HAZELNUT Community Farm began with what the Revd John White calls his “climate conversion”. “All of a sudden, it made sense to me that the main thing facing the Church is the climate emergency,” he said. “I actually went to a city farm in Bristol, and had kind of a significant experience, where I just felt,looking around the city farm, that it was exactly what I was think church should look like — just without a sacred space.”
Mr White was quickly released from his title post, bought a plot of land in Lockleaze, Bristol, gathered a small team, and, within months, Hazelnut was born. The foundational idea is simple: rather than meet in a church building for Sunday worship, his community gathers in the garden, prays together, and then worships through gardening.
The community grow its own food, both to eat and to give away for free, believing that the Church must build a new sustainable future, amid the climate crisis, based on growing fresh produce. “Our goal is not to recreate church and just have it outside. We don’t have pews, chairs, keyboards, generators,” he explained. “So, over raised beds, we talk, we weed, we water, we harvest.”
Once a month, Hazelnut holds its “Nomad” service, where its members cook and eat food grown in the garden and celebrate holy communion.
Despite being barely a year old, Hazelnut has flourished, sprouting offshoots across the country in churchyards, homes, and cathedrals. Mr White said that he thought that the pandemic had begun a nationwide return to the land, which his community was tapping into.
One book says that three million British people began gardening for the first time in 2020: “Covid has flipped a switch. For a lot of people, they’ve gone outside, they’ve gone to their gardens, and they’ve found it brings such joy, help with anxiety; you’re encountering God in that time.”
Historically, Britain was an agrarian society, where people worked the land and then entered sacred buildings once a week to worship God. But, today, people live indoors; so the Hazelnut group believes that they must return to the earth to encounter the divine. “Our modern-day cathedrals are community gardens. It kind of makes sense to me that we’re in crisis again. Let’s turn back to the land, both spiritually and as a society,” Mr White says.
MORE people are joining the movement, inspired by the small Bristol-based Hazelnut community. There are five groups across the country, joining in what they call a Growing Collective. In January, Mr White will launch the Potting Shed, a five-month programme to jump-start new projects from the conceptual stage to actually getting hands dirty. At their first conference, in July, 450 people joined to discuss the image of creation, the commodification of land and food, and how to fight back as believers.
St Davids Cathedral has signed up, and so has a new church-plant in Sheffield, whose congregation began meeting outdoors while they waited for their building to be ready, and enjoyed it so much that they have carried on.
There are “wild churches”, which gather on farmland without a building, while others are farms themselves, seeking to add a spiritual centre to their existing work. Hazelnut has started working with schools, too, and connected with a GP practice to explore offering time in the garden as a form of social prescribing.
“I would say this is not that radical, but a reasonable response to climate emergency. If there is an emergency, then we should be reshaping stuff,” Mr White said. Any church or Christian could get involved: it could be as simple as planting a tomato seedling in a window box.
“Part of the dream behind this is that we just need a lot of people to get interested in climate emergency really quickly. And so we’re open to creating that open space, where we will literally be generous with what we have, and share and give. I encourage people just to have a go.”