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.

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