IT’S 18 DEGREES outside, the sun has barely risen, and the subsidiary roads are swollen with ice. Time to attend the Church of the Woods, of course!
The Church’s pastor, Rev. Stephen Blackmer, gave up a big-deal career in environmental organizing— he was the founder and chairman of the Northern Forest Alliance, which helped conserve several million acres of New England timberlands — to get ordained and start his own Episcopal church. Here it is, a tiny little woodshed with a pot-belly stove, eight plastic chairs, and an altar covered with birch back scrolls, pine cones, and some blanched antlers scavenged from the adjoining hemlock forest.
I daresay this is a church unlike any other. “We are deliberately trying to crack open what it means to be ‘church,’” Blackmer explains on his website. “The Church of the Woods is a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness; where people come together to learn, explore, and take action to transform themselves and renew the earth.”
I half-confront, half-congratulate Blackmer for inventing a neo-Gaian theology, and he just chuckles. “The simple core idea is that everything bears the imprint of Christ, and everything is a bearer of the sacred. By immersing ourselves in the natural world, we can get to that direct experience of God.”
It’s as if the Appalachian Mountain Club moved its headquarters from Boston to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — but that could be a good thing, right? I loved every minute of the service, from the initial reading from John Muir (the biblical Gospel of John was present, too) to the non-standard Lord’s Prayer, a Maori variant plucked from the New Zealand Prayer Book:
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Life-Giver, Pain-bearer,
Source of all that is and ever shall be,
Your name be sung with joy!
We six congregants shared communion, which meant that I administered the bread and wine to the woman standing behind me. Isn’t this going to get you in Dutch with the bishop, I asked Blackmer? An errant fellow with a black soul (me) sharing the elements and sacred blessing with innocent bystanders? It’s all on the up-and-up, he assured me. Once he had consecrated the bread and wine, it doesn’t really matter who touches it.
In Blackmer’s communion, the first piece of bread and the last drop of wine are “fed” to the earth. The pine cones, antlers, and assorted forest flotsam, he explains, are offerings from the earth: “I don’t think that’s a pagan idea, but it is broadening the sense for who the service is for, and who is being restored beyond just human beings. It is honoring a creation greater than ourselves.”
Our observance included 25 minutes of silent meditation along the icy trails snaking through the Church’s 106-acre plot in the center of the state, just northwest of the New Hampshire Speedway. Sure it was cold, but Wenceslas-like, we wended our way in each other’s footsteps into private corners of the forest to watch the early sunlight blaze through the lower branches.
Not for nothing do they call us Episcopalians God’s Frozen People.
“It’s weird,” Blackmer says of his singular liturgy. “Even if you’re a churchgoer, it’s weird.” Yes, but it’s good weird, the kind of strangeness that re-kindles our thinking about what a church can be. Our father’s house has many rooms, (John 14:2) and this is one of the cozier ones.