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The Sacred Land Project.

I was very pleased to be invited, as editor of Wood and Water, to the English launch of the Sacred Land Project, at St. Mary's Church, Willesden (where there has been a Christian church for a thousand years) on April 23rd 1997 — the Scottish and Welsh launches were on other days.

The Project is an initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (UK) and the Alliance for Religion and Conservation. The W.W.F. in 1986 held a gathering of leaders of five major world religions at Assisi. The ARC sprung from this and has for some years been concerned with conservation aspects relating to land near sacred sites internationally. They decided that it was time to become re‑aware of sacred sites in Great Britain, and to take environmental action to preserve and renew such sites.

The Project aims to enhance the environment of sacred sites still in use, to create new sacred and special places (especially in urban areas, where the sense of the sacred can so easily get lost), and to recover ancient sacred sites, many of which are now lost. It works by creating partnerships with religious communities and conservation organisations, by education programmes to encourage awareness and action on sacred environments, and by providing support and expertise to local groups, and by acting as a network to link such groups.

The launch began with singing by a choir from a local school. We would all have liked more songs, but, alas, the children had to go back to school for an inspector's visit!

We were given a booklet with quotes from several religions about the relationship of people to the land. I liked many of them, but was particularly taken by the Jewish story of two men arguing about who owned a piece of land. They asked a rabbi to judge between them, and he said, "Ask the land", and after a while stated "The land says it belongs to neither of you. You belong to it."

Speeches were made by Martin Palmer, the director of the Project, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and letters from the Prince of Wales and Prince Philip were read out. Prince Philip had said, "Thousands of sacred sites across Britain have been neglected or forgotten …  This is a sacred Britain that reaches back across centuries." Prince Charles said " In losing that understanding [of the significance of places and landscapes] we have lost a proper sense of the wholeness of the created world and of the presence of God throughout it." Even the Archbishop, though naturally referring especially to Christian aspects of sacred sites, was careful to refer positively to other religions, though I felt that I (and others, particularly among indigenous peoples) was marginalised by his frequent mention of "great world religions".

Then the active part of the ceremony began. There was once a holy well at the Church, possibly sacred already in Celtic times, since the area was once the site of a Druidic community; though the spring supplying the well still exists, the well itself has been filled in for many years, and one of the Project's activities is to re‑open the well. Representatives of various religions (Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, and others) were each given a jug of water from the spring, and we all processed out, let by banners representing the religions. After walking round the church (with music from different traditions at various places) we gathered at the site of the well where the waters were poured out to mingle with the earth. A moving ceremony, which pagans might have designed.

Then back to the church for light refreshments and an exhibition showing some of the proposals the Sacred Land Project is supporting. Also a show of books, including Martin Palmer's Sacred Britain (good. with some interesting pre‑Christian material, but on the whole too Christian for me), and Jennifer Westwood's book on pilgrimages from many traditions throughout the world, Sacred Journeys, with lots of photographs and small maps, which appealed to me. 

In its approach to new sacred sites, the Sacred Land Project is multi‑faith, and Buddhist and Hindu projects have received its support, among others. When looking at old sacred sites, the history of the last sixteen hundred years or so means that most emphasis is placed on Christian sites, but members of the Project show a clear awareness of our pre-Christian heritage. Indeed, the Prince of Wales in his letter of support for the Project, referred to "the significance of places and landscapes to our forebears, both Christian and pre‑Christian."

However, the attitude of Martin Palmer, the director of the Project, to modern pagans is rather negative. He has referred scornfully to "neo‑pagans stealing our pre‑Christian inheritance" — he is evidently unaware that the very word 'neo‑pagan' was created by modem pagans who are well aware that our paganism is a new creation for today, based only loosely on ancient beliefs and practices, and is not in a direct and unbroken line of descent from ancient religions. I understand that the Project was given a long list of pagan individuals and groups who could have been invited to the launch. Though some invitations were issued and some pagans besides myself were present, the Pagan Federation did not receive an invitation — it may be that we were only invited because we are a magazine rather than an organisation.

In view of this, I doubt if the Project would support the creation of new pagan sacred sites, even though there are probably more pagans in this country than Jains or followers of Baha'i. Still, there would be no harm trying. More importantly, perhaps, pagans are likely to be more aware than most people of the condition of pre‑Christian sites, stone circles, holy wells, and other places. I would hope that local pagan initiatives for the care, conservation, and enhancement of such sites for the benefit of the whole community would receive support from the Project. Indeed, the Project has been helpful in many ways to the Rollright Stones Appeal.

Wood and Water 59, Summer 1997
© Daniel Cohen


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