A Short History of GreenSpirit ~ A Personal View

This article is by Chris Holmes, which is his personal view and appears in the Spring 2021 edition of our magazine.

Chris has been a member of GreenSpirit for over 20 years. He is particularly interested in developing the relationship between an active and contemplative green spirituality.

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GreenSpirit officially became a charity in 1995 and recently passed its ‘25th anniversary’. What follows is the story of that quarter-century and the years that preceded it. Inevitably, in a short article, much detail has been omitted, including the names of many who contributed to GreenSpirit over the years.

Some Background Influences

Creation Spirituality has been present in various forms throughout history and indeed pre-history, at times hidden and hard to discern, at other times and places very visible. Sometimes the emphasis has been on celebrating the wonder and joy of creation; in recent centuries the inspiration has perhaps been more about a reaction to the damage and degradation that our species has inflicted upon the planet.

In the second half of the 20th century there were a number of causal influences and the following summary hardly does justice to a complexity which might justifiably include the feminist movement, liberal societal trends and a growth in the understanding and practice of Eastern spiritualities. For present purposes however, there were perhaps two major proximate influences; the emergence of the ‘Green’ movement and radical theological developments within Christianity.

The Green Movement

Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, published in 1962, is often cited as the beginning of the modern Green movement, although it was part of a much longer critique of the impact of industrialisation.

The years which followed ‘Silent Spring’ saw the birth of a variety of organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Club of Rome and Green political parties across the globe. These movements were often met with derision and occasionally with downright hostility. If only humanity had taken proper cognisance and acted on their insights and recommendations the world would be in a much better place!

Theological Developments

‘Honest to God’ (1963) by John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich was a synthesis of much radical/liberal theology which had gone before, but it scandalised much of the Anglican Communion and beyond. It stimulated debate about the nature of the Divine and in many respects opened the way for much of what followed. More closely associated with GreenSpirit origins was the work of the French Jesuit priest and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and it was his belief in, and rendition of, the ‘Universe Story’ that inspired many Christians who sought the compatibility of modern science with religion. Also of fundamental importance to the movement was Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a Priest and cultural historian whose writings (notably ‘The Great Work’ 2000) had a clarity and earthiness which Teilhard’s often lacked. These two prophets were significant influences on Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest and theologian and it was his ‘Original Blessing’ book (1982) which set out a Christianity with a new emphasis, bringing together the Christian mystical tradition, modern scientific cosmology and the ecological imperative. ‘Original Blessing’ gave a profoundly different emphasis to the Christian story and prominence to those exemplars of the Creation Spirituality tradition such as Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen and St. Francis of Assisi. Re-reading the book in 2020 shows that while there is some over-simplification, it remains extraordinarily powerful and prophetic.

The Early Days of the Movement

‘Original Blessing’ fell upon fertile ground. Donald Reeves, then Rector of St James’s Church Piccadilly in London, invited Matthew Fox over from the USA to speak and in 1987 he gave a number of talks which made a huge impression, inspiring those already familiar with his work and reaching out to those to whom it was new. An important feature of Creation Spirituality lay in its embrace of the experiential and this, along with its reorientation of theology, made it immensely attractive and exciting.

GreenSpirit has much to thank Donald Reeves and St. James for. They provided a home for Creation Spirituality and some funding during its early years. In 1989 the journal Interchange came into being (or rather was revived, for it had existed some years before as a vehicle for studying the work of Teilhard). The new editor was Petra Griffiths and these early publications remain very inspirational reading – the content was remarkably good and speaks powerfully to us thirty years on. Soon the idea of a more formal structure was considered and on 30th October 1994 the first General Meeting of the Association for Creation Spirituality was held. The minutes of the meeting mention a generous donation from Anita Roddick of the Body Shop and the formation of an executive body. The Minutes also mention that agreement had been reached with the Charity Commission regarding the Constitution and that ‘one of the new challenges lay in finding a balance between institutional structure and the fluidity necessary for growth’. In early 1995 the ‘Association for Creation Spirituality’ came into official being.

It was the fluidity just alluded to which dominated in the early years. While there was great enthusiasm and creative energy with a number of sub-groups looking at different aspects of spirituality, as with so many young organisations, it was spending rather more than it was receiving. One gets the impression that there was no shortage of ideas but that expediting many of the necessary actions was proving to be a struggle. Minutes from contemporary Council meetings suggest that some of the sub-groups were failing to meet or reach agreement on the way ahead. At the February 1997 Council meeting the Treasurer advised that within a couple of months the charity would be in the red; immediate action was taken to reduce costs and this, combined with a financial appeal to members, kept the young organisation in the black.

Alan Shephard

Amidst these early difficulties there was no doubt that the overall vision retained its power and integrity, and there were some notable bright spots. Membership was increasing – by late 1997 it had reached 176 – and Alan Shephard’s Book Service was increasingly supportive both in terms of outreach and finance. At the Annual General Meeting in late 1997, ‘GreenSpirit’ was proposed as the new name while the Association for Creation Spirituality was to be retained as the official name of the charity. ‘Creation Spirituality’ was (and is) sometimes confused with ‘Creationism’, a very different belief system and utterly different from that of GreenSpirit!

2000 Onwards

In the years either side of the millennium Chris Clarke was the Chair of Council and he helped guide the movement through to calmer waters. Chris was Professor of Applied Mathematics at Southampton University and was very influential in his contribution to GreenSpirit philosophy and spiritual development. It was under Chris’s chairship that the decision was taken in September 2000 to move the address away from St. James and to cease being an official project of the church. As Chris wrote at the time, this would ‘give a fairer reflection of our current independent status’.

Over the first decade of the new century, Alan Shephard’s Book Service, run from his home in Warminster, continued to be extremely important in promoting the message and giving ongoing financial support. Alan had a knack of publicising a range of interesting authors and he was invaluable in my education – or rather re-education. Many of us were introduced to Creation Spirituality through the book service, and one waited expectantly for the book list which Alan sent out on a regular basis. He also ran a second hand book service and as one of his volunteer helpers it was always a delight to visit his ‘scriptorium’ in Warminster and learn something about the book trade from an expert. Eventually, the growing power of Amazon and the ageing process for Alan meant that the book service lost some of its energy and it eventually morphed into ‘Books in a Suitcase’ which accompanies GreenSpirit to many different events.

While the Book Service was making its mark, so was the GreenSpirit Journal. In 1999, ‘Interchange’ was renamed ‘GreenSpirit’, with Jean Hardy and Ian Mowll taking over as editors and Michael Colebrook as production editor. Michael was a marine biologist and in addition to his work on the journal was responsible with his wife Erna for a number of wonderful booklets, notably ‘Walking the Sacred Story – A New Ritual for Celebrating the Universe’. The spiralled shell of the nautilus mollusc, which became the GreenSpirit logo, was also the brainchild of Michael.

Marian Van Eyk McCain

The new century began with an excellent booklet by Grace Blindell, ‘What is Creation Spirituality?’ and a few years later this was followed by a major publication, ‘GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness’ (2010). Its editor and driving force was Marian McCain who, having become an editor of the Journal in 2004, also became central to the further development of publications and, along with Michael Colebrook, Stephen Wollaston aka Santoshan and Ian Mowll, the GreenSpirit website. With Marian as Chair the publications group has progressed the number and variety of books and has brought the journal (now given the title of magazine!) to a new level. In this regard, Stephen Wollaston has been instrumental in its ever-improving design quality and also that of the physical appearance of GreenSpirit books. Both Marian and Stephen have also contributed much in the way of authorship.

Stephen Wollaston/Santoshan

GreenSpirit’s outreach was enhanced by a number of major, oneoff events which have been educational in nature and which have provided the opportunity to show its ideas to a wider world. The first of these in March 2002 ‘Science, Soul and Society’ took place at Hengrave Hall, followed in May 2003 by ‘Eros and Earth’ at the Quaker Centre in London where we were delighted to have Brian Swimme as the guest speaker. In April 2004, a major two day conference was held at Leicester University with David Abram, author of the groundbreaking ‘Spell of the Sensuous’. Other large events followed, the most recent being ‘The Universe Story’ held at Winchester University in June 2018.

Hilary Norton

Alongside the major events, GreenSpirit has run a regular ‘domestic’ events programme – the Annual Gathering which has taken place between September and November each year, the ‘Wild Week’, held in August and the Spring Walking break. Hilary Norton has been largely responsible for initiating and organising GreenSpirit’s regular events over two decades, and these have given great opportunities for people to meet and further the GreenSpirit vision in a variety of ways; they are great places for ideas to blossom, action to originate and spirituality to be deepened.

Local groups have always played an essential role in the life of GreenSpirit. At the beginning of the century there were about thirteen of these and while over the years numbers have ebbed and flowed, these groups remain a flourishing and vital part of the movement, bringing green spirituality to a rich diversity of places and complementing and informing the centre.

‘Doing the Business’

GreenSpirit is very much a ‘counter-cultural’ movement and has always been resolutely opposed to the ‘managerialism’ which has infected so much of organisational life over recent decades. However, it is very conscious of its charitable status and the need to be well run; to this end it ensures that ‘Governance’ issues continue to be given proper time at Council meetings and that the ‘business’ is done efficiently to allow plenty of space for creativity and strategic issues. The challenge set out in the minutes from 1994 mentioned earlier – ‘finding a balance between institutional structure and the fluidity necessary for growth’ – remains a constant feature in Council deliberations.

Ian Mowll

In this regard, GreenSpirit has had the good fortune in having a first-class administrator and coordinator, Ian Mowll. Ian has made an exceptional contribution to many areas of GreenSpirit life, ranging from the finer details of administration to the development of the Universe Story and the deepening of ‘green’ spirituality – as well as co-editing the magazine and developing the website.

Some Challenges for Now and the Future

Looking back over the history of GreenSpirit, much has changed in the world. In particular its life has been contemporaneous with the revolution in communications. When GreenSpirit began, the internet and social media were just emerging and these have been generally beneficial and have facilitated the development of the movement. Technology is constantly advancing and GreenSpirit needs to continually address the pros and cons of the use of such technology and the wider issues relating to the power of ‘big tech’.

In recent years, reflecting the fallout from the 2008 crisis, we have witnessed the growth of polarised societal attitudes, the rise of populist politics and a backsliding in democracy. Even in the UK, organisations such as GreenSpirit cannot always reckon on a safe political and social backdrop to our activities.

In the early years of GreenSpirit, green issues might be described as important but not mainstream. Now they most certainly are mainstream and many of the green arguments of the past, so often dismissed as eccentric at the time, are now accepted in far more places, although there are still islands of ignorance and opposition. Unfortunately turning the winning of the arguments into sustainable action has proven very difficult. The challenge to GreenSpirit is to show that ‘green living’ at both the individual and societal level is not just an ethical imperative but is full of rich and profound spiritual possibilities.

GreenSpirit began within the radical Christian tradition but has developed into something broader, embracing the ‘deep ecumenism’ which Matthew Fox described so many years ago, struggling towards that place of generosity and truth where all of the contemplative traditions can gather. GreenSpirit members come from a variety of spiritual traditions and dispositions, but all with an understanding that the Earth we inhabit is a creation to be cherished and cared for, that humanity is but one part of the whole, and is but one part of a much greater Universe Story.

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