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Sunday 20 April 1997 Issue 695

Archbishop to bless 'pagan project'

By Jonathan Petre

AN environmental project which involves less conventional faiths and several neo-pagans is to be blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury this week, much to the alarm of fellow evangelicals.

The Sacred Land Project, a five-year scheme for the millennium to restore sites of spiritual significance from standing stones to medieval abbeys, has its English launch on Wednesday at a church in London.

Though the national project is predominantly Christian, its organiser, Martin Palmer - an Anglican lay reader and religious adviser to the World Wide Fund for Nature - has been criticised in the past for his support of controversial multi-faith celebrations and paganism.

One of the highlights of the project will be an edition of the BBC Radio 4's Sunday morning worship programme in which Mr Palmer and a "neo-pagan" will discuss faith from a bronze age burial site and ruined chapel at Knowlton Ring, Dorset.

At Wednesday's launch, Dr George Carey will lead a group of eight religious leaders representing faiths from Baha'i to Jainism in blessing an ancient spring credited with healing powers at St Mary's church in Willesden, north London. Several pagan guests will be present.

The Rev Michael Cole, a Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral and Area Dean of Redbridge, who is co-author of a book about New Age religions, said Dr Carey's involvement was dangerous. "Christians are concerned with conservation. That's why the Archbishop wants to be involved. But others want to take it further and worship Mother Earth rather than Father God. The Archbishop would be wiser not to be involved at all. How the public perceive what he does is crucial. This is the sort of situation which those of us at Church level are working to prevent."

Criticism also came from the Rev Tony Higton, an Essex rector and member of the General Synod. "I respect what the Archbishop is trying to do. But there is a danger that the public will see it as a blessing on religions in general or on paganism, which would be very damaging."

Mr Palmer, of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture, said the project was being run with the WWF and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation to "re-establish the spiritual and environmental significance" of sacred sites which "also seeks to keep alive the tradition of sacred space in a modern context".

"Most of neo-paganism is tosh," said Mr Palmer. "But some neo-pagans are exceptional, and we work closely with them. We don't want to offend people who think this is some kind of mish-mash, but even the word Easter is not Christian. It derives from Eostre, a pagan goddess." Lambeth Palace said the Archbishop was attending the event as a Christian leader and leader in society.

A spokeswoman said: "He is committed to the environment and he is going to a Christian site to take part in the launch. It is an ancient holy well and he thinks it is important to encourage a reverence for our past."

Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, expressed support of the scheme.

©Copyright 1997, The Daily Telegraph

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