‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’ Mark 1:35 (NIV)
At the beginning of September I was on holiday in Northumberland. While we were there we visited the coastal village of Alnmouth with its salt marshes and sand dunes. During our walk pheasants and lapwings were enjoying the rich feeding grounds of the marshes, and a barn owl quartered around a nearby field. Across the estuary, St Cuthbert’s Cross sat on Church Hill. The cross is said to mark the site where St Cuthbert agreed to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. The hill itself was once home to the parish church, but it was cut off from the village after a storm changed the course of the River Aln in the seventeenth century.
Northumberland, with its strong links to our Christian past and its remote location, is home to many of what are known as ‘thin places’, of which Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is perhaps the most famous. These are places where the gap between heaven and earth seems particularly permeable, places where we, like generations of Christians before us, might encounter God. They are also often places where we experience the wonder of God’s creation, whether it’s through wildlife watching, the power of the waves, or panoramic views.
When we talk about thin places, we often look to Jesus and the way in which he would escape to mountainsides and quiet places to pray; or we might turn to encounters with God in the wilderness such as that experienced by Elijah in 1 Kings 19. This raises the question: what are we saying about encountering God and creation in everyday and urban places, if the language we use as Christians unintentionally reinforces the idea that God is most easily to be found off the beaten track?
There is also the issue of barriers in accessing these wilderness places. These can be visible and invisible; financial, social, cultural or health-related. During the pandemic we saw clearly the need for access to nature for our physical and mental health, and the impact of lockdowns on those without gardens or easy access to green spaces, who tended to come from economically disadvantaged areas.
Without diminishing the power and importance of the more famous thin places and the ways in which people have encountered God in them, perhaps we can begin to take a wider view of where those encounters might take place, alongside finding ways of making opportunities for accessing them more widely available.
So, what might we do to reimagine thin places? How can we bring tranquil and high quality nature-rich spaces into towns and cities, rather than placing all the emphasis on taking people out into the countryside? If we can help to foster this sense of wonder and peace where people are, then we could start to reinforce the idea that God and creation can be encountered anywhere and everywhere.
This ‘Meet the Community’ article was written by Shelly Dennison for the Wild Christian email, ‘Nature and justice.’ Shelly Denison
Shelly is the Eco Church lead at Putnoe Heights Church in Bedford and works as the Digital Engagement Officer for CPRE Bedfordshire.
Shelly has a particular interest in access to nature and the countryside and has written a Briefing Paper for The John Ray Initiative (JRI) ‘Extending the right to roam: the Countryside Code, Covenant and Christianity’ which explores the current debates around the right to roam from a Christian perspective. Find it here.