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Re-Wilding Weddings... and maybe Re-Wilding Church...

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

I led my first wedding reception recently, outside n the wildly beautiful grounds of Killyon Manor, in County Westmeath

Photo courtesy of Cait Fahey

The path from the main house to the ceremony space was decorated by tea light lanterns and bunches of bougainvillea. The space itself had wooden benches for the 50 or so guests, spaced out to meet Covid restrictions under gently rustling elms.

The bride and groom signed the register underneath the window of a ruin of a small chapel which had been simply yet beautifully decorated for the event.

Zoe and Roland Purcell, the owners of Killyon Manor, do offer an indoor option for ceremonies, but only as a last resort. They really want the ceremonies to take place outside, in a small clearing in a wood about 5 mins walk from the ‘Big House’. The clearing is just in front of the ruins of an old chapel. Since coming to live there 10 years ago, the Purcells have chosen to let the 60 acres of land on the Killyon estate re-wild. By allowing nature to do its own thing, they hope to create a sanctuary for native flora and fauna, which they see as being under significant threat. They invite the public into this re-wilded space, changing very little in order to do so.

This striking setting, combined with stunning music by Michelle O’Rourke, Cora Venus Lunny and Kate Ellis, and really thoughtful readings and input from a wonderful bride and groom made it a very easy first ceremony – It would have been hard for it to be anything but a very moving ceremony, which it was.

It made me think of ‘re-wilding church’ taking it outside the walls and institutions. Not fully apart from, but in reach of the remnants of a shared faith, or some shared understanding of the divine. Out to where wild seeds of new types of gatherings, new ways of marking the moments that matter, of ‘being church’ can take root and thrive and grow. A central tenet of re-wilding as an environmental approach- is that it allows nature to take care of itself. In ‘faith’ terms it makes me think about allowing people more freedom to gather together and mark moments of spiritual significance outside formal institutions and hierarchies.

This ties in with a funeral I heard of recently. It was the colleague of a friend The man who had died had been very clear before he died that he did not want his funeral to be in a Church. So, he had been very clear on what he didn’t want. He was less clear, however, on what he did. As such his friends struggled – both to find a suitable venue, and to find a way within that venue to create an appropriate space. For all its many institutional faults, the Catholic Church in Ireland -along with its sister Christian churches – in their physical buildings, have spaces that offer a certain instant gravitas and (arguably) suitably solemn atmosphere. It can be hard to replicate that in a hotel function room that may have been used for a conference, or indeed a teenage disco, within the previous 24 hours.

So, what can work in terms of creating space appropriate to solemn sacred moments outside church buildings and institutions – where can a re-wilding take root, and thrive and grow?

Well, outdoors can work really well, especially if the weather is kind. The deep connection with nature is one of the defining characteristics of Celtic Christianity. There's good precedent in much more recent times too for the outdoors as a shared sacred space, one that works across diverse cultures. During the initial gathering to form the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 at the end of WW2, 500 delegates from 46 countries were bussed to Muir Woods – a national park of Giant Redwoods - to a spot called Cathedral Grove, to commemorate FD Roosevelt who had died just days earlier. During Covid, various reflective gatherings online that I was involved in, including those organised by Stillpoint, also worked surprisingly well. I don’t have all the answers, but love that in these more provisional spaces, what makes the gathering different is how people are with each other – people make the space sacred, make it a place for the ‘pilgrim people of God’, make it ‘church’, rather than any bricks, mortar and stained glass. The leader’s or minister’s role in these spaces becomes less about being a custodian of any inherited tradition, but rather the animator and facilitator of new expressions, that are authentic in some way with the roots.

Sounds flaky and hippy-dippy? Possibly. Chaotic and difficult to control? Definitely. But in Ireland, as in other parts of the world, we are badly in need of new ways of connecting as people of spirit, and for many new ways to connect as people of some faith. For me, using the image of ‘re-wilding’ to understand what’s possible as people navigate a changing relationship with the churches they were brought up in, is exciting. That people will be the building blocks of these new ways of gathering gives me hope. I also take hope from the new spaces that have emerged for such gatherings, thanks to Covid: a radical increase in the ability to meet online, and an increased preparedness to meet outdoors. Ceremonies such as the beautiful wedding in Killyon reassure me that this new hope is justified.

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