Growing faith: Ethiopian Church Forests

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Growing faith: Ethiopian Church Forests and how they might inspire the theology, mission and praxis of churches in East London

by Rachel Summers


As a forest school practitioner, living and working among trees is something I really value. This is in part due to the feeling of wellbeing that being in a green space engenders, partly because being in nature is a crucial part of my spirituality, and partly because of the hope it gives me to be surrounded by wild green growing space at this time of climate emergency. Knowing this, a friend sent me a link to an article in The Guardian showcasing Kieran Dodds’s book about Church Forests in Ethiopia,1 which set me wondering about the links between these and the wild churchyard I was beginning to minister in in East London.

Reading more about the concept of Church Forests, I found the idea inspiring. I loved the way in which the worshipping community was deeply rooted within the land, intrinsically linked with their faith and spirituality. The way in which they cared for the land, and it for them, and this reminded me of a UK folk song: “I’ll be good to the land and the land will be good to me.”2 Could listening to the wisdom from Ethiopia help me to uncover some things of God that were happening in our churchyards, even in urban East London?

To this end, I identified three worshipping communities in Church of England churches in East London, my own context. All were interested in rewilding their churchyard and green spaces, albeit with differing amounts of resources. I would visit each site to sit, wander and make observations. I would gather individuals and small groups for conversations, listening to their experience of the churchyard, and the relationship between the rewilding of it and their faith. I wanted to celebrate what was happening on the ground in East London, and to tie that in with something that appeared to be similar on another continent. I was keen to discover what things of faith might be growing among the wildflowers and ivy.

I was clear that I did not want to look in on an African phenomenon purely through Western eyes. To this end, I sought out Ethiopian voices speaking about Church Forests, ecology and eco-theology, and reflected what they might have to contribute to eco-theological discourse in the UK. My interviews would focus on the communities inhabiting churches in East London, listening to their experiences around the work they already do within their church grounds, and spending time in those spaces myself to listen to the silent voices of place.


It is increasingly clear that for the continuation of life on Earth and our more authentic discipleship, we must develop a theology that embraces and helps us make sense of ecological issues. The risk is that we may be tempted into a hierarchical view of creation, placing us, as humans, at its head.

Although the concept of humans as stewards of God’s good creation can be used in a positive way, the concept is only one short step away from the notion of a transactional relationship. For too long, Western attitudes towards ecology have grown out of a colonial mindset, where engaging with creation means stepping into a position of control and ownership, focussing on us as “exercising dominion”.3 This may take benign, or even positive forms, such as the current slew of overactive bug hotel-making and tree-planting, but it still is planted in the soil of wanting to make our mark on the world.

Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, unpacks the relationships between God, God’s people and the land itself, arguing that they demonstrate a “triangular interdependence of creator, human creatures, and other non-human creatures. This mode of thought moves toward an equitable justice among the creatures…”4 There is a relationship between human life and the natural world, between God and humans, and between God and the natural world. All three of these exist interdependently of each other, with equal validity, and each affects the others.

A traditional understanding of ecology, within many Majority World contexts, is deeply rooted in a sense of connection with and of being part of the land. Daniel K. Lagat, writing from Kenya, explains that “People who appreciate the role of God in nature, and who respond by giving offerings of thanksgiving after the harvest, are easily drawn towards environmental management.”5 He believes that in such a context, it is only a short step for the church to play a major role in unlocking the potential for environmental solutions from the people.

In this article (based on my dissertation), I am taking a deeper look through one particular eco-theological lens from the Majority World: that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), specifically considering their relationship with the land around their church buildings and monasteries. David Goodin, an American theologian with an ecology background, Ethiopian ecologist Alemayehu Wassie and Margaret Lowman, a forest canopy ecology researcher, explain that “Remnant eastern Afromontane forests survive in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, which are currently protected by the EOTC. These ‘church forests’ (as they are known) are biodiversity preserves of critical importance for the future of Ethiopia, and also spiritual enclaves that are home to churches, monasteries, and other ecclesial lands actively managed by the EOTC clergy.”6 These Church Forests exist due to the theology of the EOTC, but it seems they also influence the spirituality of the members of the EOTC as those members interact with them, use them, protect them and build a relationship with them.

Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, an Ethiopian theologian, writes: “It is clear that Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity understands nature in a holistic manner. Nature includes human and invisible beings, trees, waters, forests and other land features, even air and invisible space and political structures such as a country… What is more, all aspects of nature and human experience can be derived from Orthodox theology.”7 This theological understanding of ecology has worked out in practice into a situation where “the surroundings of many churches are home to wild animals which have almost disappeared elsewhere”.8

A spirituality shaped by the green spaces held as holy impacts upon those very green spaces. Goodin, Wassie and Lowman quote a study from the tropical ecologist Frans Bongers that illustrates this well:

“Church followers are very committed to develop the forests, improve their quality and help in extension of the forests. In contrast, the same people are hardly motivated to help governmental institutions in reforestation programs” (Bongers et al.: 41). This is a most significant finding. There is something with respect to their status as holy sites that motivates the people in ways that economic self-interest simply cannot.9

This feels like an extremely pertinent point to explore for those of us wrestling with a church community and a country who appear to be content sleepwalking into environmental disaster. Perhaps supporting our Christian community to explore their theology from the ecological grounding modelled by our siblings in Ethiopia might precipitate committed action.

Despite the many differences, there are also similarities between the churches of East London and those of Ethiopia. Both are facing a climate catastrophe of human making. The churches of Ethiopia may be oases of green in a deforested desertifying landscape; the churches of East London could also be oases of biodiversity in the desert of urban sprawl. I wondered to what extent the concrete and asphalt might already be influencing our theology. Certainly, it implies a world where humans are put in a position of control over the natural environment, where creation is valued only for what it is financially worth.

Results and analysis/discussion

Within East London, I visited three different church settings, given pseudonyms here. St John’s, the old village church in the centre of the historic village at the heart of what is now a major urban conurbation in this borough, is in many ways the civic church of the area. It has a large congregation and an even larger fringe congregation. It is set within the wealthiest part of this area, although still with significant pockets of deprivation. St Paul’s was built as a chapel of ease to St John’s in the early Victorian era, as the residential project spread further afield right up to the forest margins. Epping Forest itself was set within specific bounds and given to the people of London in perpetuity by Queen Victoria, and this shaped the limits of the borough as residential expansion could continue no farther. St Monica’s is a large, red-brick built church from the later Victorian era, surrounded by dense Victorian terrace and on the verge of being overshadowed by newer multistorey housing blocks. A few streets away there is a park, but apart from this there is little greenery to disrupt an otherwise entirely human-built landscape. It has a small- to mid-sized vibrant congregation with a large number of first and second-generation Filipinos making up the majority of those who worship there.

Wassie, researching the Church Forests in his home context of Ethiopia, outlined a variety of ways in which the green spaces around the churches and monasteries were able to act as a blessing to the community and those worshipping as part of it. I was interested to discover in which ways similar blessings might exist in the East London churches I was studying, as well as how much, and in what ways, being invested in their hyperlocal ecology had affected the theology of those in these churches.

A space for practical use

Wassie writes that “Forests serve as classrooms for the traditional church school and provide a quiet shady environment.”10 Creating and nurturing the green spaces around these East London churches has filled something of a similar role. At St Monica’s, I had a conversation with a mixed group of Filipino, Jamaican and Irish adults after a midweek mass. I was told that “We actually been using some of the space to have the kids involved… all the children with the wheelbarrow” [sic].11 This church community were keen to utilise the space around their church to teach traditional skills around gardening and growing plants. At St John’s, the space was also used for education, as an interviewee explained: “Part of my remit is to engage volunteers and to teach gardening.”12 In my observation at St Paul’s, I noted that there is a log circle round a fire pit, which is “used once a month for an outdoor Sunday school focussed on creation theology, and every Friday for a forest school group that meets in the church grounds”.13 There is a growing sense in East London that land-based skills are important for the future, yet are in danger of being forgotten. For urban churches to provide the land in which these skills can be taught and passed on is a real gift.

A space for spiritual connection

Wassie states also that “Forests create privacy and tranquillity for hermits and monks who are praying day and night”.14 How might this be true in East London? As one interviewee at St Paul’s says:

It doesn’t have to be a beautiful day to make you love the place where the church is. When I had regular organ practice slots at the church I would stand in the tower porch on a wet Wednesday afternoon, watch and hear the rain pouring, and have the feeling that I never want to leave the place, that I could be an anchorite and live here because it felt held by a strong power that could sustain you in the same way a good home does, but better.15

I love the sense this quote gives of the possibility of being held in a holy place, and that holy place giving them what they need to “pray without ceasing”.16 This theme comes through also from St Monica’s: “It’s the brightness and the care you see as you’re coming into church, and you see it in church, and when you go out of church. You’re being greeted with it each time.”17 The “hermits and monks” of East London may fit it in around their day jobs and caring responsibilities, but their heart of prayer, held within creation, is clear to see.

Wassie observes that in Ethiopia, “Forests give grace and esteem to churches and play a protective role… The majestic creation of church forests prompts the followers to fantasize about how more beautiful and graceful their creator, i.e. God, could be.”18 One of the interviewees at St Monica’s explained how, since they had been involved with the work the church had done outside, “we can say like the psalmist say, how wonderful are the fingers of your hand, and you can think about that while you walk around and see what people done and what the Lord has done [sic]”.19 In St John’s, too, “being part of a place of worship also carries a much greater seriousness than a similarly sized park would… I think of the churchyards as a way to reflect God’s love, his creation and his care for us.”20 The “church” element to this green space is particularly valued as a link to the spiritual, not just for those Christians involved in its upkeep, but also for those of many faiths and none, who find it a place where they connect with something of “greater seriousness” than their daily life. A respondent from St Paul’s highlights this special nature of the churchyard:

When I go spend time in green spaces, I am seeking out the peaceful feeling of being surrounded by nature, but whereas in those other spaces I might feel like a visitor to the natural world, in the churchyard there’s a sense that people are a PART of that landscape (literally and figuratively!) rather than just passing through.21

She values the green space of the churchyard specifically because of the prompt it gives her to ponder those things spiritual and to make some kind of connection between her life and the wider Life of God’s kingdom.

In Ethiopia, Wassie notes, “[Church Forests] indicate the presence of churches in the area from a distance, reminding Christians passing by to bow, which signifies the deep respect they have for the church of the Almighty.”22 In East London, it feels less like these nurtured green spaces are reminding Christians passing by to bow, but more that the creation of them encourages passers-by of all faiths and none to nod an acknowledgement of something bigger than themselves, to find themselves caught up in wonder, struck by beauty.

At St Monica’s, one of the congregation had noticed that “As we’re walking down people will be stopping and looking at the garden and that by the hall and appreciating”23 [sic]. At St Paul’s, it was noticed that “The number of people who pass and pause in the churchyard (many regularly) find it a place of contemplation and perhaps prayer where they do not participate in formal prayer and worship”.24

A space for mission

I wondered at the ways in which nurturing these green spaces around churchyards might be seen as missional activity for the churches concerned. At St John’s, a respondent explained that “Many of the volunteers who work with me are not church people. Yet their work has drawn them closer to the church and to church events… So, although I started out most interested in growing plants, I would now say that growing people is at least as important to me.”25 Growing plants and growing people; this feels like a clear indication of how environmental care supports two directions at once. At St Monica’s they noticed how once they started nurturing their green space around the church building, this led to greater community contact: “… as we’ve gone by we’ve had other people stop and talk to it with us, and I think that’s part of the growing as well, you’re growing as you’re coming in, and I think that’s the best part.”26

Due to the setting of St Paul’s within the forest, the link with nature has been clearer, even before the church brought some theological intentionality into that relationship. Allowing a community to be held within nature provides an opportunity for groups to grow together, to feel part of each other’s lives and the life of the world around them, and this sets up echoes with being part of a wider Life, the life of God. The green oasis of St Paul’s acts in a missional way even without any words or explicit human agency.

A space for biodiversity

Wassie believes that the Church Forests in Ethiopia are of great importance as “They protect the church building from strong wind, storms and soil erosion”.27 The Church Forests have a pivotal role to play ecologically within their area and within Ethiopia itself, acting against the adverse conditions becoming more and more prevalent in a world on the brink of a climate emergency. Are these UK green space churchyards able to provide a similar kind of protection to the communities that surround them?

Each green space I visited seemed to be a biodiverse oasis within the urban streets surrounding it, set to play a small but significant role in mitigating the worst of the climate catastrophe heading towards the communities who live there. These churchyard biodiversity hotspots protect species from localised extinction, and allow them to support other interlinked species who rely on them for their existence. They act as rainfall sinks, soaking up excess rainwater from flash floods, which have become more commonplace in recent years. They also provide essential cooling from extremes of heat, through tree canopies as well as the plants that grow densely enough to protect the soil and therefore their own and their neighbours’ roots.

At St Monica’s, they see this as an act of service towards God’s creation: “Jesus calls us to love and to serve, and we doing this action of caring for the ground, caring for our gardens, caring for our church, caring for each other, I think that’s an extension… it’s a true embodiment of what we are called to do as Christians”[sic].28 They are making a link between caring for each other as a Christian community, and caring for the wider “each other” of the whole created order, the More-than-Human world. Just as in Ethiopia, where the Church Forests have survived because of the theological beliefs of the church community, so too in East London green spaces are coming into existence, being nurtured and protected, because of the theological beliefs of the people who make up the churches there.

A space to shape theology

In Ethiopia, Wassie notes that “The theology of Ethiopian Orthodox church in conserving forest and biodiversity is not available as such as an independent and logically structured document or scripture. Rather embodied in the miracles, lives of Christians, symbols of the teachings.”29 It is the things that the Christians in Ethiopia do, the way that they live, that contain their theology. Anglican theology is also held not within a formal document of beliefs but gathered up within Anglican practices. If caring for their church grounds in an ecologically wise and sensitive way is a “spiritual practice” for the congregations I am engaging with in this research, their theology will be held within this.

At St Monica’s they seem to have a strong sense that their work on the grounds is an outworking of their faith. They believe that it is part of their call as Christians to care for God’s creation, and to show gratitude and appreciation for it. In Ethiopia, Berhane-Selassie explains, “Ethiopian Orthodox Christians interpret and practise Christianity from the perspective of how they see their environment, their lives and their relationship to God and the Bible. Their relationship with their environment stretches the tenets of Christianity to include their experiences of the physical world around them in a particularly African manner.”30 The congregation of St Monica’s perhaps does similar in a “particularly Filipino manner”– I was very aware when talking to them that as first or second generation immigrants in the UK, from the Philippines, Jamaica or Ireland, their childhood experiences, or those of their parents, would have featured far more nature, and less concrete, than there was around their church at the moment. Perhaps this is a particular gifting of the church in East London – the ability to consider a particular UK context through a different cultural and experiential lens.

St Paul’s has a very different congregation, despite being just a mile down the road, and yet there is also a strong sense here that the natural world just outside the church door shapes the faith they inhabit: “There’s such a strong sense of being in nature here, perhaps because most churches aren’t actually in a forest, so the trees around the churchyard and the creatures there, and the wood between the churchyard and Forest Rise feel like they are God’s things and you feel like a co-creature with all that is living here.”31 Being caught up in this wonder, in this sense of community as one part of God’s created whole, comes directly out of this experience of worshipping within a church within a protected and cherished green space.



The Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez holds that a function of theology is “as a critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word”.32 This is very much the angle Wassie believes the Ethiopian Orthodox church is approaching theology from: “The eco-theology of EOTC is contemplative and focus on life rather than knowledge and thus teaches the church forests of Ethiopia have survived and exist today as a testimony of God’s promises, faithfulness, full redemption and symbol of true reconciliation with God.”33

From the conversations I had within these three urban East London churches, the theology around their nature spaces was somewhat light in character. There was some explicit theological reflection around their praxis, but mostly it was implicit, rather than articulated. These people, as part of a worshipping community that nurtured their green space around the church, knew that this nurture was linked to their faith, and that their faith was being shaped by their practice. However, they knew it in their bones; it hadn’t been verbalised together, preached about from the pulpit, or discussed within a Bible study or small group. Perhaps churches of East London might do well to take the Ethiopian Orthodox church as a model here, scaffolding conversations and providing opportunities to reflect on their praxis in the light of the Bible.


The three churches I studied seemed to have a clearer understanding of how their green spaces formed and nourished their mission. Clearest of all was how they highlighted the ways in which the work they had done, and the very existence of their green spaces, affected those who passed by and used them. They valued the conversations with those outside of their church community that grew out of a mutual appreciation for the nature around them, and how the work they were doing was expanding the nebulous edges of their church community. There was a depth of appreciation for the created world, which sometimes stopped short of an understanding of stepping into the missio Dei as that might apply outside of the purely human sphere. There is maybe some more work that these church communities could do to better notice this companionship with the More-than-Human that they are already enjoying.


In Ethiopia, Berhane-Selassie notes, “More to the point of ecological preservation, the grounds around churches are considered holy… Monasteries have huge grounds which are kept holy; small churches often have only a small fenced-in compound immediately around them.”34 Their praxis is clear in the strong link between the understanding of what they do (regarding their church grounds and keeping them wild and protected) and the reasoning that propels this. The churches in East London are similar; they have a strong sense of the importance of the ways in which they cherish, protect and nurture their wild spaces, and it is obvious that this comes out of a strongly held faith and belief.

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educational and philosophical theorist, believed that at the heart of praxis was “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it”.35[35] This transformational action on the world comes, for these communities, in a direct relationship with the transformational action of the Holy Spirit, of a belief that they are being the hands of Jesus in their area, that they are working in partnership with their Creator God as they nurture their small green wild spaces.

Ethiopia and East London

The differences between these two contexts are many in number and huge in scale. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a deep and far-reaching relationship with the communities living in the area. This is not the case in East London now, if indeed it ever was. Therefore, the missional possibilities inherent in a Church Forest or rewilded churchyard will be different. The praxis will be different, too: a more focused group effort from the tinier worshipping communities in East London, versus a wider, more instinctive care from what may be a small group but supported by the entire wider community in Ethiopia. Unlike these churches in East London, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is clearer and more confident in the theology underpinning and growing out of their Church Forest praxis.

The Future Forest

Within the limitation of this study, I was surprised to find how similar the experiences and shared thoughts were among those I had conversations with. Despite the Ethiopian Church Forests being a continent away and growing out of a very different cultural context, the movement of the Spirit was taking a very similar shape, dancing a similar dance.

I would be interested to explore the ways in which the East London churches might be more intentional about delving more deeply into the theology around their churchyards, what they are doing with them and how that is shaping them. Many of the respondents valued and enjoyed the part they play in the churchyard as a practical contribution to the life of the church. I would be loath to create an impression that this is somehow worth less unless it is couched in theological language, as God surely values the work of their hands. Yet I think there is also a value in curating a space where the voices of all can be heard together, to uncover the truths about what they believe that are thus far hidden or glimpsed only in part. Perhaps taking Ethiopian Church Forests as our model might allow and support such theological questing, as we are challenged by their praxis-based theology and supported by the wider discipline of eco-theology, to develop our own indigenous one, grown from the soil of East London.

About the author

Rachel Summers is a pioneer curate based in the urban wild spaces of East London who loves playing with mud, fire and new ideas.

More from this issue


  1. Kieran Dodds, “Gardens of Eden: the church forests of Ethiopia – a photo essay,” The Guardian, 8 November 2021,, accessed 6 September 2023. ↩︎
  2. (2015) The Ballad of Hawkwood by Robin Grey,” Three Acres and a Cow,, accessed 6 September 2023. ↩︎
  3. Guy M. Richard, “The Doctrine of Creation,” The Gospel Coalition,, accessed 8 February 2024. ↩︎
  4. Walter Brueggeman, “Theologies of the Land,” in K. K. Yeo and Gene L. Green, Theologies of Land: Contested Land, Spatial Justice, and Identity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers: 2020),, ch. 1, para. 8, accessed 17 August 2023. ↩︎
  5. Daniel K. Lagat, Christian Faith and Environmental Stewardship: Theological Foundations for Creation Care (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers: 2019),, ch. 6, para. 3, accessed 20 July 2023. ↩︎
  6. David K. Goodin, Alemayehu Wassie and Margaret Lowman, “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Forests and Economic Development: The Case of Traditional Ecological Management,” Journal of Religion and Society 21 (2019): 1. ↩︎
  7. Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, “Ecology and Ethiopian Orthodox Theology,” in David G. Hallman, Ecotheology: Voices from South and North (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1994), 169. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 167. ↩︎
  9. Goodin, Wassie and Lowman, 4. ↩︎
  10. Alemayehu Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church: Forest Conservation and Management Experience,” research report submitted to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church development and Inter Church Aid Commission (Addis Ababa: December 2020), 24. ↩︎
  11. “Bernice”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  12. “Paul”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  13. My observations, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  14. Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 24. ↩︎
  15. “Elizabeth”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  16. 1 Thess. 5:17 (ESV). ↩︎
  17. “Beryl”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  18. Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 25. ↩︎
  19. “Velma”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  20. “Margaret”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  21. “Phoebe”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  22. Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 25. ↩︎
  23. “Bernice”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  24. “John”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  25. “Paul”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  26. “Maeve”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  27. Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 24. ↩︎
  28. “Bernice”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  29. Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 2. ↩︎
  30. Berhane-Selassie, “Ecology and Ethiopian Orthodox Theology,” 155. ↩︎
  31. “Susan”, Spring 2023. ↩︎
  32. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1988), 11. ↩︎
  33. Wassie, “Unfolding the Mystery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 2. ↩︎
  34. Berhane-Selassie, “Ecology and Ethiopian Orthodox Theology,” 167. ↩︎
  35. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin: 1972), 52. ↩︎