I’d been Vicar of Minsterley for quite a few years when a team from Midlands Today came to film a short piece about our maiden’s garlands - but it was only then that I realised that among the carvings by the main doorway on the west front of Minsterley Church is the Green Man. It came as a bit of a surprise to find masons still carving such images as recently as the late seventeenth century, when Holy Trinity Church was built. As a figure from pagan legend, the Green Man can’t have been very acceptable in the reformed Church, though not uncommon in medieval churches. But there he is, and in fact he’s there in this group too, in a much more recent incarnation, among Waldegrave Brewster’s carvings in Middleton church.
So perhaps he never really went away in these parts. He still dances at Bishop’s Castle, I believe. Maybe his appearance at Minsterley was part of the rediscovery of old images and traditions that came with the restoration of the monarchy - a bit of life and colour restored after the plain whitewashed walls and solemn tables of Cromwell's puritan austerity. Brewster, of course, carved almost every image he could think of at Middleton, including the witch at work at Mitchell’s Fold; the Victorian era was a time of huge rediscovery of ancient tradition and country lore.
Anyway, I’m happy to let the Green Man begin my sermon for Rogation Sunday, because, pagan or not, he can stand as a reminder that we human beings are rooted in the land. If the green things of the earth do not live and thrive, then neither do we. In Genesis chapter two we read that Adam and Eve are made of the same dust and clay as everything else. We human beings often behave as though we were gods, different from this thing around us called nature; but the fact is that we are part of it, made from atoms and molecules, genes and chromosomes, like everything else living.
We’re also destined for the same end. Those who go to church on Ash Wednesday are told to remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we’re not just dust. We’re also sentient beings, able to interpret the world around us, and to be creative and inventive; and as Christians we talk about being not just body, but also spirit - made of the stuff of the earth, but made also in the image of God. And made therefore to seek and know the mind of the Creator, who calls us to be stewards of the earth he made. The story of Adam and Eve began in a garden, where they fell from grace and were cast out. But then out there in the hard world beyond Eden their task and ours is to make new gardens for God.
Back to Eden was the title of a project I helped introduce when I was working for the mission agency then called USPG. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts - to give it its original title - was founded more than three hundred years ago by Thomas Bray, born near Trelystan and baptized in Chirbury. For three years I was part of a team promoting the mission work the society still funds and supports all around the world.
Underpinning our mission strategy was something called the Five Marks of Mission, adopted by the Anglican Communion in 1990. Briefly, they are (1) proclaiming good news, (2) teaching and baptizing new believers, (3) responding to human need, (4) transforming unjust structures; and (5) safeguarding the integrity of creation and renewing the life of the earth. Renewing the life of the earth was very much the theme of the Back to Eden project, which was based in the South African Diocese of Umzimvubu. The Umzimvubu is also a river rising in the Drakensburg Mountains close to the border between South Africa and Lesotho, and flowing down to the Wild Coast of the north-eastern Cape Province.
This part of South Africa became the African homeland of Transkei, where many people were resettled from the cities into new but pretty basic homes, hardly more than concrete boxes with little in the way of facilities. The land around had become impoverished, because it was badly farmed by urban people resettled against their will who had little idea of how to live on the land. Their main fuel was wood, and the loss of trees made the land vulnerable to erosion, exacerbated by the practice of burning off areas of land to provide young shoots for the cattle. The river itself, quiet and easily forded in the dry season, would become in the wet season a raging torrent that ran blood-red with soil ripped away and carried off downstream, leaving huge gullies called dongas, scars across the face of the land that grow deeper with each wet season. Repairing the dongas was the most urgent task, but repairing the whole relationship between people and land was important too. The Green Man reminds us how we all depend on the land: if the land is damaged we are damaged too.
So the then Bishop of Umzimvubu, Geoff Davies, had made care for the environment a vital component of his strategy to build the church in what is still a young diocese, founded in the mid 1990’s. Looking at the Back to Eden Project, I was inspired by the stories of lives being rebuilt, families nurtured, and the land itself being healed and repaired. When I talked about the project to churches and groups I would show pictures of children helping carry big stones to fill in and stabilize the dongas; of market gardeners looking very proud of the crops they were learning to grow and harvest; and of young men learning how to put fences up, one of the new skills being taught that would help them earn extra money to supplement their income from working the land. The most inspiring thing was that all this was small-scale and locally initiated - a big project made up of lots of small schemes which each had identifiable and achievable targets.
The result was that people were taking control of their own lives, as they learned how to love and respect and conserve their own land. We had helped fund this work over several years, and the next step was to make it a project and guarantee further funding. The title of the project came from a senior retired priest in the diocese, Fr Nceba Gabula. His impressive gardening skills were being used to further the mission of the church, as he taught his people new skills and showed them how to use the land well and sustainably, and make their own little patches of ground productive. And he had said this: "Our mission to go back to the garden of Eden, back to creation, is a call to liberation for the people of this region."
I believe God calls all of us as his people to build gardens of love through our care for one another and our care for the land. Sadly not everything has gone well since that time in Umzimvubu. There’ve been troubles and divisions, and last year their cathedral burned down in mysterious circumstances. That’s so sad, because the need there is as great as ever. I can only hope that the issues there will be resolved - so that both land and communities can continue to be healed and restored. Fr Gabula described Umzimvubu as a land that used to be Eden when people lived in harmony with it, and when they honoured God by their care what he had made; and his vision of going back to Eden, with the land secure and fertile, and the people in a creatively loving and obedient relationship with God, still needs to happen.
As it does for all of us at Rogationtide. We don’t really need the Green Man to tell us we belong to the land, if God’s creative Spirit dwells within us. God’s Spirit is active across all kinds of human boundaries, and we as people of God are a holy nation. Wherever we live and whatever language we speak, we belong together in the love of God and in our sharing of the world he made. Like the sun and rain, may his word bring our earth and ourselves to new life.