I’m heading over to Sussex today to launch a new book which I have co-authored. It’s called The Nature of God’s Acre and arises from a project which I have been working on for the past 18 months, exploring the relationship between the spiritual and natural value of churchyards in Sussex. The project was inspired by the work of Caring for God’s Acre, which is an excellent charity working with local communities to manage their churchyards for nature, as well as for history, and of course for people visiting the graves of their loved ones (or ancestors).
Using a paper and online questionnaire, we asked a (mostly) random sample of 40 parishes across the Chichester Diocese (which is the counties of East and West Sussex) if they would like to be involved in the project, most of whom said yes. In the end we received 175 individual responses from 26 churchyards. We had originally intended for a significant portion of the sample to be from churchyards which had been already identified as being of high value for nature, as Sites of Nature Conservation Interest. In the event only 5 SNCI churchyards elicited responses, so it was a mostly random sample. Indeed, we received several responses from churchyards which weren’t even in the random sample, so they were even more random!
The questionnaire asked local parishioners and members of the local community who used their churchyards about the wildlife they encountered there and how they felt about it. We also asked them why they were visiting the churchyards; and finally we asked them how they felt when visiting the churchyards for different reasons, and whether the nature they encountered there made a difference to the way they experienced the churchyard. Because we included opportunities for people to write about their experiences (as well as ticking boxes), this gave my co-author Revered Dr Mark Betston, the opportunity to consider their experiences from a theological perspective. We also included a page for each parish that took part, showing where they are, and quoting from members of their community who said how they felt about their churchyard and its nature.
Here are the conclusions I drew from analysing the questionnaire data:
Most churchyard visitors who completed the survey were over 56 and this probably accurately reflects the demographic of churchyard users. Most visitors visited at least once a month throughout the year with no particular time of year proving more popular.
The most popular reason given for visiting a churchyard is when visiting the church for religious reasons. A third of visitors stated they visited churchyards to “a peaceful moment” (19%) and “to enjoy nature” (14%). 13% of respondents visited churchyards to “visit the grave of a loved one” and 10% for contemplation/prayer.
We asked people to choose words to best describe how they felt in their churchyards – the overwhelmingly most popular words were peace, peaceful, peacefulness, tranquil and tranquillity. History, contemplation and various words to describe nature in churchyards were next most important for respondents.
95% of respondents confirmed they noticed the wildlife in their churchyards, with wild flowers being the wildlife which most caught people’s eye, followed by birds, butterflies and trees. People also most enjoyed seeing wildflowers and birds in their churchyards, followed by trees and butterflies.
Many people strongly agreed that they felt peaceful, happy and relaxed when they saw wildlife in their churchyard. A large number also agreed having a spiritual feeling, being thoughtful and contemplative when they saw wildlife in their churchyard.
Slightly over half of all respondents felt there was enough wildlife in their churchyards, but 43% felt there was not enough. A very small number (3%) felt there was too much, relating to concerns about untidiness and moles. People who felt there was not enough wildlife, wanted to see more wild flowers, butterflies and birds in their churchyards. Only a third of people with SNCI churchyards thought there was not enough wildlife, compared to nearly half with non-SNCI churchyards.
We asked people whether they valued the presence of wildlife in their churchyards when visiting for different reasons. People felt much more strongly about the presence of wildlife in their churchyards when enjoying for a peaceful moment, than for contemplation/prayer, or visiting the grave of a loved one. 91% of people agreed they valued the presence of wildlife when enjoying a peaceful moment and two thirds strongly agreed. Nearly three quarters of visitors agreed they valued the presence of wildlife in their churchyards when visiting for contemplation/prayer; and two thirds agreed when visiting the grave of a loved one.
Over three quarters of those surveyed agreed that they valued the presence of wildlife in their churchyard, when visiting for these reasons.
Amidst all the talk of ecosystem services, how many tonnes of carbon is locked up in a forest, or how much a bee is worth to the farming industry, it’s vital that we remember that nature provides us with things we cannot and should not put a monetary value on – “a peaceful moment” “a sense of awe and wonder”. And these things can be found in the middle of many communities, hidden away, in our ancient churchyards.
You can get a copy of The Nature of God’s Acre from NHBS, priced very reasonably at £4.99 (plus P and P).
The project was kindly funded by the the Spencer-Wills Trust and CPJ Field Limited.