Marion Shoard | Writer : Broadcaster : Speaker

Thought for the Day

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Thought for the Day given by Marion Shoard on BBC Radio Kent’s Sunday Programme, 21 July 2019

Congratulations to the 36 parks across Kent which have just won a Green Flag award for overall excellence. Many of the winners are grand expanses, like Mote Park in Maidstone or Dunorlan Park in Tunbridge Wells, but modest, informal open spaces can play an equally valuable part in our everyday lives. 

Faversham’s little-known physic garden is a place into which anyone can wander for free, to sit and rest or take one of the little paths that meander amidst a delightful mix of cultivated and wild plants. When I was writing my latest book, How to Handle Later Life, I would do some hard graft in Faversham’s public library and then recharge my batteries in this little sanctuary of peace and beauty. 

Often, informal oases of green space like this are owned by faith groups.  One of my favourites is the garden in front of Sittingbourne Methodist Church. There’s no gate – this delightful strip of land seems available for anyone to wander in from the High Street and enjoy, in a town centre which boasts few other green lungs. I’ve never seen a scrap of litter in this garden, as if those using it sense they should respect the care with which it’s tended. 

Of course, the most widespread and extensive of the outdoor spaces associated with religion are our parish churchyards. There are ten thousand of them. Many are large and beautiful, and, like Sittingbourne’s Methodist garden, they’re sometimes the only proper outdoor spaces in what are otherwise concrete deserts.

Unlike private squares and gated gardens, they’re also usually open to everyone at any time of the day or night. And unlike our public parks, which are usually noisy with children and dog-walkers, even and perhaps especially if they’ve won Green Flag awards, they provide an environment suited to peace and contemplation.

Yet often they’re overlooked by people who could take advantage of them but are put off by organized religion, or avoided by those who find gloomy graveyards upsetting.

This is a pity. The green surroundings of our places of worship ought to play as important a part in the spiritual life of communities as the sacred buildings they enshrine. Our churches, chapels, synagogues and mosques represent our efforts to pay tribute to God. But the natural landscapes around them manifest the work of God Himself in a way that should be accessible to people of all religions and none.

We’re often told that contact with nature is a vital aid to mental health. Our churchyards and other religious spaces could also be a route to spiritual health. They could be a stepping stone into religion for people who would hesitate to walk in off the street straight into a building dedicated to a particular creed. 

Yet we often seem slow to make the most of the opportunities these green spaces could offer. All too often they are just mown, tidied and ignored. They could however be a celebration of God’s glory in a way no building could ever be. The ancient yews to which many of them play host could stand amidst snowy hawthorn, riots of wild flowers, and tall grasses swaying in the breeze. They could resound with the song of many kinds of birds and offer homes to dormice and frogs. Inviting paths could wind their way through them, instead of grimly tarmacked footways.

Some of our churchyards have already been transformed in this way. Parishioners put as much effort into turning these churchyards into welcoming natural paradises as they do in operating the flower rota in the churches themselves. If only all of our religious open spaces could become temples to God’s bounty in this way.