Imagine the scene, on a chilly Saturday afternoon, huddled around a fire pit in the walled gardens behind church.
The late-winter sun begins to set upon the little ones, laughing as they jump in muddy puddles and chase through the long grass.
The adults chat amongst themselves, conversations about the mundanities of life, and in the distance, a cross hangs on the wall - a gentle reminder that Jesus died to save us all.
This is Mountsorrel Muddy Church.
Today those gathered have collected wood and made journey sticks, with different coloured wools to represent their hopes for 2023. They’ve gently toasted crumpets and marshmallows over the flames and drank hot chocolate together.
Monthly Muddy Church began just under a year ago, when Alison White - Children and Families Worker for The United Benefice of Mountsorrel - followed her heart to connect people with God in the great outdoors.
“I’d had an interest in outdoor learning for a long time, having watched my own children do forest school and really seen the benefits of that, but what first got me thinking about something worship based was when I did barefoot walking at the diocesan Discovering Rural Gems day in Brooksby, about five years ago. I was so inspired by that,” she explains.
During the pandemic, with time on her hands, Alison finally got stuck into the stack of books she’d collected about forest church, including Wild Worship by Rachel Summers.
“Having a child with additional needs, it had always been hard for me to get away, but a massive benefit of the pandemic was that all these conferences and training courses were suddenly accessible and available online,” she says. “It was then I discovered Lucie Hutson’s Muddy Church training and networking, including a website dedicated to it.”
The ‘orchard’ behind Christ Church was the perfect place for finding peace, its tree-lined garden a little overgrown yet full of life with fruit tree saplings and a hidden badger’s sett. And, with the help of funding from a Charnwood Borough Council Member Grant, Mountsorrel Muddy Church came to be, last April, on Holy Saturday.
“It’s a different way of making church accessible for people,” says Alison. “We know some people really struggle to walk into a church building as they don’t know what to expect. This is a laid-back way of getting to know people.”
Indeed, Mountsorrel Muddy Church is about faith, fellowship, and freedom, away from the pews.
“No-one has to join in with anything they don’t want to,” she continues. “It’s an opportunity to connect with God, of course, but that might mean telling a story and letting the words settle – there’s no pressure. We have this great space to build relationships, and building relationships is key to people coming to faith.”
From scavenger hunts to kite making, their monthly activities are centred around nature and God’s creation, with various liturgical themes explored, like at Easter when they made crowns of thorns from twigs gathered in the garden.
“We always light a fire and cook something,” says Alison. “Linda’s husband recently made us an excellent sausage grill. It’s wonderful, all these people that serve and support, but wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be doing so.”
Often, they’ll open the session with a ‘sing-song’, beginning with As We Are Gathered - “an oldy, but lovely,” says Alison. “We’ve tried to make the meeting as structureless as possible, so people are free to just ‘be’ in nature, hopefully that way they’ll capture a glimpse of God and make a connection.”
During the last year, they’ve established a small, multigenerational worshiping community, including young families, single older people and married couples.
“It’s been brilliant to see a family come back that had drifted away because church hadn’t previously worked for them,” says Alison.
With a desire for the sessions to be as inclusive as possible, Alison is striving to make Muddy Church outdoors a safe space, removing the formalities that can often prevent children with neurodiversity, and their families, from taking part.
“I just wish that we could make the lumpuy, bumpy ground more accessible for those with mobility issues,” she says.
The churches of Christ Church and St Peter’s also received money from the Mountsorrel Church of England Fund last year, which paid for an incredible ‘Activity Week’ to serve and support the community during the long school summer holiday.
From soft play for the under 5s, to cream teas, pub walks, youth cinema and pizza nights and a Mountsorrel by the sea day, there was something for everyone, and it was all free for those taking part.
Alison and Linda Vesty (who shares the Children and Families Worker role with Alison in the benefice) were integral in making the week a success.
“It was very hard work, but so amazing,” says Alison. “We really were blessed. A number of people from across the community, including those who were on the fringes of church, have come to faith through the relationships we forged that week, and have gone on to make a commitment to God through baptism and confirmation. That’s what we pray for!”
Working with local schools is also important to the Mountsorrel churches, who are closely linked with Christ Church and St Peter’s Church of England Primary School and go in on a regular basis to lead assemblies and run extra-curricular activities with the pupils, such as their new assembly club.
Meeting on Monday lunchtimes since October, Alison has been guiding a small group of children to plan and lead collective worship assemblies.
“It’s gone down really well and got the children talking,” says Alison. “The kids know what they want and what they’ll respond to, so it’s important to involve them.
“They’re a lovely, small, varied group at the moment,” she explains. “Longer term, the hope is that if these young people can be leading collective worship in school then, with parental support, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be leading worship in the church. We’d love to see that flourish.”