Going to church in the woods

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    Rev. Steve Blackmer begins walking to the "high altar," a clearing with an old tree stump, on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Church of the Woods attendees walk to their service in the woods of Canterbury on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • The Rev. Steve Blackmer opens his service at Church in the Woods in Canterbury. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • A candle, communion materials and Pope Francis' Environmental Encyclical sit on the high altar at Church in the Woods on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Church of the Woods attendee Tina Pickering of Concord sits in quiet contemplation on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • The Rev. Steve Blackmer (left) leads his afternoon service at Church in the Woods in Canterbury on Sunday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Concord resident Kathryn Wallenstein passes Communion bread to Max Brooks, also of Concord, at Church of the Woods in Canterbury on Sunday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Bug spray and sun screen, among other items, are available at Church of the Woods services, held each Sunday in Canterbury. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • For inclement weather, Church of the Woods holds its Sunday services in its new barn, built last December. The nature-based church holds services all year round, rain or shine. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Church in the Woods is held every Sunday at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. along Foster Road in Canterbury. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/2/2016 11:40:27 PM
Modified: 10/2/2016 11:39:58 PM

Covered by just a few tree branches beneath an overcast sky, Church of the Woods congregants stood on springy forest ground Sunday afternoon and praised God’s presence in the earth around them.

At one point during the hour and a half service, the group of eight asked for compassion, open hearts and open minds among their politicians. They also prayed for rain – if it could just hold off until the end of the service.

“May it come soon,” said the Rev. Steve Blackmer, adding with a smile, “but not quite yet.”

Though the chaplain and others hoped it wouldn’t pour right that moment, they weren’t shy about the outdoors. Participants in the Episcopal-based service wore hiking boots and rain jackets Sunday. They sang hymns, read scripture and quoted Pope Francis’s Environmental Encyclical under open sky, spent contemplative time out in the 106-acre Canterbury parcel of woods and wetlands, and took communion from their “high altar” – a large, old tree stump.

The services held Sundays at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., Blackmer said, are for people “that encounter God, encounter the divine, encounter the sacred, in nature.”

“The experience of being quiet in the natural world,” he added, “is absolutely central to my own spiritual practice.”

Church beginnings

Blackmer is relatively new to the church scene. He said he was on an airplane eight years ago when he heard, clear as day, the call to be a priest.

“I knew it was true, and yet I had never been to a church in my life at 53 years old,” he said. “I spent a year or two figuring out, what do I do with this?”

Blackmer found an answer not in pews or cathedrals, but in the place he was more familiar with through his work in land restoration: the outdoors.

(Earlier in life, Blackmer helped build and found various conservation organizations like Five Rivers Conservation Trust, Northern Forest Alliance and Northern Forest Center.)

“Jesus’s own spiritual life, his own spiritual practice, was deeply embedded in the natural world,” Blackmer said, referencing to such Bible passages as when Jesus would go up into a mountain to pray.

“It’s really that sense of Christ being present in all things,” he said. “We have very few churches that embody that, that embrace that. It’s been forgotten in the mainstream spiritual tradition.”

In response, Blackmer tried an experiment. He went to seminary at Yale Divinity School and was ordained by the Episcopal Church, and then on the land he and his wife, Kelly, purchased four years ago in Canterbury, Blackmer began Church of the Woods.


Now in its second year, Blackmer said Church in the Woods is still an experiment, though some elements appear to be more permanent.

The forest path to the tree stump altar, for instance, is well-worn with footsteps. During services there, Blackmer is well supplied with bug spray, sunscreen, snacks and mats to sit or kneel on. He brings the communion wine and water in two Nalgene bottles.

Back at the dirt parking lot for Church of the Woods, a port-a-potty is installed for congregates. Directly across is a brand-new barn, which Blackmer said was completed last December for colder and wetter days.

“Having that has made it much easier for times like this morning,” Blackmer said yesterday, referrencing his soggier, 9 a.m. service during the rainy part of Sunday. “It was pretty nice.”

On a good day, Blackmer said he might have two dozen or so attendees at his services. Up until now, all advertisement has been through word of mouth. Earlier last week, though, Church of the Woods sent out a press release inviting any and all to join in and pray for rain.

“We just want to let people know there’s a different sort of church here,” Blackmer said.

In addition, Canterbury residents driving the backroads may notice the church’s nonprofit sign along Foster Road. It reads “Kairos Earth,” posted at the beginning of a dirt driveway leading to Blackmer’s property.

The Greek word “kairos,” Blackmer said, has a deeper meaning for what Church in the Woods is trying to do. It means “time,” as in, the time is now.

“We mean it as it is the time to recover that sense of divinity, to reconnect church with the earth,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is help people remember that.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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