By John Martin

Churchyards and church-owned plots of land should be freed up to benefit homeless people and those feeling isolated and lonely, a CofE bishop told a Lambeth Palace seminar on June 5.

The Rt. Rev. James Newcombe, who is the CofE’s lead bishop on health issues, said many of the church-owned green spaces should be turned over to needy people who would enjoy the therapeutic benefits of gardening.

He told his audience, “churches should look at the land they have around their buildings to see if there’s any possibility of people who are homeless — or have mental health difficulties or who are lonely — [getting] involved in hands-on gardening.

“In urban areas there is a real shortage of green space, and churches often have the only green space in a neighborhood. In rural areas there are real problems of isolation and loneliness. There are all sorts of benefits – therapeutic, meeting up with others, finding a sense of belonging and purpose,” the bishop said.

Lambeth Palace, venue for the conference, is the residence and London offices of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is set in over 10 acres of land and is thought to contain one of England’s oldest gardens.

A recent survey of CofE clergy revealed that mental health was one of the main problems encountered in parish ministry, along with homelessness and loneliness.

David Shreeve, the CofE’s adviser on environmental issues, said: “There are 16,400 CofE churches, many with unused spaces around them, and often in difficult urban areas with homes without gardens and few parks. There are people who have never done any gardening before, but when they plant a seed or bulb, nurture it, see it sprout and grow, it has an enormously positive effect.”

Jonathan Aitken is a former UK cabinet minister who went to prison for perjury. He was ordained a deacon last year and is now training to be a prison chaplain. He told the seminar, “There are astonishing mental health problems in our prisons, including self-harming and suicides. Could gardening make a difference? I think it might.” He said he did gardening work during his prison term.

Part of his training now involves working with a young offenders’ unit. “Gardening slows you down and calms you down. You have all these troubled, testosterone-fuelled, aggressive young men. It might help to get them out of the concrete spaces of prison into the fresh air,” he told his audience.

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