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.

Healing the Hunger Games

For the Conwy County Civic Service 2016.

anotherplaceAround ten years ago I was in Liverpool for Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday. We visited the Anglican Cathedral, took the tour, climbed the tower and looked back towards Wales. I remember a conversation after lunch with a good friend, John, a priest working in Liverpool. We were discussing where to go for the afternoon. Some wanted to look into the Catholic Cathedral, others wanted the inevitable shopping spree, a few wanted a trip on the ferry. John suggested, however, that we go over to Crosby to see the ‘Gormley Men’ (Properly titled “Another Place”) Having visited that beach in later years I rather wish we had gone that Maundy Thursday afternoon instead of the inevitable and predictable sights and sounds of the city, however much fun it was taking the ferry across the mersey.
There is something distinctly troubling about 100 bronze men standing on a beach looking out to sea. What are they doing there? You might well ask! Well, what are we doing here? I might ask. For it is a similar question, and depending on your opinion of Anthony Gormley’s work has a similar answer. In some ways they are pointless, but that is the point. 100 bronze men standing gazing out towards the Burbo Bank windfarm over the endless stream of ships coming in and out of the docks.
Depending on the tide, some are up to their necks, some waist deep, some look as if they are walking on water. Another Place harnesses the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature. Anthony Gormley explains: The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes the body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet…
I’d like to suggest that this building too is a similar space. Let me put that another way. This is a place where there is a very loose agenda. I mean that in all sincerity whatever you might choose to believe about religion, or churchgoing in particular, hymn singing, praying and so forth. This place is, like the beach at Crosby, is a place with a little agenda. It is simply here for reflection. What it reflects, if we let it, much like that beach at Crosby, is life itself. Yes, in its beauty, but also in its pain. The beauty is in its simplicity. The pain through our experience. In our life we may be standing up to our necks in water. Or are we seemingly striding over the waves, or high up on the beach away from the ebb and flow of the tide? It reflects our nature, who we are and where we are in life. Perhaps that is why I find such places troubling for they reflect back to us the deep divisions and difficulties that we face in life. Those who suggest in the comments book at the back of this church that they find here a sense of peace are, I think reflecting that lack of agenda.
The world puts so many pressures upon us, that this, like that beach where those figures stand, is one place that is different. A place that has no desire to sell us anything in particular or make us think in any particular way or expect us to behave in any way other than to reflect our true self. Here then is a reflection of what life could be. Here, everyone is welcome, here, there is no distinction between rich and poor, between nationality, sexuality, political or religious affiliation.
But you might say, and I would find it strange if you didn’t articulate this in some way, hang on, this is a church, what about God, what about Jesus and what about Christianity?

HGamesI’ll explain that best by telling you another story. There is a great anticipation in our house for the DVD release next week of the latest Hunger Games film. And may the odds be ever in your favour – of getting a copy. For those of you blissfully unaware of this latest teenage fiction and film blockbuster, it is one of the latest ‘world gone wrong’, ‘Rising from the ashes of apocalypse into a new world order’ type of story. The capitol city lives an overtly extravagant lifestyle whilst the districts surrounding it live to serve the every need of the capitol. They live in poverty and malnutrition, in hunger and slavery. The ‘Hunger Games’ are an annual pageant where 24 contestants battle for survival where there is only one winner, all for the amusement of the capitol and to keep the districts in order. It is suggested that the annual games serve as a warning against rebellion and they are supposedly for the healing of the nation. Suzanne Collins tells a good story and it is one which reflects upon our world. Now it is very tempting for me to suggest which parts of this world ‘The Districts’ might reflect, and which the Capitol reflects upon. Before you too are tempted, let me suggest that there is an every increasing divide between what is seen as rich and poor. The rich world is the one where there is access to resources. To water, food and energy. True poverty is where there is limited or no access to those things. Most of us are offered ever increasing choices. Freedom to choose what we eat, what we wear, how we travel. Where we shop, how we live, whether we choose organic or free range or Fairtrade or the opposite of those. Whether to holiday at home or abroad. Such is the rich world. Real poverty is where there is no choice, where food and water is scarce and where simply surviving is a daily struggle. The gap is getting wider. This is our reality. It is what is reflected in this place through the stories that are told here which still do not loose their significance today for we are still seeking the healing of our nation and the world. This is what is caricatured in the Hunger Games. It is also why, I think, the story ends the way it does. I’ll not spoil it for those who have not read the book or seen the film. But it is also why we are here. For our world too is in need of healing. And we have a choice. Which world are we willing to live for? The world of the districts and the capitol or a different world.

Let me put this in musical terms: We are at a Coda. The coda being the part at the end of a piece of music which reflects on the rest. How we get to the coda is often a circuitous route, probably difficult to follow and full of signs and directions we may not notice or understand, but the coda always stands at the end and reflects back on what has been before. Therefore as I stand and reflect, with you this day on the life of our County, I wonder what it is that we can do to challenge this growing gulf between the rich with access to resources and the poor without? For I believe we all want to see a future in which all are respected as equal and individual.

There is one thing which we have in common with everyone and with all things, perhaps that might be a good place to begin, but perhaps it is the one thing which we often overlook, for it is the earth. The earth is our common home. It sustains us and provides for us everything we need, though we seldom acknowledge it. It is to the earth that we are returned when our lives come to an end. Just as the Capitol neglects the people of the districts in the Hunger games, we have neglected the earth in seeking to use more and more of the earth’s resources. As well as its musical meaning Coda or Coda yn Gymraeg is a word which means get up, or rise up. For a real healing of the nations to take place it requires us to rise up. As in the hunger games, it is those who reflect on the whole picture who are able to rise up. But if our common task is to care for our common home, we are all called to use a responsible and sustainable amount of resources to ensure that all have equal access.

Part of that is about letting go of one life and looking to another. It is painful, it is a story of death and resurrection. But it can be a story of love, of reconciliation and of healing. Our common task is urgent that we do it now and that we do it together. For the healing of our nation and of the whole earth can only be achieved through humility. Love compels us to see things differently. We need the courage to love our home, see the earth for what it is, and let it be. I’ll finish with the words of Alexei Leonov, Cosmonaut.
“The earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone; our home that must be defended like a holy relic.”