The Space Between Church and Not-Church ~ A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet

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The healing of our planet is a relational and spirit-centered process which requires humans to return home to our appropriate place within the earth community, not as the apex of creation, clothed in human privilege and entitlement – which places us outside the web of life – but as intrinsic to the integrity of the whole. The invitation which frames this book is twofold: one, to release the human-centered biblical justifications of dominion and rule for the sake of a natural web morality which insists on the sacramental nature of all life; and two, to create a holy space between church people and not-church people, who together will be able to develop sacred ritual to celebrate and honor the living system of which we are an integral part. It’s not the science that’s lacking. We have all the information we need to assess the damage we have done and continue to do to this planet. We seem not to understand that the desecration we do to the biotic community, we do to ourselves.

Personal Statement

Terry Tempest Williams writes, “The open space of democracy provides justice for all living things – plants, animals, rocks, and rivers – as well as human beings.”

How simple is that!

What this justice requires is the release of human privilege and entitlement. What this justice requires is that humans come home to our proper place within and vital to the earth community. Justice then can emerge as our moral compass has opportunity to be re-forged from the core.

We don’t get to that place by altruism or even by the determination of will. We get there by engaging in the things that change our hearts and minds. This is the stuff of the right brain: art, music, poetry, movement, sacrament, ritual, and, ultimately, a living evolving pattern that is the ground of liturgy.

If we don’t get there, it will be the catastrophic result of the failure of our collective imagination.

This book began with what I thought would be a simple article or essay which now exists as Chapter Two, To Have Dominion Over Them: Our Human-Centered Universe. I wasn’t thinking about a book. I was trying to discover why it is that churches – so utterly convinced of their call and commitment to environmental stewardship – are, in fact, not making a dent in the restoration of the land, waters, and air – and all the human and non-human life forms that inhabit the planet. As I am still a priest in the church, the exploration required only that I look into my own philosophy and behavior.

That first article led to another question: what is it about churches that makes their message so uninspiring for those outside the church? The next question: what if people of churches and people not of churches could suspend the attitudes, doctrines and practices that keep us apart, in order to step into the space between, where we – together and across the lines that tend to divide – can focus our attention, not on our differences, but on our common commitment to the healing of our planet? It was the right question for this book, apparently, because however we define ourselves, the space between is available and accessible to us all. All that’s required is that we release the things that divide us for the sake of that which we hold in common – the earth community, of which we are an intrinsic part.

2 reviews for The Space Between Church and Not-Church ~ A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet

  1. 5 out of 5

    That’s not just logic. That’s really senibsle.

  2. 5 out of 5

    If I cotnemicamud I could thank you enough for this, I’d be lying.

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Excerpt ~ The Space Between

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.” So begins Danaan Parry’s The Parable of the Trapeze.1 He speaks of the steadiness and confidence that comes when you think you’re in control of your life, with a handle on the questions and even some of the answers. “But, every once in a while,” he continues, “. . . I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it . . . .”2 The problem is that Parry has to release the old bar to grab on to the new one, and it’s the bottomless abyss between them that holds all the scary things. He calls it the transition zone.

I call it the space between . . .

There is a space between things, between all things. The space is sacred and it is rich with blessing. I know this because I have lived in one such space for more than a decade, and I speak from it. The particular space I inhabit is that between church and what the church refers to as “the world.”

Whether the space between, or the transition zone, Parry’s description reflects our own life processes. There comes a moment—call it space, groundlessness, free fall, transition—that we have to let go of the comfort and practice of what we’ve known and cherished, or even simply held for fear of the unknown. Not one time only do we have to do this, but many. Letting go is number one on the required list for all creative endeavor, including self-knowing as well as knowing self in relationship to all life. Letting go is likewise a prerequisite for clarity of focus and safety in the space between church and not-church. The problem is that it’s frightening; letting go is risky business.

Parry continues, “I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us.”3 Parry is saying that the real risk lies in not letting go. There is no possibility for self-awakening until we let go.

Church and not-church, we have been hanging on to our respective bars for a very long time, and this is our moment to release them. This is the moment for the blessed space between us, where the unknowing—uncomfortable as it will be for a time—gives rise to a trembling newness and wonder that allows us to recognize one another, to remember our place within the earth community, and to celebrate this utter magic and mystery of which we are a part.

In a recent radio interview with Tom Ashbrook,4 the naturalist and environmentalist Bill McKibben claimed that we have already lost that which is most precious, the earth as we have known it over the past ten thousand years. It is a more than just a puzzle to me, and it should be to all of us, how we have managed to ignore our eco-messengers so thoroughly, for so long, and with such devastating consequences. That we continue to do so is an indicator either of unparalleled greed or of utter paralysis, perhaps both.

Consider, for example, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent flooding of oil. When all is said and done, this is what matters: the loss of life, the loss of habitat, the loss and threatened loss of the most fragile and cherished coral ecosystems of the planet; and the fact that we had to turn off our radios and televisions because we can’t bear to listen.

What are we missing here?

William Sloane Coffin grabbed a piece of it when he wrote of “re-sanctifying” nature, the need to “re-wed nature to nature’s God.”5 Reverence for the planet is what’s missing; sacred ritual on behalf of the planet is what’s missing. Before we can get there, however, we have to lose the distinction between nature and nature’s God. We have to lose the distinction between human and nature. There is a vast difference between the words, “I love nature”, and “I am nature.” Intellect doesn’t get us to that place, only the experiential. Life in the space between church and not-church begins with the experiential.

In Southern Maryland lived a scientist/educator/songwriter, Tom Wisner, whose lifetime commitment had been directed to the healing of the Chesapeake Bay. A few years ago Tom extended an invitation into the community for “a beautiful something” that would capture the hearts and imaginations of Bay area Corporations and D.C. area politicians, compelling them toward such a glorious vision of a restored Chesapeake that all objection and resistance and self-interest would simply melt for the sake of this sacred body of water and watershed.

The iconic “something” was imagined into being, with the help of plywood, PVC pipe, chicken wire, and water-resistant glue for the papier mâché. She emerged as a tundra swan, a species formerly but no longer a resident of the Bay, thirteen feet in length and seven feet high, with the identifying black bill and gracefully curved neck. She carried her cygnet in her wing, and the two embodied the sacred story of life and death and the battered hope of new life, an ancient story finding new shape and form, a call to hope and rebirth, clear and powerful as the singular story of the empty tomb.

One of Wisner’s many Chesapeake songs is titled “Made of Water,”6 and its lyrics are a call to remember—the church’s word is anamnesis—our very identity.

I’m made of water
flowing water sun and salt
and winds that blow.

Though my bones
were formed in the mountains,

it’s through my blood this river flows.

June 2009 marked the twenty-second year of the annual Patuxent River Wade-In, and for Wisner, the man who inspired the ever-evolving ritual, it was his last. It was fitting, then, that Maryland dignitaries such as retired State Senator Bernie Fowler, and current Governor Martin O’Malley would use the occasion to celebrate Wisner’s life as well as their own continued commitment to the healing of the Chesapeake and the rivers, such as the Patuxent and the Potomac, that feed it. Later that month my husband Jim and I were among those who gathered with Tom in the living room of his old farmhouse. Tom’s eyes focused slightly beyond us, eyes holding years of remembering. “For a brief moment,” he said softly, and to no one in particular, “a moment which might have lasted a lifetime, I could forget about the river.”

At that my head shot straight up. What did he mean? How could Tom forget about the river? We all knew what the river meant to Tom, and we knew that the Wade-In was the most significant ritual of his year. “When ritual is live and imbued with meaning,” he went on, “it makes me one with the river in such a way that I can forget about it. I lose awareness of the water itself for the sake of the . . .” he struggled for a word. “Fellowship. I couldn’t tell where I stopped and where Bernie and O’Malley—or even the diatoms and the blue crabs, for that matter—began.”

As Tom found the words to describe the experience, he shared with those of us around the table that the ritual had dissolved the separation between himself and the river. The separation is of the ego,” he said.

To claim no memory of the distinction between self and river is to release the egoic piece to become one with the water. This is the experiential, and I have come to believe it is the first piece of the shift to a biocentric perspective. Such ritual experiences awaken our capacity to change and to learn, and as we learn, the shift in perspective is strengthened. Experiences such as these are hard to come by, however, because we continue to lull ourselves into believing we are already acting in concert with the planet.

1 Danaan Parry, “The Parable of the Trapeze,” in Warriors of the Heart (Seattle, WA: Earthstewards Network, 1991) 84.
Bill McKibben, Interview by Tom Ashbrook On Point, WBUR, April 30, 2010.
William Sloane Coffin, A Passion for the Possible, Louisville KY: John Knox Press,1993, 2004), 29.
Tom Wisner, Made of Water, (Lion and Fox Recording, produced by Tom Wisner and Jim Fox, Washington D.C.), 2001.


Meaning emerges from an experience, over time and in many layers. It’s why our stories are so important. We go back to them again and again, deepening the meaning and import. The story that follows is one whose significance continues to evolve. Although the predominant relationship in this story is human to human, by touching on each of the elements of a biocentric morality—a sense of place, attentiveness, gratitude, compassion and service—we can get a sense of what the moral shift from anthropocentric to biocentric might look like.

Members of a small congregation in Rochester, New York, had been trying for months to articulate what they thought would be an appropriate relationship between their church and the neighborhood in which it sat. Simply by the tenor of their question, it was clear that the people of this congregation thought of themselves as distinct from their neighborhood. Questions and ideas circulated; various ministries were proposed and considered, some discarded immediately, others hovering for a while longer.

One father of two teenagers surprised everyone with the odd notion that they were asking the question in the wrong way. It wasn’t What relationship do we want with the neighborhood? but rather, We’ve been in this place for a hundred years. We are the neighborhood, so how do we put that into practice? People were truly surprised by the idea. They had never thought of it like that. It’s the same question that is knocking at our anthropocentrism—not, How might we be in relationship with the earth community? but rather, We are the earth community, so how do we put that into practice?

To the Rochester congregation came an idea so outside the bounds of their experience that the group seemed to suck in its collective breath and then exhale it all of a piece. The idea was this: Beginning with the Last Sunday of Epiphany and continuing through the Sundays of Lent, at the regular worship time, the people would meet at the church for just a song and a prayer, then fan out into the neighborhood to pick up trash. The objections tumbled over each other in their haste to be voiced: “We don’t have to do it during church, we can do it afterwards—we could call it neighborhood outreach.” “What if we find things like discarded needles or condoms?” “What if people are offended?” “What about insurance?” Underneath all this anxiety floated some inarticulate knowing that this was actually going to happen; it was inevitable.

In the frantic and anxious days that followed, the plan was adapted in this way: One group would gather in the chapel to sing and pray for the project and the neighborhood; another would prepare a meal; a third, armed with orange vests, garbage cans, and trash-picking implements, would go out and clean up the neighborhood street by street, block by block. The process would be one of self-selection.

The first Sunday brought a blizzard to Rochester, and temperatures hovered near zero. Still, people showed up. As this bold congregation gathered at the church door (they didn’t even go in), they were greeted by one of the ministers with the words, “Welcome to our new adventure.” A few chose to remain inside and pray. Others assigned themselves to the lunch crew. But the trash collectors outnumbered them all; vested, partnered and armed with lists of “do not touch” items, they set out like voyagers to a new land.

An hour and a half later, seventeen black garbage bags filled with refuse were deposited at the back door of the church, and the intrepid trash gatherers joined the other groups for a welcome pot of beef barley soup, olives, and cheese. One loaf and one cup of wine made its way around the room, with each person offering to the next—children, adults, elders—one sacramental loaf, one community.

They offered their reflections during that meal and the meals to come, sharing powerful experiences of worship, awe, mystery, and a connectedness to God and to one another that was astonishing. Very simply, they were asking, What is this trash telling us? What stories are we learning about the frustrations, the indifference, the invisibility—church and not-church both? A discarded needle screams a story, maybe of longing and disillusion, rage and powerlessness. Fast food cartons and wrappers tell the story of a kind of poverty that knows it is far cheaper and more filling to swing through Burger King than it is to go to Wegman’s Market. A bag of potato chips costs less than a bag of carrots. Jumbo colas are cheaper than juice.

The members of this small Rochester congregation, in partnership with their neighbors, happened one time upon signs of a broken love in the form of a stash of snow-encrusted photographs, each one torn or blackened by a marker. Was it anger that ripped into the images of intimate moments? Was it grief? Indifference? They were young, these two in the photograph, and looked familiar, as though you’d seen them on the street, holding hands, or walking the soft drink aisle of Tops Market, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Not young only, they looked defiant in these pictures, as though they were challenging the world to keep its distance. Might their expressions have softened had they been held within the embrace of church and not-church? The people of the Rochester congregation began to understand picking up trash as a sacramental act.

The stories of the people of a neighborhood are carried in what they discard, and they are sacred stories. The very fact that trash is tossed in the street, tossed in the yards, the sidewalks, the canal; the fact that there are “do not touch” items on the list (needles and glass); the fact that beer cans, McDonald’s wrappers, and Styrofoam are strewn with abandon—all of it tells the story of we the people, a people disconnected from the earth and the water and the symphony of our own bodies, disconnected from beauty and a holy imagination. Through the stories contained in the trash, the people of this congregation found new respect and regard for the citizens of their own neighborhood, which, they now knew, included themselves. Through these stories, they engaged in an unfamiliar process of formation, finding themselves transformed by their new appreciation of a people’s resilience, hope, and strength.

“I think the earth was pleased,” one man said. People smiled their agreement.

By the second or third week, congregants were joined for the meal by not-church residents of the neighborhood. One of them, a woman whose name was Elizabeth, had brought a basket of cookies. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d set foot into a church,” she told the woman sitting next to her. “My parents never took us to church.”

The bags of trash numbered over two hundred by the time the sixth Sunday had drawn to a close. The people of the church and the people of the neighborhood had become of one purpose: “to clean things up around here, and show that we care.” Relationships were forged in the intersection of church and not-church. This is how it happens.

Is there a place where people of diverse religious and philosophical beliefs can work together on healing the planet we share? How can Christians help create such a place, and what changes of mind and heart would doing so require? Caroline Fairless is an Episcopal priest who has the courage to ask these questions and risk answering them, despite the fact that the answers challenge the way Christians think, believe and live. If that kind of courage became widespread among us, we would have more reason to hope for the future of the planet, humankind and the church. I hope this book will be widely read, understood and acted upon: we, our children, and grandchildren will be the beneficiaries.

— Parker J. Palmer (A Hidden Wholeness, Let Your Life Speak, and The Courage to Teach)

The place in which a galvanizing, Earth-loving faith can find safe haven, Reverend Caroline Fairless tells us, is “in the space between church and not-church.” What a balm, amid the ongoing travesties (of our industrial complex) , to hear a woman of the cloth quietly ask: What if the people who love the Earth and fear for its future begin to meet in a space that is neither church nor not-church—a space where ideas, living experience, and “the sacred unspeakable” would be exchanged and celebrated to deepen human to human and human to nonhuman contact? Reverend Fairless’s efforts to unite believers and nonbelievers in admiration and service of planetary life is not new. It is for this very reason that I so trust it.

Why is it time for Christians to surrender their exclusivity and join the rest of humanity in such service? Because there is an impasse between rote religiosity and living spirituality and this impasse forces a choice. Caroline Fairless’s embrace of the living Earth, and of the spirituality of those who unify rather than divide, is a fresh imagining of the meaning of the word “faith,” an imagining that heals the old wounds between Christians and nonChristians.

–David James Duncan (God Laughs & Plays, The Brothers K, and The River Why)

As I read Caroline Fairless’ new book, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Caroline has put into words what I have been yearning to find a way to name and to claim. She brings together for me my passion as a teacher and lifelong learner with my knowing as an ecofeminist that hierarchy is in direct conflict with community. Caroline’s profound ideas allow me to name as both/and what my culture has been telling me was either/or. She makes it possible for me to claim my spiritual Self without having to find a church or synagogue to legitimize my Being.

— Sally Z. Hare, Ph. D. Singleton Distinguished Professor Emerita, Coastal Carolina University President, still learning, inc.

With our old patterns of living laying waste to the Earth community and new paths only vaguely seen, receive as a gift this courageous, visionary, provocative and ultimately hopeful book. While providing enough of a roadmap for us to begin the journey to reclaim the heart of the sacred, Fairless challenges church people and not-church people with a stirring call to engagement; the call to discover an intersection where we can put aside the belief systems that divide us, reclaim the sacredness of the Earth and join together in new rituals that promote the healing of the Earth and of ourselves.

— The Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs, Executive Director, United Religions Initiative

Many of us feel distraught over the environmental degradation that is consuming our planet, and most of us feel powerless to do much of anything about it. In this book, Caroline Fairless urges us to name out loud the extent of our anguish, overcome our anthropocentric view of the world and join in a revolution of bio-centric healing for our planet and our souls. She invites us to re-engage our broken hearts and join together at the intersection of our common longings and consciousness so that, as we re-connect with the well being of this world, we will cease being unwilling and silent co-conspirators in its destruction.

This is a book that urges us to reclaim our deep spiritual impulses, not necessarily in a “religious” way, but in an enlightened, human way – there at the intersection where there is no longer an in-group and an out group, but rather our single, shared earth community and the profound interdependence which defines our lives.

Fairless envisions a world no longer separated into “human and non-human but rather a single, bio-centric web in which we recognize that everything on this planet is interconnected. The question, “How might we find a way to live in the light of such understanding?” is the question that this book provocatively asks and seeks to answer. Our very survival revolves around reclaiming as sacred this earth and all the things thereof. The Sacred Space Between Church and Not-church is a wake-up call of challenge and hope. It carries within it the seeds of both reconciliation and transformation. This is a voice that needs to be heard.

— Dr. Michael S. Glaser Poet Laureate of Maryland 2004-2009

–From Carol Kortsch

Just to let you know a few ways that your book has continued to inspire me … (and confirm what we as a family have been doing for many years) … We are actively setting up our suburban Main Line property which has two old PA farmhouses as a day retreat center .. getting a web site done etc — we have already been operating sort of like this for ever … always on the fringes of institutions – churches, academia, mission organizations, national politics etc. …all things we deeply care about but always seem to be edge-walkers. We are Canadians and are now Americans, but I was raised in Angola and my husband in Germany. We have lived and traveled all over the world so the global web is our reality. All this to say our place – Stonehaven – has never been “our own” … We are identifying it as a “commons” property – I am planning ‘Awakening’ day retreats, Sabbath ‘conversations’, solstice rituals, even Oktoberfest -which has been a community fun party … all of these I am planning with fresh sense of purpose and connectedness to healing ourselves, the ‘stranger’ and the land.