tradition. It distrusts the idea of progress – it likes fuzzy boundaries and it refuses to judge.

When in 1998 I discovered I was post-modern, I personally felt a great release – a sort of coming out of the closet! It was then, and, strangely enough, only then, that Original Blessing and Matthew Fox found me. It found me in a seedbed prepared and ready for planting and spirituality, and completed my change of life. My vision is for a Creation Spirituality centred parish. At the moment this is still a vision. But since the beginning of 1999 one of my parishes, Cornwood, where we had the funeral for the young boy, has begun to embrace that vision too. We have kept the earth’s cycle of celebration, presented by our young people using their music. The response has been remarkable. On most occasions there are 150 people, a large percentage of them being young. Halloween/Samhain was absolutely marvellous last year with well over 200 people attending I thought it might cause some controversy but somehow it spoke to the people – it touched ancestral voices. I sent a letter to all the parents of the school children explaining that Halloween is nothing to fear – rather welcomed as a time to help children and adults come to terms with their fears of change and death. This a time for celebrations, stories and games; a time for laughing in the face of adversity.

In addition to keeping the great earth festivals we have a Creation Spirituality Eucharist on the first Sunday of each month. This liturgy draws on all traditions, notably Native North American, Celtic, Jewish, Buddhist alongside Christianity; deeply ecumenical, believing in the words of Matthew Fox, ‘wisdom springing from global faiths coming together’. There is no preaching at this Eucharist, and all, whatever age, can receive communion. Everyone participates. It is full of beautiful poetry and prose supplied by our local Greenspirit support Group in Plymouth – rather like the widow’s cruse in the Scriptures – ‘it never fails’. The music is from all sorts of traditions. I’m finding that here and there I have to rewrite a line or a verse of an old hymn to make it Creation Spirituality friendly!

That has been the great shock and has brought tensions within me, going from fall/redemption to becoming an original blessing person! Reworking hymns, unlearning and starting again, and coming to the conclusion that Christianity must change or else it will die. We need a new Pentecost. As we come from fire and are fire, it’s time we started using fire to melt and heal and change. For me, the new cosmology is a new Pentecost.

People in the parish have responded very positively to these changes. I have found support from Bishop John of Plymouth, and good friends locally, not least the CS group at Erna and Michael Colebrooks’.

Thinking this over now, and reading this, going into my last 12 years of ministry, it is rather in ‘bits and pieces’. But that may be as it should be. I see Our Lord feeding the multitude and telling his disciples to ‘gather up the fragments’. Maybe that is what I’m now offering: fragments out of which people can put together their lives in a new way. Sometimes I feel isolated with all this, like Elijah under the juniper tree: ‘Lord, I’m the only one left’. Sometimes I feel my people are putting all this down to one of ‘Freddy’s little gimmicks’. The regular folk who are there faithfully for traditional Communion and Matins are happy with the old ways, and why should I disturb them? I have sought those who are on the edge of Church life, on the margins of community life – who see the Christian faith a bit of a ‘merry-go-round’ that won’t stop to allow them to get on!! To these people, Creation Spirituality has come as Good News – a Gospel – and so for me there’s no turning back, and now it’s a question of leadership with promised support from the local GreenSpirit group. The ecologist Rudolph Bahro wrote: ‘when the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.’ We GreenSpirit folk must be prepared to make fools of ourselves.

Recently I gained some inspiration from an unlikely source – John Adair’s Great Leaders. He quoted Field Marshall the Lord Slim – ‘to begin with we do not in the Army talk of ‘management’ but of ‘leadership’. This is a significant difference. The leader and those who follow him or her represent one of the oldest, most natural, and most effective of all relationships. Managers are neither so romantic nor so inspiring. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision; its practice is an art: management is of the mind – of statistics, methods, timetables and routine; its practice is science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.’ As a Parish Priest, I sometimes muse that making a leader of yourself can be an art form, that leadership lies within us all – it is of the spirit. That is a new lesson Creation Spirituality continues to teach me: still a long way to go, but I like to think I’m committed to it. And once one is committed then Providence steps in! Doesn’t it?

Father Freddy Denman is the Vicar of two parishes, Sparkwell and Cornwood, on the edge of Dartmoor. His address is Sparkwell Vicarage. PL75DB, Devon.