Episode #75 The Wild Church: Druid Christian Sam Wernham, founder of a land-based church explores the nature of wild contemplation
“When do you feel most alive? When are you most open and connected with a deeper sense of being? When do you fall in love with life and want to turn towards the world with hope and care?
Perhaps, like us, your sacred ground is the earth under your feet… your sacred spaces are cathedrals of trees with branches filled with wind and rain, sunlight or stars… your baptismal pools are filled with deep brown river water or the wild and salty sea. Perhaps, like us, you yearn to share this… for spiritual community, for authentic meeting and deep silence with people and with all beings. So, welcome to wild church!”
In this podcast, we explore Sam’s journey to the founding of the Wild Church and Wild Monastics – how these fulfil the need for deep connection, and where her spiritual activism has taken her since the pandemic began.
Manda: My guest this week, works deeply in the place where science meets spirituality. Some Wernham is, amongst many other things, an interfaith minister, founder of the River Dart Wild Church and the wild monastics that are associated with it. And she describes herself as a Christian druid. Which is such an inspiring, enthralling and deeply intriguing concept in the conversation you’re about to hear. We explore Sam’s life, which progresses from a childhood in church schools through Buddhism and Kabbalah and Druidry, and back to this deeply Earth based, wild connected Christian spirituality that then leads out into activism in the world. It was a deeply fascinating conversation, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did people of the podcast, please welcome some Werdum, so some Wernham. Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. On this extraordinarily changeable Wednesday morning, I woke up and it was beautiful, brilliant sunshine. And then the ponies were running back into the stables because we had shooting hailstones, really quite big hailstones out of the sky. So I hope it’s nicer down there in Devon with you.
Sam: Yes, there’s a blue sky and yet the air is chill and there is still light frosts at night. So it’s quite an interesting. Paradoxical kind of early summer, I think.
Manda: So we’re going to talk today about wild monastics and the revered art wild church. And so really to give everybody a sense of context and give us a shape of how things arose. Can you tell us how some Wernham came to be the person who started these things?
Sam: Well, thinking back to my childhood. And having these two elements, I mean, it’s interesting, we just talked about weather actually, and the combination of the chill and the blue sky, because that’s the kind of image that I can relate to from my childhood that was so much that was beautiful. And there was also an element of chill, of trauma. And I think both those elements are very significant parts of wall to wall. And so when I was seven, just to give you a little picture, if you like, my family moved into one of the first houses on a new estate that was being built in the gardens of these Victorian houses. So I grew up. With all these beautiful gardens sort of on the edge of this building site, and that’s where I kind of spent my childhood, where he was was being outside with friends and feeling. Well, they were Gods gone wild. I mean, I love the story of the Secret Garden, and it had that kind of quality. It was like going up in the secret garden. In some ways. That’s where I met my sense of the sacred and and yet also what was happening, of course, was that as these statements developed, those gardens were gradually destroyed.
Sam: And so we had this experience as children of watching our landscapes and our dens and the places where we made our journeys. And they were beautiful. You know, there was statuary, fountains, the azalea garden, the orchard, you know, the great trees, rhododendron forests just gradually being bulldozed and and destroyed. And I think that’s almost like a kind of metaphor for me. I mean, it wasn’t it was a real experience, but it’s also like a metaphor for me of some of the ingredients of wild church, this celebration and engagement with all life, with the sacred being in life and also this kind of environmental activism. In the face of the reality of what’s happening to the great garden of, if you like. Yes, that’s a good place to start.
Manda: Yes, absolutely. And so did you have a spiritual childhood? You met the sense of the spirituality in the gardens, but was it a spiritual household?
Sam: Yes, it was. My parents called themselves Christian with a small c. They didn’t go to church themselves. They were very focussed on ethics, ethical values, you know, on living spirituality. My father was very active in the Liberal Party. My mother was a cross woman and very active in adult education. So I kind of grew up with groups of women in my living room learning traditional women’s crafts and being dragged around canvassing with my dad. Right. And worked at liberal fundraisers. So, you know, it was a very kind of engaged spirituality. Yeah. And yet I also went to church schools. And again, that was the kind of experience that had this kind of warmth and chill factor. I hadn’t been baptised. So it was amazing. I got to be honest. So I was excluded from all kinds of things. And I found a lot of inspiration and a lot of beauty in. In scripture and story, in times of prayer, in liturgy, it was a very paradoxical experience, really. Yes.
Manda: Were these very hard core Christian schools? Because if I think most of the kind of extended family, I think they’re currently going to probably church schools, I’m not sure many of them have been baptised. And I am not aware of it being an issue. That doesn’t mean it isn’t. It just means I don’t know about it. But was this a very strict set of church schools or is that just the way that it is?
Sam: Well, I think it was you know, it was a reasonable time ago. The world is changing. And it was definitely on the Anglo Catholic. It was linked to a school in town, Wells St. Mark’s link to a church, all the St. Marks, which was definitely on the Anglican side. And. You know where sacraments are important and this is a fundamental sacrament, and so there were things that I couldn’t do and I couldn’t participate in because I hadn’t been baptised.
Manda: And did you feel excluded to that? Did that change your sense of self?
Sam: Yeah. I mean, it was that it was a real experience. It’s you know, we got to the point where there were certain kinds of preparations and certain kinds of studies. There were three of us who were not considered to be Christian, and we had to sit in the classroom on our own, so there was a Hindu boy and there was a boy from an atheist family, and that was me. Wow.
Manda: Goodness that I can imagine being quite a formative experience.
Sam: It was and there were certain trips that I wasn’t able to go on so I would be left behind to sit in the classroom by myself. And, you know, when we went to church, I would be sitting by myself in the back row kind of watching everything from a distance. So it was a very interesting mix of being included and excluded at the same time.
Manda: Yes. And were you given the option to be baptised on the way through? Was that I will let you into the club if you go through this ritual?
Sam: You know, it’s funny. I don’t remember that ever coming up. I mean, I was I was young. I’m talking about my first school, which was until I was seven. Now, that’s not just that’s not true. I’m talking about my second school, which is four months from seven. So that would have included confirmations. So I was probably those classes that we weren’t involved in were possibly confirmation classes. Right. Which is what everyone else would have been doing. But because I hadn’t been baptised, I couldn’t be confirmed. Right. It’s interesting that not a lot of missing information. And did you
Manda: At any point in your schooling, not necessarily in this this particular school, did you know at that point that your calling was within the church?
Sam: I felt a very deep connection to Christianity, to Christ, to Mary. My mother had been educated in convent schools, so there was a very kind of creative. Spiritual. Approach to Christianity in your household, I’m very open, and my parents would invite in the Mormons, they would invite in the Jehovah’s Witness to talk to us so we could hear different Christian perspectives. Although I was sitting in the back row of communion watching from afar song Eucharist. I loved it. I found it very moving. I read the Bible every day and found it really inspiring. So I had these kind of again, these very mixed experiences. And I suppose if I thought about my future at all. Perhaps I sometimes thought I could be a nun right now because this is a time where women weren’t in the priesthood.
Manda: The options were limited. But then you didn’t become a nun. So somewhere along the line, your life took a different path.
Sam: When I was 16, I actually I was on the bus and somebody gave me a copy of ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. And I think I was at a point anyway in my life where I mean, I was reading a lot of the Christian mystics. And yet my experience of church in different forms was I couldn’t find overt teaching on the kind of mystical, contemplative practise that existed only in theory, really, and something that happened in the past. So I think that was a. A real gateway moment for me, because it was about he was talking about practise in the presence and how to do it. I hadn’t been able to find that in Christian tradition. It wasn’t that it didn’t exist for I didn’t have access to it. And so that took me on a different path.
Manda: Ok, so I we are going to get to the Wild Church and the Wild monastics. But I think what drew you there is really interesting jumping ahead a little. You have a Master’s in, I think, core process psychotherapy. Is that right?
Sam: Mindfulness based psychotherapy.
Manda: Ok, so not quite the same. So it’s not from Karuna?
Sam: It is from Karuna. It just so happens that is that I did it, they called it mindfulness based, which I think I prefer actually, because it’s perhaps more descriptive for a lot of people.
Manda: So you became a psychotherapist. Did you have a period of doing other stuff? In the meantime? I’m trying to create a chronology of your life. At 16, someone’s giving you ‘Zen mind, Beginner’s mind, and the doors have opened for you to contemplative experience as a lived practise. Where did that take you?
Sam: Well, that took me into the Buddhist tradition. I went to India. I spent time in the far north of India in Ladakh and Zanskar. And again, it was this mixture of being wilderness vacations and in very remote communities, so very inspired by the wild and also engaging in meditative practise in the Buddhist tradition. And then the following year, I went to the Zen Centre in California. And again, you know, it was about being in a wilderness location and developing a contemplative practise. And I was quite deeply immersed. I came back to my house endeavour and that’s what brought me to Dartington. I was the manager at my house. I spent a long time. I spent 18 months in retreat at a long retreat. And that was a profoundly transformative for me. And that included a very significant loss. My fiancé at the time committed suicide when we were on retreat. So I guess that was also the opening of I came out of a Buddhist retreat and realised that I needed to do some therapy. I was literally sitting on a lot of trauma, both from my childhood and I couldn’t just made my way through it. So I actually spent five years in a psychotherapeutic psycho spiritual community in Dartington. Initially as a guest and then as a host, that actually took me back into Christianity. It was it was based on the work of Dr. Frank Lake who who developed clinical theology.
Manda: Tell us a little bit more about it.
Sam: Dr. Frank Lake had this idea of the dynamic cycle, so drawing on the life of Christ and relating that to the development of a human person. And he said that we are born into the womb of spirit, we are held by the divine, and that experience is then mirrored back to us by how our primary caregivers hold us. Really. So if we got a good enough holding. It enables us to be. It enables us to be in the womb of spirit, and if we don’t get a good enough holding, it breaks that sensoy wounds that sense of being. And then that. Sense of either a healthy being or wounded being affects the kind of next stage of our development, which is about kind of manifesting or being into the world, having a sense of well-being as we start to grow with the child and then as we grow into maturity as an adult, as a kind of shift in the cycle where we go from sort of being what he called an input phase to being in an output phase. So it’s for a healthy or for good enough and a good enough childhood. We have a sense we come out of that with a sense of status, what he called status, where the sense of being and well being that enables us to then serve. It enables us to kind of move into the world and express that sense of status through service in life. So that’s the kind of nutshell, if you like, and he saw the life of Christ as a kind of model of that of what it is to to grow up and have a sense of being and well-being and status and then be able to move into into service.
Manda: Right. That was my question, because otherwise I wasn’t seeing the Christ in what is a relatively common model of development that you will have got doing the Masters in mindfulness based psychotherapy at Karuna. Did you find Frank Lake and then do the Masters or had you done the Masters and then you found clinical theology?
Sam: No, I found I mean, I was in my early 20s when I moved into this community. And so my experience was of offering things work in a very practical way right now, living in a community, doing a lot of group therapy, art therapy. And then it was much later. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I studied mindfulness based psychotherapy. But what was interesting was that at Karuna and specifically through the work of Franklin Sills – he was bringing together a clinical theology and Buddhist psychology. And that’s one of the reasons I chose to go there because it so perfectly matched my experience, which was bringing together Buddhist psychology and clinical theology. Brilliant.
Manda: Thank you. This is so interesting. We could actually spend the whole of the podcast discussing that amalgamation of of those two things and how we live them in the world. But I do want to talk about the Wild Church so we don’t necessarily run all the way down that rabbit hole. But I am curious to know how you fill the gap then from being in this community, which sounds glorious. And I do want to know a little bit more about that, partly because I have a dream of a Shamanic Monastery, which I think might be pretty much exactly what you’re describing. And if it’s already happened, I kind of want to know how it works, but also. Did you stay there or did you move kind of back out into more of a version of consensus reality before you did the Masters?
Sam: Yes, well, I don’t know that I ever came back into consensus reality show.
Manda: Good woman.
Sam: I met my husband and we had our first child in the intentional community in Devon. And it was literally a crazy place to be. It was wonderful. It was very creative. It was very anarchic. And I think we hit a point where we realised that it wasn’t the best place to raise a family.
Manda: I mean, if they ever wanted to move into consensus reality, it wasn’t modelling it for them or was it just to unbounded?
Sam: I think it was too unbounded. And also, it was a place where people could really dive deeply into their childhood trauma. We were just in a different season of our lives were actually we were trying to build healthy experiences for children, for our first child. And of course, our child was very activating for other people that were there.
Manda: Ok, it’s beginning to sound quite a combustible mixture. So you left that community.
Sam: It was a happy leaving. It wasn’t like it was it was a natural leaving. It wasn’t a break. But I think it just became clear that everybody would be happier if we entered into a different stage of life and we wanted to make a home of our own, so we bought a little derelict lodge. My husband was an architect and we set up an eco architectural practise together. And we bought a little lodge on on Dartmoor and took the next stage in finding a way to kind of live on the land, create an eco home, raise our children home, school and all that kind of stuff. So that was the next piece.
Manda: So you spent quite a lot of time being a mother and homeschooling children. And then was it towards the end of that period that you went to Karuna and studied the psychotherapy that we then enter a new phase of life once the children have left home?
Sam: There’s another piece in between. I have a very complicated life. There we were living on Dartmoor, homeschooling, growing our own food, foraging, knitting clothes and generally living this very kind of Land based life and exploring Christian spirituality and spirituality alongside each other. I was facilitating groups. That was really the beginning, I suppose, of what became Wild Church. It began in the community with the first ever group that I started, which I called ‘No holds barred Bible study’. It was also known as Pagan Women’s Bible Study. And then when we left to set up our own home, I then started two more groups. One was based on exploring, counting spirituality. So bringing together the Pagan and Christian, because you can be a Christian druid like me. And the other was based on exploring Jewish and Christian Kabbalah. Because when I was in the community, my therapist was Kabbalist.So I think we’ve got all the pieces in now. So we’re living in our home and on Dartmoor. But for my husband, it still wasn’t wild enough. You know, you needed more wild. So he really wanted to move to the Highlands. And we we used to go there every year for quite a few weeks, every year for our family holidays. And, you know, he he really felt strongly that we need to do what we needed to move further into the world. And it was a bit of a crisis because, you know, I was a young woman with young kids and I wasn’t really sure that actually I wanted
Manda: That much wild. Yeah, the highlands are a whole different step of wild.
Sam: Given that we were already living quite a high level of wild and it’s hard work. Just simple things when the only form of heating you’ve got is in your home is a wood burning stove, and you’ve got young kids, you’re spending your whole time chopping and carrying wood
Manda: And trying to dry clothes in the winter when it’s damp and all that sort of stuff.
Sam: Yeah, you’re living on a low income. You’re foraging for food, you’re growing your own food with a baby strapped on your back and a toddler. It’s a really demanding life and to kind of take that north felt like a big ask.
Manda: So for people who are listening, who aren’t familiar with British geography, this is we’re talking about the Highlands of Scotland, which are in many ways very like Dartmoor, in that both have been depopulated by colonial metropolitan English people who then put sheep on the land and sheep-wrecked land is not great. And in Dartmoor and in the Highlands of Scotland, the land has been pretty solidly sheepwrecked. So just at the Highlands are that much higher up. And so growing your own food is that much harder and the daylight length is much shorter in the winter. Did you go?
Sam: We did go. Yes. It was a crisis point. Is this the end of our marriage or do we go? And so I chose to stay in our marriage and we went. And we move to this incredibly remote Crofting community at the end of a nine mile single track,
Manda: Where was it? Tell me just four interest, because I grew up probably fairly close.
Sam: Do you think, Diabaig?
Manda: I know of it. Yes. That is pretty inaccessible. And if you need a hospital in a hurry, it’s a very long way. I’m thinking with five children that’s an issue.
Sam: So we only had we only had two at home. We had three, three older children. So yeah. So we were the last croft in the last village. And beyond us, you could see out to the Skye and you could also see to Harris and Lewis.
Manda: Ok, so so for the U.K., that’s probably as wild as it gets and still habitable. Yes. But now you’re done. So clearly you didn’t say no.
Sam: So what happened was we went through a very demanding process. We had decided part of the motivation that took us both down was we wanted to create an eco retreat centre, you know, so bringing together my skills and interests and, you know, my husband’s architectural skills and interests, which I also share. But obviously, he was a professional. So we set about building retreat centre on the edge of a cliff in this very remote place. Which was extremely hard work, partly because we met initially quite a lot of opposition in the community. You probably don’t remember this, but it turned out that one of the people that lived in Dubai was the former leader of the British National Party. And he took issue with the fact that we wanted to run a retreat centre that was open to people of all faiths. And he kind of got together with one of the local county councillors and one of the three church ministers and initiated this kind of hate mail campaign against us about the fact that we were going to undermine local culture and religion. And when our application went to planning, the planning officer actually read parts of the of the Human Rights Act during our planning permission to say you cannot make planning decisions that you thought discrimination and oppression.
Manda: Yeah, especially not the the Free Church discrimination. So, again, for people listening to the Free Church is kind of its worst hold on Scotland’s own evolution of super hardcore Protestantism. My memory is of a friend of mine who qualified as a vet, went to work somewhere not far from where you are, was called to see a cow carving on a Sunday and somebody threw the keys to his Landrover in the loch while he was calving this cow because he was working on a Sunday. And that’s against the rules. It’s seriously hard core stuff.
Sam: Well, what I found is, you know, it was a tough stance in that community, but we did go on to build very good relationships with the church in Scotland, with the free church. And with Scott church, but it took time and it wasn’t easy.
Manda: So let’s fast forward because you did the Masters at Karuna, which again, for those listening who don’t know, is a training centre in the middle of Dartmoor. That does. What’s now called core process psychotherapy and also until very recently taught Cranio psychotherapy, which is how I came to know about it. So fast-forward, us you set up at Diabaig but then at some point you came back to Devon?
Sam: Well, that obviously was very hard work experience and you’ll find all sorts of ways and in all kinds of levels, and it took its toll on our marriage and there was a point at which I discovered that my husband was having an affair. And we were not able to work that out, and so there came a point where Isaid I need to leave. I can’t actually carry on living with someone who’s also having a relationship with somebody else.
Manda: Not if that’s not the arrangement of the marriage.
Sam: I was very involved in the church by then. I was in the kind of formal discernment process for ordination in the Episcopal Church. It felt like the local community had really come around us as a family and had embraced my very different approach to Christianity. They couldn’t cope with me having an unfaithful husband as well, which is quite understandable. I couldn’t cope with it either. And so I left and I came back to Devon and, you know, that was quite a turning point for me. I went and spoke to the bishop’s adviser and said, you know, look, I’ve already done four years of training, two years of theology. You know, what can I do here? And she said, you’ll have to start again. And I was going through a divorce. My oldest son had stayed in Scotland to go to Glasgow University. I still have my youngest son with me. And I thought, I’ve got to make a different decision here. And that was when I started training a career.
Manda: So we’ll come back to that in a minute. But in passing, you said that you were a Christian druid. And somehow in all the reading that I’ve done of you that had not landed with me. Tell me about being a Christian druid. What is it? How does it work? How do you marry to things that seem to me to be have quite a strong dividing line between them?
Sam: Well, that’s interesting because I don’t experience it like that myself. But if I go back to my early 20s, the shift out of Buddhism for me came through the shift into family life because my experience Buddhism was based in retreat in a monastic way of life. And I couldn’t combine that. And also, I think it was in many ways quite a transcendent path as well. And as I moved into having a young family, I really needed a spirituality that was very earth based and community based and could really hold me. And that’s why I came through Kabbalah back to Christianity. And I also met Druidry around that time through the order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. And what I heard through their teaching was that Druidry is an earth-centred philosophy that a person of any faith can embrace. And so for me, I was reconnecting with with my Christian roots and also exploring Druidry at the same time and that particular School of Druidry, it starts with connecting with the seasons and the elements and with one’s creative self. And that’s been such an important part of my life, you know, like from my childhood with my mother being woman and my love of myth and story. So. So, you know the Bartik. Exploration really kind of fitted by nature and and there was no tension for me between between that and my my Christian explorations,
Manda: So I’d really like to unpack this a bit more deeply, just purely from my own understanding, because I can see that as with Shaman expert duality – and I think Druidry for me is a subset of shamanic work, o let’s involve them all together – they are ways of connecting in the deepest part, with the Gods of the Land, and in the beginning, yes, we connect with the energies of the directions and the energies of the elements. But in the end, we are connecting with the spirituality of the Web of Life. And so I can see absolutely that the Druidic path accepts people of all other spiritual orientations. But how does your Christian self align with the concept of many Gods that is inherent to me in Druidry and shamanic practise,
Sam: When I think my experience is that there are different kinds of druids, and I wouldn’t call myself a many-gods druid. I think it depends what you mean by many gods even, doesn’t it? As a Christian, my faith is essentially Trinitarian. It has this very deep mystery at the heart of it where the divine is imagined as a relationship, as a threefold relationship. There’s a dimension to the divinity that is. Ineffable, indescribable, unknowable even. And there’s a dimension to the divine that is incarnate, manifest, embodied that we call Christ. And when I use the word Christ, I’m not just talking about the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I have a much more expansive sense of what Christ means to me. Can you say a little bit more that. Well, I guess I drew a lot of inspiration from feminist theology. So somebody like Elizabeth Johnson, when she talks about Christ being the Beloved Community, obviously drawing on on Martin Luther King. The Beloved Community, when I look at my way into the Christian mysteries, is is through the Christian story. And for me that story is a story about a community. And in the Orthodox tradition, for example, we start telling the Christian story with the conception of marriage, and we ended with Mary’s assumption, her rising into heaven or her enlightenment, if you like. And and so the Christian story told in that way is a story about Mary and Christ and the men and women of the disciples and the Land and the plants and the rivers and the beloved community, the Christ, his presence in this expanded sense of the beloved community. OK, and that’s yeah, that’s I mean, maybe that’s a form of many Gods.
Manda: Yeah, we could explore this quite deeply, but let’s let’s go back for a moment, because you said the divine is a relationship and it’s three fold and we have the ineffable. And then I let us down a bit of a rabbit hole on the incarnate. What’s the third part?
Sam: So the third part is, is the Holy Spirit.
Manda: Say more about that?
Sam: One in terms of the Christian community, know the Christian story. I mean, it’s not so long since we passed through Easter with the crucifixion resurrection. And then next week we’ll have the ascension. So Christ is so the incarnate bodily ascends into the subtle. Well well, I mean, it’s the pictures of the ascension, but we could see it as a. As a moving into the real world, as I’m moving into the Seattle rounds and. With a promise that although Christ will no longer be present in person, what will come to us is the Holy Spirit. And so Pentecost, which is the festival that follows the Ascension later in May, there is the descent of the Holy Spirit and there is this fiery presence that awakens in the hearts and minds of the women and men, of all the disciples and in the icons. Mary is shown at the centre of that experience. And that that’s not just an experience that happened in the past. It’s been an experience that’s been happening in the Christian life ever since. So. That is the way that the divine is continually manifesting incarnating through us, wakening us, transforming us, sending us out to engage with justice, with resilience, with. Yes, all those things that are expressions of spirit in life.
Manda: Ok, there are so many avenues we could go down with this, and it’s so fascinating, but I don’t want to end up dragging the podcast purely into my own personal obsessions, although that tends to be where we go anyway. So we might come back to this because I’m still there’s so many questions to be unpeeled here. But let’s take us forward a little bit to the manifestation of this Druidic Christianity, I think as the Wild Church and the Wild Monastics, which are to slightly separate things, which arose first.
Sam: So that they’re not separate things, they are actually very deeply in relationship to each other. And yet what those first in manifest form, if you like. Was was with a dark, long church, in the sense of you in terms of actually creating events, activities, gatherings that arose first.
Manda: So tell us a little bit about what that is.
Sam: Well, maybe this is well, I can use my kind of symbol, if you like. And I have a kind of symbol that I used to imagine while church for myself. And I see it rather like a Celtic cross, which is an equal arms cross kind of cross in a circle, if you like. And I kind of imagine that at the heart of that is the body of Christ is this mystic body of Christ, the beloved community, if you like, that we’ve just been talking about, which is made up of all that is. New life, embodied life is now at the heart of a world change. It’s about saying this is what matters, this is what we love, this is what we serve. And then the arms of the cross are kind of like, well, well, how do we serve that? What are the pathways before pathways for me, for our church, all our forces, and probably the one I tend to use first is is the contemplative because that is so cool for me. Is is this capacity for. For a depth of listening, for a depth of presence. That I would call contemplative. And the second is the creative, and that means all kinds of things, but meanwhile, church is very emergent. We’re continually creating it and we use storytelling. We use art, iconography, craft. All different creative forms are very sensual work with with different artists as part of what we do, which kind of leads me into the third C, which is collaborative.
Sam: And again, that kind of goes back to the thing about about the beloved community. For me, all good things, all deeply spiritual things are things that we create together. Can actually. And all of these sort of routine each other, because collaboration, I think emerges out of listening now represents. And then the fourth C I call curious. And I think what I mean by that also because, you know, the academic in me is very committed to critical thinking in the academic sense, in having that kind of deep curiosity that always wants to ask another question, you know, that doesn’t want to take things as given. And that’s very important for me as a Christian. You know, is is is to always be kind of saying, well, actually, where are the women? Well, what were they doing? What does this doctrine actually mean? Well, how we actually really looked at race here. What about gender? Where is justice happening? Yes, do animals have to be fossils? Just just digging in again and again and again, you know, asking these questions, just not taking anything at face value. So that’s the kind of curious side for me. So those four things, the contemplative, the creative, the collaborative and the curious, those are the four parts of Wild Church that of. All life will be the body of Christ
Manda: And the Wild Church, if I understood it correctly – the world is the church, so this isn’t a church that is located in a bricks and mortar building, its point is that it’s an open church that has no physical location. But you ordained somewhere, having been told that you have to go back to the beginning and start all over again and deciding you didn’t want to do that at some point, you did ordain.
Sam: Well, I sort of missed out a piece of the problem of having a complicated life is so hard to get all the pieces in. But when I was living on Dartmoor by then, I had a strong sense of calling to ordained ministry. But my priest at that time and my minister, he was conservative, evangelical, and really not supportive of women’s ordination. And he was not supportive of this strange, Christian woman. He was supportive of me in certain ways. But he was not supportive of my calling to ordained ministry. So I actually went off to what was then called the new seminary. It’s now called One Spirit Interfaith Foundation, And I was one of the early people that trained that.And I actually took Christian vows in that interfaith context that the Scottish Episcopal process, but I didn’t get ordained again because of a breakdown of my marriage. And then I ended up in the Church of England with them saying, you’re going to have to start again. And then later on, I actually went through a formal discernment process, and I’m actually now training again for the third time more or ordained ministry in the Church of England.
Manda: So the Wild Church came into being as a place without a home, as you said, based on these four values, the contemplative, the creative, the collaborative and the curious. How long has it been up and running and where did wild monastics arise as part of that?
Sam: So it’s been running for seven years now. And what monastics emerged very early. I mean, we we started our church with an event and then we started making monthly pilgrimages. And yet fairly soon, I think we started in 2014. And then by the next year, we had we had started with our wild goose chase gatherings, but I think what’s important is that the warm and active gatherings, in a sense, were the latest incarnation of a series of groups that had been happening for years. I mean, there’s a great deal that I haven’t told you, you know, starting from that no holds barred Bible study moving into the Celtic circle, the Tree of Life School for Kavala. You know, that that moved into the Arctic Circle, became the Wood Sisters, which was a, you know, a five year project that I did in collaboration with a friend of mine where we developed storytelling. We built up a big tent and community. I mean, you know, there’s like an awful lot of water, the bridge here. Yeah, and and that is necessary in a sense, while church and world monastics were the latest incarnation of the emergent creative process that had been going on. Since my early 20s
Manda: And does it feel like these are a place to rest, or do you think that the immersion process will continue and other iterations and variants will arise?
Sam: I have no idea. I’m very aware that I am essentially a creative. I like to keep creating things. I’m not in this to, you know, to manifest a new institution. I don’t think we need any more of those. So I just I just take it a year at a time, really, OK?
Manda: I’m so in term, in spiritual terms, what do wild church and wild monastics give you? That feeds you that you didn’t have already?
Sam: I suppose I mean, part of why I started Wild Church rather than continuing with the things I was already doing, was that I really wanted to bridge the Earth based, earth centred spirituality and Christian spirituality. And really explore that very deeply. And I think even in just those words, ‘Wild Church, goes back to what we were saying about the weather right at the beginning, there’s a kind of paradox right in there for many people. You know, when they hear the word wild and they hear the word church, it doesn’t fit together for them. And I love that. It straightaway gets everybody uncomfortable, gets them thinking.
Manda: But not the people who come presumedly, you now have a kind of a Wild Church congregation, people who are joining you for whom this isn’t doesn’t feel like a dissonance for whom it feels like a home. A spiritual home?
Sam: Yes, it does feel like a home, but I also feel like it’s an ongoing enquiry. I think that’s part of the nature. I mean, you said what feeds me spiritually about the church and what feeds me is this kind of enquiring emergent quality to it and part of why Wild Monastics became so important, very central. I’d say almost. The word ‘Monastic’ is the heart of Wild Church while a church grows out of it, you know, emerged first in a manifest sense because we have this concept of the monastery of the heart. You know, that there is the kind of space in which we can gather, in which we can listen to each other. This is a heart space, not a manifest space. And that’s a space where they can welcome incredible diversity and difference and discomfort and that we can come together and be on a journey, really a journey of discovery.
Manda: So can you explain for people listening the logistics of how world monastics gathers, particularly given we’ve just been through lockdown? So it will have been different. So the the ideal and then the lockdown variant of when you say you’re creating a heart space that welcomes diversity but can also be challenging, how are the people who come how are they finding you? How are you engaging with them and where do you take them?
Sam: Well, we currently meet by Zoom and so once a fortnight we we have a Zoom monastery. I love it and it is open to anybody. And we have a core practise – The Prayer of the Heart – which draws inspiration from Christian tradition. But it’s really about a discipline of learning to enter into a hard space, into a listening space, into a quiet space where we can both listen to ourselves, to our own hearts, which generally are quite conflicted, and we can also listen to each other. So in a warm and Gnostics meeting, we we have a kind of three fold pattern, which is also an invitation for reflection. Well, then have a time of silence where we can kind of talk into the heart space and then we’ll have a time of open sharing where we simply listen to each other without comment. You know, these are very familiar forms in many different traditions. And we do welcome people of any faith, background of any gender or of any sexuality, and we are a very diverse group.
Manda: So I was listening to you thinking, how is I’ve actually written in my notes, how is it different to the Buddhist practises that you did many years ago in that first psycho spiritual communityecause the sound, as you say, it sounds like. The kind of thing that is evolving quite a lot in different centres around the world. What is it that makes this uniquely Christian?
Sam: In some ways, I don’t know whether it even is uniquely Christian. There is a core heart practise here, and it’s about deep listening, that I met in Buddhism, that I met in Karuna, that I met in Druidry and that I met in Christianity, and I made a choice for myself because Christianity was what I had grown up with. It was the stories that I knew. It was the festivals that I knew. And I think I hit a point in my own journey where I realised I couldn’t go deeper into everything, not because anything was any less true, but because I just don’t have time. And so I made a choice to go deeply into Christianity. But because I had these very rich journeys in other faith traditions, I was informed by all of that. And I didn’t really make anything new going deeper into Christianity. But yes, it does have a uniquely Christian articulation. And I think that’s beautiful, just like there are many different Buddhists articulations, or many different Jewish articulations. There are many different Druid articulations. And I think they’re really beautiful, each of them. And I think they deserve to be attended to carefully. And so that’s what I’m trying to do with the Christian tradition, really is. Is is to give people the opportunity to actually get to know some of its unique beauties, but in a way that has this shattered heart.
Manda: Ok, it’s it’s reminding me, as you’re speaking of Cynthia Bourgault, is that how you say her name? She feels as if she’s heading into a similar sort of place, which has resonances for me with Aldous Huxley’s concept of the perennial philosophy, of being at the heart of of all the major world religions. So I have a question moving on from that, because you’re clearly very activist. I came to you through Mothiur Rahman of XR Muslims and activism, particularly now at this moment of absolute climate crisis, seems to be at the core of your spiritual practise, but we haven’t spoken much about that. So I want to explore briefly, where your activism takes you and particularly where the spiritual components of your activism take you, and particularly… I have a theory – maybe we would call it a belief system or a structure – that all of our major world religions arose out of our separation, their old ways of humanity often man defining himself or ourselves as separate from the More than Human world. Druidry, I wouldn’t count because it’s it’s an indigenous one of the older spiritual forms, but the ones that grew out of the agrarian revolution: all three of the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, are all predicated on separation. I am completely prepared to believe that your version of it isn’t, but then the question is, how do we cross the spiritual divide to the point where we know that we are integral to the healing, and yet that we need to listen to the other than the human world, which I’m guessing is where you get to
Sam: Quite a lot of what we’ve already touched on when I’ve spoken about Christ as the Beloved Community, that is what it means for me to be a Christian. You know, the picture, the story that you’ve told about the Abrahamic and other agrarian religions being rooted in separation. I wouldn’t deny that this is a significant element of them, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth in my experience. No, it’s certainly not. Interestingly, I was very anti Christian in my Buddhist days initially, and I’ve been through a real journey to actually that journey of curiosity to actually get to know my own tradition better and to look at my own assumptions. And I was carrying assumptions about the fact that it split matter and spirit, about the fact that it was antithetical to the body, that it didn’t see the equality of all beings. You know, I was carrying those kinds of assumptions and actually that the more deeply I’ve gone into Christian tradition, you know, going right back. To the early church, mothers and fathers, to the Celtic traditions, I found all kinds of teachings that are actually not upholding that kind of separated view and they’re very orthodox. You know, they’re not they’re not fringe teachings, I’ve had to kind of change my own mind about my faith or I’ve had to change my mind and then reclaim Christianity as my faith. So in terms of going back to what you’re saying about activism, I think for me. I don’t think there is a split between contemplation and action. I mean, there is a ng’andu reality at the heart of the Christian tradition for me that is very, very deep. It is about kind of how we see the nature of reality.
Sam: And, you know, contemplation is about how you see the nature of reality, it’s about entering into the core teaching that comes from inside of Christian faith, is that we are engaged in a practise of unions and fundamental to that practise is is the natural world. You know, the divine Logos is manifested in the logo in all the manifestations of life, and these are teachings that go back into the early church. And so, you know, to contemplate is to be an activist, to be an activist is to contemplate they are they are one and the same thing, you know, to listen. To to all that is to listen to life, to enter into union with life is is to love, is to care and want to act with love and care in all the ways that that can manifest itself in the smallest ways and also in the ways of. Well, you know, we were talking at the beginning before we began recording about the Glee project, you know, I’m very engaged in sustainable land use in transforming the way the Church of England manages its planned, for example, working with partner organisations like the Devon Wildlife Trust with more meadows in ways that are both very practical and also deeply informed by contemplation, working together with partner organisations, what it means to be different coming from different places. I’m interested in rewilding, which is different from, say, the biodynamic farmer we’re working with. We have different priorities. We have to learn to listen to each other. It’s not easy. The prayer of the heart becomes very, very important in those kinds of contexts. So that’s giving you a taste anyway?
Manda: Definitely, yes. Absolutely. And so the Glebe project is where your activism is heading just now or other other branches of it?
Sam: I think that’s the main one at the moment.
Manda: And it’s going to be national and possibly international. Are you trying to change the whole framing of the way the church manages its Land? Across the totality of it,
Sam: That’s what we’re hoping. I mean, we’re working with the exoduses with a biodynamic farmer, with a charity that is engaged with water management, with local church, you know, wider community engagement. And we want this to be a kind of flagship project. We all want this to be a flagship project. So the exoduses are committing to a community organisation, taking forward the management of of the Dartington glebe and modelling a process of regenerative agriculture, rewilding, community engagement that can then, if it’s successful, will be rolled out across the diocese and hopefully can inform the wider Church of England.
Manda: That sounds really powerful. And are you aware of other people doing similar things in other dioceses or are you it, do you think?
Sam: I’m not aware of it doesn’t mean that we are it. And I’m sure there are people doing things in their own ways. And, you know, I hope to learn more about them, but I don’t know is the honest answer.
Manda: It sounds very much of the moment I would be surprised if there wasn’t somebody somewhere at least having ideas. But you’re if you’re blazing a trail, then that would be fantastic. Gosh, there is so much else I would love to talk to you about, but I think we really have hit the end of time. Maybe we can come back for a second broadcast at some point, maybe even the Glebe project has taken off and we can talk about that as our starter and then go into. I’m very curious about your experience of the divine, actually, and how how that feels. But that’s that is a whole separate focus, we really don’t have time together. Let’s leave that. So, Sam Wernham, thank you so much for your time and for all that you’re doing. And we all point people at the World Church and at world monastics and hope to join you sometime.
Sam: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you, Manda.
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