Guy Willis explains a green project in the heart of London


An inner London garden might sound like an unlikely mission field, but that is just what a place like the St Paul’s Camden Square woodland garden can be. The project is a partnership between the church, under the care of Father James Elston SSC, and Green City Gardening. It offers local people, including hospital in-patients with enduring mental health issues, an opportunity to engage in activities related to gardening and conservation. By intentionally running sessions in parallel with a weekday Mass time, natural relationships can be built up, and we know that it is through such personal contact with his people that the Lord brings others to himself.

It is important that a project like this meets a real need which stands by itself. Just as with Fr Jellicoe’s housing, Fr Mackonochie’s burial society, Fr Lowder’s dockers’ insurance scheme or any other example of Anglo-Catholic social action you may care to name, the thing must be worth doing whether or not anyone else comes to church as a result. This garden certainly meets that criterion. In its work with St Pancras Hospital, ‘it encourages people, some of whom have spent most of their adult lives in hospital and are unlikely to engage in mainstream services, to venture out into the community to try a new activity, perhaps for the first time in many years,’ says Tilly Williams, the Psychology Lead for Rehabilitation, Recovery and Rehabilitation Division.

Of course, these kinds of activities cost money. The strategy has been to start small, with grants of a few thousand pounds from multiple sources in order to begin the project, and then to use the experiences and evidence generated to assist with bigger applications for long term funding. In October, the project won first prize in the national Green Health Awards. These are sponsored by the Church Times and celebrate the efforts made by churches and Christian organisations to use gardens and churchyards creatively for wellbeing. This recognition has been a great encouragement after much hard work to get this project going, and God-willing it proves to be a providential sign of things to come.

The power of such work is that it does not only reach out to those in the community with whom we may otherwise not come into contact, but it also gives spiritual and temporal rewards to the existing congregation. Father James sees such work as fitting in not only with the life of the parish but also with the great sweep of salvation history itself: ‘It has been wonderful to see how our unused and derelict church garden has been transformed into a space of welcome and fellowship for some of the most vulnerable and isolated people in our community. This transformation from darkness into light is a moving witness of how God’s grace is working in our midst.’ It is only, maybe, when we allow ourselves to see local mission work within its overall context of God’s work in all creation that we can hope to see it bear fruit.

Fr Guy Willis is an associate vicar

in the Old St Pancras team ministry.