Eco-Church: Story, Myth and Theology

(almost) as presented to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales.  With thanks to the good folks at Hope for the Future from whom parts of this have been gleaned.

It is not without a small amount of irony, that I titled the guide to Eco-Church “Treading Lightly on Holy Ground.” The Eco-Church project is simply a tool to begin a conversation about climate change, about the environment and how we might respond as church communities and as individuals. It is not a checklist, though there may be boxes to tick. It will not tell you what to do, though it might suggest actions you could take. It will not chastise you for driving to church, though it might suggest you consider a lower carbon form of transport. It will, I hope, help to engage your heart for creation.

We don’t fall in love with an idea. It’s hard to fall in love with graphs facts and figures that all suggest bad news. So I’ll offer you none of that. Instead I want to tell you three stories that will, along the way, dispel two myths and offer you four key theological principles why caring for the environment and tackling climate change is a key Christian task.

I received a letter through the post a few days ago. It was with regard to the documents you have in support of the motion to follow the Eco-Church and Eco-Diocese scheme: Treading Lightly on Holy Ground and Resources for Creation Time 2017. The hand written envelope intrigued me so I opened it with some interest. The letter was largely supportive of the resources but contained a complaint that all this amounted to was little more than tinkering at the edges. That we need to be loudly prophetic, a great thorn in the side of the establishment calling for divestment from fossil fuels, challenging financial corporations taking bold actions, making courageous decisions and other such statements. That doing the little things are not enough. I have to agree, the little things are not enough. As a church we should be loudly prophetic and we should divest from fossil fuels, challenge financial corporations, take bold and courageous decisions, particularly with regard to our building use – perhaps, beside transport, our greatest carbon footprint as a church. However, the letter came printed on two sheets of thick paper with wide margins, printed single sided. Unless we are reminded daily to “do the little things” however insignificant we might feel they are, even down to the paper we put in our printers, how are we ever to take the large significant decisions. For these small actions can be the catalyst for greater actions. Don’t be put off that you might only be able to begin with small things. Do them cheerfully as God gives you strength.

For we have a Covenant with God and all of creation. There is an interdependence of all life, which is spoken to us throughout the biblical text. We cannot do without each other, nor without the rest of creation. There is a technological narrative that we can solve the issues of climate change with some brand new technology that we have just not yet quite conceived, this is an artificially constructed world based on a false hope. Green is not a luxury, it is part of what we are – especially as Christian people. I think we are recovering from a tendency within some theology to see the work of God in the pattern and unfolding of history, but not to see the continual work of God in creation. This had several unintended consequences; ‘creation’ came to be seen as the beginning of history, something that happened and was completed a long time ago. However, the Eastern church never lost the understanding of creation as an ongoing relationship in the present. The world depends upon God for every moment of its existence. And Human beings are very much a part of the system.

A friend was for a time a youth worker in Govan, Glasgow. (Not full of suburban families.) She taught them whilst at the youth group that if you dropped litter, you picked it up. And if you couldn’t pick up what you dropped, then you picked up someone else’s to make up for it. Knowing her, double what you dropped. She commented to me recently that after overhearing one of the young people, her work on this subject was done, for they had been heard to chastise each other for dropping litter and not picking it up. We need to be ready to take care of what is around us, and be ready to do more than what we think is our own share if that is what is necessary and to call gently into line those around us who we see abusing what we have. We can call this the Sacrament of Creation. The acknowledgement that there is not one small part of creation that is not loved by God. If we understand creation to be that whole which is loved by God, every footfall we take is on ground which is loved by God. Every resource we use is from something that is loved by God. Everywhere you look is a place that is loved by God. So the Myth that there is a special place called ‘Away’ where we can throw things when we are done is false. Friends, there is no away. Wherever we put what we cannot deal with is a place loved by God. We need to think more of ourselves as participating with creation, involved in the whole process and reminded by our friends when we get it wrong.

We have too a Priesthood of Humanity which is the acknowledgement that humanity speaks the praise of God together with the animals and plants, all life on earth through the right use, you might say sacramental use of all things of creation. Nowhere better is this seen as at the Eucharist, where we take bread and wine the ordinary things of the world through which God will bless us. There really are no alternative resources to what you see, and when it is gone, it is gone. Ironic then, that humanity had to go to space to remind itself of how fragile and small the dear blue green earth is.

We need also to reclaim the Creation narrative. I don’t mean the seven days of genesis, rather, we desperately need to restore a balanced picture of what the Bible teaches, for we need not just an occasional passage to help us understand creation care, but we need to use the whole Bible and to rediscover its vision of creation. I was once in a meeting when a senior cleric was heard to suggest that Creation Time the period from 1st September until the feast of St. Francis was of little use to us, because the lectionary readings for those Sundays did not relate to care for creation. I was angry at the time because of the dismissal of something that has been globally very influential. But now, I just feel sorry, that that person did not see the Bible in its fullness as a beautiful and sophisticated account of the interplay between humans and the rest of creation but which is not set out simply for us in a single text. It has to be recovered from the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures: from the poetry of the prophets and the sayings of the sages, from the rituals of the priests and the parables of the storytellers. Since the New Testament shares this view of the creation, it becomes the basis for Christian belief about the environment. And the crowning glory of creation is the Sabbath Feast of Enoughness which is the recognition that we all need a rest. Not just from the madness that is our consumer driven world, or even from the now trendy green economy. Can our culture bear the idea of not being so economically active? I wonder? What about seeing Sabbath as a dive into the peace of God? I would like to see the Sabbath day, our Sunday, become a day of preparation for the coming week, that we take into that week the sense of Sabbath rest in all that we do. Not in the sense of lack of activity, but of honouring all life.

There is no away. There are no ‘other’ resources. We have a Covenant with Creation, A Sacrament of Creation, A Priesthood of Humanity and A Sabbath Feast of Enoughness.

It is core Christian business to be concerned about the environment. Our task is to re-awaken our sense of connection with the earth. To re-engage our hearts, that this task might be joyful. And so I commend this motion to you with some words written for the feast of St. Francis which you will find within the Creation Time Material.

If we had but a glimpse of the world
as a resting place would we be caught
in the sacred story? Honoured as the
whole of life becomes a day of preparation.
We might just then become co-creators
of the dawn for a divine re- imagining
of the lost art and beauty of creation.
A life laid fallow, for a time, is not in vain.
To let go, to allow the natural restfulness
to rise up and with gentle ease, to participate;
earthed once again.

A Sanctuary and a Light

header_47Church Hostel Bangor is up for sale.  aka The Anglican Chaplaincy, more affectionately: AngChap or simply for those of us who lived and worked there ‘home from home’.

We were always walking a tightrope whilst juggling the twin identities of this place, Hostel and Chaplaincy.  Whether doing the accounts and applying for money, or justifying the existence of either to churches and dioceses.  We created an intentional community taking 25 or so students, throwing them together in a building attempting to create some form of community for a year.  Some years it worked better than others.

I’ve never been fond of church buildings in general because once established it is very difficult to let them go when they are no longer needed!  Hence the title of the book “Beyond these walls”. Though it is useful to have a place from which to come and go.  AngChap served that purpose well.  I was, however, surprised at the level of emotion welling up when I heard the news that Church Hostel was up for sale.  Hostel and Chaplaincy have for a number of years taken separate journeys in Bangor.  So as Hostel it was Sanctuary.  A home, a place of welcome and of hospitality.  Often with rather wild parties, gatherings and events.  Much like any other student accommodation I imagine.  This was met with Chaplaincy, which offered the Light (to lighten the gentiles).  It was indeed a place to come and go from.  A Sanctuary and a Light.  This twin purpose is perhaps the reason for the emotion.  For it is always in the relationships with others that such memories are formed.  The building for a time was, perhaps, a thin place.  But it was those who gathered there who made it so.  Gathered and scattered, more often than not scattered.  Though we often began at AngChap, we found ourselves around the world in that community.  Sent out to far and near for new experiences and challenges.  To discover new places and meet new folk.  To gather stories and return to tell others.  Every memory comes with people in mind, for it was the folk who gathered who made it what it was, who marked it out as special.  It was a place which spoke of, as the plaque in peace garden testifies, “The Love which moves the Sun and the other stars.”

bbq008I always remember one line from my dissertation written on Chaplaincy.  It was from another chaplain who did not have a building to work from.  He wrote that chaplaincy for them was ‘Abramic’.  One pitches ones tent wherever it is needed.  Perhaps then the tent will be re-pitched and one hopes that there will continue to be opportunities to offer both the Sanctuary and Light that so many of us enjoyed, revelled in and were moulded by in years past.

Fight or Flight?

I wonder how comfortable we are?  I’m not referring to the need to loosen the belt a little after Christmas lunch.  Or the uncomfortable feeling that we might have forgotten to send a card to someone important this year, or even the uncomfortable job of writing thank-you letters.

How comfortable are we sat here in this church building this Christmas?  Chances are we might be relatively comfortable, after all it is familiar surroundings for the majority of us.  That might of course depend if we’re sat on the pew with the fur lined runner or in the draft I suppose.

Our buildings become comfortable, comforting.  Tidings of Comfort and Joy? And not only in the physical sense.  And why not?  Is it not the job of the ‘Church’ to comfort the people of God in times of hardship and struggle?

I’m not comfortable in church buildings, neither should I be for the work of the ‘Church’ generally speaking lies outside these walls.  The exile of the congregation in Greenfield was a most interesting time.  When the church building was physically unusable it became apparent very quickly that there was a longing to return, to be comforted by familiar surroundings, or course only the shell and a few other items were left following the complete re-ordering.

It is not easy to be exiled, but perhaps sometimes it is important.  For survival sometimes we must let go and leave things behind.

There is an uneasiness to Christmas that makes me want to not be in a church building.  Sooner or later most stories end up being about bloodshed.  And as much as we try with candles, straw, decorations to make it a happy joyful time, there is no escaping the harsh reality that the story of the birth of Jesus ends up being about blood.  Whether we focus on the end of the story, the crucifixion, or the end of the beginning, the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents.  It ends up being about blood.  Ever since, every chapter of the history of Christianity has blood on its hands.  Brothers and Sisters around the world are running for their lives as Christians are targeted and persecuted for their belief.  And today we remember the exile of Jesus into Egypt and the slaughter of children that followed.  There is nothing comforting about those things, except that Jesus survived, lived and shared with us the Kingdom of God.  We need to be uncomfortable, disturbed, with itchy feet, ready to move on, to be moved on.  If you read the history books of the Old Testament you will find it is a story of Exile and Restoration.  Largely of the People of Israel to the Land and their temple.  You’ll find that the exile, though it was a harsh time, gave the people of Israel a new life.  When they were exiled to live in Babylon they had an identity to preserve.  They were different people because of the experience.  They learned to protest with their identity.  They became “The People of the Book”  That was one of the marks of the Welsh Chapel, the non-conformists, the annibynwyr, independents and of course the foundation of Protest-ant-ism itself was something which acted against the comfortable.  Christianity was originally “The Way” Christians, “The People of the Way”.  The Iona Community to which I belong is a protest movement, to cajole, to challenge and to disturb.  When we are faced with our history, with the atrocities meted out in the name of Christ, even the slaughter by Herod of those children, when the pew makes our back ache, or when the heating doesn’t quite meet our expectations of comfort we remember the exile and that it is good to be disturbed, moved.   For out of it, if we open ourselves it it, will come life, restoration and resurrection.