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Going up? Looking down!


The  environmental chaplaincy is in crisis mode.  

And that’s OK

Maybe that’s  actually the most realistic place to be for the foreseeable future. 

Never a normal again.

I remember with enduring and sustaining gratitude and delight, that it’s two years since I heard that Would be able to take up this wonderful and impossible post. 

The ways of working over past years  ( travelling, face-to-face encounter) have been put beyond use, though these may remain in our residual repertoire for now.

But, for now:….

Some roles are unavoidably “furloughed”, such as interaction with those in training institutions, though I have reason to believe that, like the blossoming of Network meetings online through the perseverance of our programme co-ordinator,  this might actually become more possible due to current circumstances. Likewise, or so it might first appear, the obligation to lay foundations for environmental chaplaincy beyond the time of the current iteration ( though read on…)

For the time being,  following discernment, rather than anything in my terms of service/job description, I am a full-time digitally visiting preacher, putting into video ‘sermons’ a level or energy comparable to that involved in planing and carrying out a visit to a local congregation. 

Also emerging more strongly at this point, is to  continue to pioneer a green approach to the waypoints of the Christian calendar.  Like Ascension.

The project of ‘Creation Time/Season of Creation’  ( and coming up, ‘Climate Sunday’) is an additive, rather than transformative step in this direction, though these remain  as vulnerable as ‘green issues’ generally are to being sidelined as icing on the cake.  How many congregations  will want to know about ‘Climate Sunday’ if churches are still subject to lockdown measures by September? 

To break into the most memorable and constitutive festivals which, (for good or ill,)  help people to grasp and define for themselves what the church is when the church is being the church, has been one of the most difficult nuts to crack. Even making plain the missional implications of Christmas as the  story of a refugee family can be rather uphill.

We’re happy to have a special eco-service now and then, and might even enrich it by inviting neighbours,  though Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity are still, for most of  British Christians, ‘too holy to be green’.  And, for pastoral reasons, we can often add Mothering Sunday and Harvest  to this list.  EcCongregation Scotland is an agency of Mission and evangelism to the churches.

Lockdown circumstances are pushing me into more worthwhile reflection, precisely on things to which I would not likely be invited to be part of by local churches. For instance, that the extremely odd and often unhelpfully picturesque festival of Ascension is indeed Ascension into Creation, rather than out of reality. In this I am building on some liturgical models from the Iona Community.

 In the ‘old days’ , someone in my position would head off on a sabbatical and come up with a manuscript for a book, “Greening the Christian Year”  – or some other such predictable title….. which would be published, reviewed, swiftly remaindered, then pulped.

Should such a thing happen, at least digital publishing saves the environmental impact of those  final stage. 

But where the green dimension of completely mainstream and identity-defining customs and celebrations is brought out , that’s where the answer lies to continuing ‘environmental chaplaincy’, and precisely because  everyday churches and leaders will make it happen. 

The question of how  to reach this stage still requires further reflection and inspiration.

But please do not underestimate this potential for lasting transformation of church life by targeting what people think of as the under-rated and empowering foundations of that life.  Right now, under very real pressure from the Pandemic (which we really do have to see as the ‘foothills’ of the greater layers of crisis,)  the old solutions of trusting money  and giving greatest  power to those who administer it might look to be  reasserting themselves. 

One wonders how deep the awareness in our institutions of the magnitude of environmental emergency ever penetrated at all?

What is needed is dialogue and partnership, rather than a power game. Or a blame game. As noted, the pressures are  horizon-blockingly real. We need to pray for and constructively support those who are trying to respond to them.  No one would want these things on their plate!

As part of the preparation for the online retreat I was asked to lead during  Laudato Si week, I looked in greater detail, than ever I had  before, at the ‘commandments’ of Jesus. I combed the four Gospels on the lookout for direct commands, instructions and interventions.  The occasion was a reflection on John 14, where, rather than insisting disciples ‘obey’ commandments, Jesus asks that they ‘keep’ (treasure) the commandments that they ‘have’. In the version of the Bible I was using, ‘obey’ occurs in John’s Gospel  when it is used not by Jesus, but by his complacent opponents:

“We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” (John 9:31)

Our hope as Christians, of course, is precisely that God does listen to sinners, and loves and guides those who realise they have acted against God’s will.  And  of the friends of Jesus, more is expected than the mere obedience of slaves. (cf also Luke 17:10)

And that instructional teaching from Jesus is the starting point for the concrete and grounded decisions, of varying scale and moment, which lie before us together and alone.

Still, you can’t legislate on the basis of one translated word. And every theological assertion will have holes. This is something we have to live with, and not be disabled by. The most destructive and unhelpful theology is one which intimidates by trying to sew everything up, or to annihilate opponents. That also throws away the great advantage of theological reflection: that, with honesty, we responsibly  make leaps of reasoning before the pathway to our landing-point may fully have emerged. The colours of the rainbow coexist, even when we insist we only see white light.  How to find our place and purpose in the created World, without continuing our ancestral capitulation to the injustice and idolatry of the systems of the human “world”?

(For the record: a huge proportion of  Jesus’ ‘commands’ are for the equipping/formation/shaping of disciples. Healings are accomplished by direct intervention against natural forces, but generally only with the consent  or at the request of humans who look to be healed.  Rather more of Jesus; teaching ( especially in Luke)  is of the order of “this is the situation: you decide, though take the consequences”.  Jesus commandingly  evicts, rather than destroys, natural forces/demons who are in the wrong place. And I wondered if his robust conversation with the wind and the waves, to the benefit of terrified disciples, might be helpful in giving us confidence in managerial interventions to ‘tend and keep’ the environment, whilst mitigated by the comforting nuance of “peace, be still” ( Mark 4:39)).

Reflecting on differences of church tradition also throws up  the sense in which imperatives emerge through discernment. Reformed churches are reticent about acknowledging as ‘sacrament’ anything not directly ‘ordered’ by Jesus in scripture, though others are more than content to allow discernment to command, albeit with very heavy safeguards.

Circumstance, like Jesus, both prunes us  and enables. What is the fruit we look to bear?

Nonetheless, the question I’m left with is this: what does Christ command us today, equipping us as friends, and how, having discerned this, will we allow our lives to be transformed?

As the ‘men in white’ of Ascension bluntly advised the Galileans on the hill  [paraphrase]  

“Stop looking up into the sky, and get on with it!”

Westray Parish Church Gold Award.

Westray Parish Church on the island of Westray in the Orkney Isles has become the 5th congregation to gain an Eco-Congregation Scotland Gold Award.

Westray church and two of the wind turbines.

Westray Parish Church had applied for a silver award. However when the assessors visited them they realised that the work being done by the congregation far exceeded that standard and decided that they should be given their Gold Award. The congregation have been especially commended by the assessors for the way the church has been leading the community through involvement in island wide energy projects such as installing a community owned wind turbine and a project with Lottery and Scottish Government grant funding which worked to identify the 9 houses on Westray most severely affected by fuel poverty and energy inefficency. The project took them out of fuel poverty by installing ground source heat pumps, double glazing, extra insulation and draft proofing in each home. The activity of Fair Trade Group, under the Chairmanship of the minister resulted in Westray being recognised as a Fair Trade island in 2007.

Westray Fairtrade display

The award assessors noted the great connections that the church has with their local community and their commitment to Eco-Congregation Scotland which now spans over 20 years. They were impressed with the legacy fund that the congregation have made available to other Orkney Parish Churches. This fund has allowed other churches to proceed with their own eco work. The assessors said that Westray Parish Church is a case study of how to do it. Amazing and inspirational!

Westray Parish Eco-Congregation co-ordinator Alasdair McVicar said: “This should be a source of great pride for the congregation and it’s very fine to have good news during these strange times but we know it’s an ongoing commitment and we welcome that”.

Parish Minister, Iain MacDonald added: “It’s lovely to have something to celebrate collectively but these awards should never be seen as something to stick on the wall so we can sit back and admire them but as an incentive to us all to maintain the high standards and to build on them”.

Well done Westray! A well deserved Gold Award.

A day in the life of a digital travelling preacher….

There was some old joke about ‘labour’saving devices’… that you always ended up doing more work if someone thought you had time on your hands. 

I don’t think it’s quite like that, to have moved from a physically travelling preacher to a digital one: the hours and energy demanded are actually quite  similar, even if the front-end minutes (on-screen) may seem less.  Even more than when I’m making what may be my only possible visit to your community in five years, every minute is an opportunity, every second of precious attention-span needs to be justified. This Sunday’s  “sermon on wheels” is eight minutes,  but started with an already whittled-down script and  more than  half an hour of footage.  The ratio for the reflection with which the AGM will begin is somewhat more extreme.

Setting perfectionism in perspective: a good “view” is worthwhile, even if we don’t hold the viewer to the end because the phone rings, or the cat throws up.

Mind you, cats are BIG participants in online meetings!

Then , having reached that stage, there is a “Twitter edition”, brutally cut down to 2 mins 20 seconds.

Online meetings are also a swings and roundabouts thing: they are deceptively draining because they demand more focussed attention, but you can attend, because you do so from home.

And the AGM and Gathering will be a pioneer large  ecumenical meeting for the churches of Scotland . As my colleagues said at a recent meeting “no pressure”  – but this will be in an atmosphere of peace and encouragement, rather than haughty entitlement. Because this is what I have generally been delighted to discover with the movement. Most of us know that all of us are doing our best. Compassion, commitment, and a yearning for justice are powerful environmental values. 

Some things are actually better: the staff group have spent much more time ‘together’, encouraging and talking about projects. The networks are coming into their own as seldom before, thanks to the energetic initiative of Judith,  our programme co-ordinator.  No need to mention the carbon footprint implications of being at home. And its’ great  to breathe fresher air, and hear the birds sing, who are usually drowned out by traffic where I live.

And I’ve ‘got to church’ at my local congregation ,much more often than expected, and with my family. Which impresses upon me both the need to support the online  and other efforts of local churches, and for the chaplaincy to continue to offer something special, distinctive, and in addition to the ‘regular’ things in which people are now gaining a degree of confidence.  

May we help to add to that, and the assertive visibility of our movement, through lockdown and beyond, to the Grace of God!

Holy Saturday in lockdown

Holy Saturday in Lockdown. For the first time in most of our lives, we have pause for thought on this Day of Uncertainty.

The disciples, in hiding, because they were afraid.
And not without cause, because the danger was very real.
The authorities had lost their patience.

And never mind about tomorrow, as Jesus had said. Every horizon was blocked by the pain and tensions of today. For us, it’s really difficult to look beyond the virus, for instance to the news of continuing freak weather in the Pacific region.

The easy way to see the events of the Passion is to portray everything destructive as corruption by the powerful snd influential. People have looked for the technicalities that today might get those accused of abusive crimes off the hook, as if the systems of social control and criminal justice etc in the Empire were themselves sound and reliable. Like the ‘good thief’ who imagines that crucifixion is a proper legal response to his own crimes. We note that Jesus, himself on the cross, doesn’t waste time putting him right, but offers the promise of a paradise which sets all that in perspective.

More demanding is to realise that those who acted against Jesus, by and large, seemed to be people under pressure, doing their best. Trying to be faithful to the spirit of their principles when the pips squeak.

And both during and subsequent to our current and utterly acute emergency, we can expect to see more of that, aided and abetted by what has begun to be described as ‘virtuous snooping’ – the repellent tendency to leap to the worst conclusion if one’s neighbour even appears to be transgressing the letter of the precautions, which are, nonetheless necessary. A walk which doesn’t quite look like ‘exercise’ is a long way from a crass mass gathering. The sanctions appropriate to one should not be applied to the other. Grace, forgiveness, and compassion, these most environmental of divine gifts, never stop applying.

The Passion story shows people with and without authority pushed to that stage when the letter of principles seem – rightly, and even responsibly – to be set aside. A pretty terrible burden. Which, as I have noted before, was what I saw in the preaching of the post-war generation when I was growing up. The non-logic of supporting nuclear weapons ‘because of Auschwitz’. Or annoyance at remembering the tragedy of everyone caught up in a war, “Because our own homes were bombed!”

Yes, I have heard all  of that, as a grassroots pastor, in churches.

And in the answer of the army chaplain to my question, on a chaplaincy course, about whether they prayed for the Iraqis in that war . “Yes, once they were defeated”.

I hope I will continue to be shocked that the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ, which come into their own in times of crisis, might be set aside, (whether by me or by others, ) precisely when they are most needed, because, when things were good, we never quite learned how to learn to drive these ‘emergency vehicles’.

The statement of Caiaphas, that it might be right for one person to die for the good of the people is two-edged. For Christianity, whilst crying out against the means and motivation, in some sense has also agreed with the statement.

Yet again, black and white serves us rather poorly. Christianity is born out of the resurrection, which is the divine repurposing of an evil and unjust act.

There’s another deceptively huge step of interpretation. This is in how we read ‘according to the scriptures’. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6). One dramatised Passion I saw this year did not make that saving difference clear, which is necessary if we are to receive, at the end of Easter Sunday:  the story of the walk to Emmaus: the poetic and mystical relationship of the Word made Flesh to Scriptures whose origins are in different times and situations, but which, because they can be seen to relate to our Risen Lord, also shed saving light on the struggles of our own day, and the Life of Emergency that still lies before us.

Holy Saturday is cruel. A day of no visible hope. But Sunday does dawn. Not with solutions, but with  transformation……. and a challenge of love far greater than the despair of Good Friday.

The visiting (digital) preacher

The online visiting preacher

In the video material I’m preparing from day to day, (which you can find in different versions on my own Facebook page, on EcoChaplain online (find on Facebook) on my YouTube channel , and elsewhere,) it may  will seem as if I’m not talking anywhere near as much or explicitly about the virus as some of my colleagues and local churches which have ventured into this, for them, largely uncharted territory. Part of this is that by virtue of the ways we are now investigating of being church, we are hugely acknowledging the context which this most acute emergency has created.  And the overall environmental emergency, of which this should be seen as part, continues.

I’m putting the time and energy which I would have devoted to church visits into what I hope are distinctively different, and thoughtful online offerings: at present, Palm Sunday , Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have something available, and I’m considering what I might offer for Easter Sunday Please do incorporate and share these fully, if you find it useful: NB there are no known copyright issues whatsoever as I use mostly completely original material, plus public domain, and occasionally things purchased under licence.

What would be rather wonderful in this medium term would be to be able to work with local churches who have taken the plunge into the online world.

Technically: the ideal is to combine the feel of ‘live’ with the reliability of pre-recorded, and experience shows how very unreliable completely live things tend to be without fully professional communications; nonetheless, the adventure is in collaboration.

A friend pointed out that during this time, I can reach more of the 500 churches that make up our EcoCongregation family than otherwise might be the case. That is a daunting, challenging privilege. We have small personal and technical resources, but telecommunications do make things shareable, and I will do my best to make anything I produce to be worth making and worth viewing, though with the expectation that it will be used and received with the same grace which I hope you might accord the sermon/homily provided by your own local priest or minister as they struggle towards successive Sundays.

And having said all that: support and pray for your own local congregations first and foremost, to sustain our fellowship through this strange strange time, hand in hand with Christ.

The Joy of …Mortality

Who would have thought it? After spending a year and a half developing a devotional approach to faith in the ‘end-times’ , we have something  which is both a dry-run and a brutal wake-up for the abruptness of change and the non-resilience of everyday life.

As someone in their late fifties, with asthma, and since my mother lives on her own, 300 miles away I’m aware of being a step closer to uncomfortable thresholds.

When I drove away from my mother’s house after a long-timetabled visit last week, I had to pull up and let the tears pass that ambushed me after waving goodbye. Every time could be the last time.  That’s always the case But we’re just a step closer.  As for myself, I’ve had a wonderful and fulfilling life: but my children are not remotely ‘settled’ yet.  They need me to stay alive for now.

As I’ve described myself, in terms of my carbon footprint, as someone ‘of unclean lips amongst a people of unclean lips’ (cf Isaiah 6 ) so too, today  I am someone nervous and confused amongst a people beset with nervousness and confusion.

The Manse is becoming a bunker and a film studio as I invest energy in replacing face to face visits with an online presence which I hope can be no less provocative.

In a very short time,  we are looking at how to be more interactive too.

As the measures to respond to the virus take hold, perhaps with much more effect than the virus itself (- what will be the impact on those dependent on food-banks, on refugees; how many people will come to the end of their lives alone because community had been put on hold?) – amongst the most worrying development is the way that religious observance and community can be shelved and shuffled off as non-essential. And accepts this with its tail between its legs.

Poke your nose into the scrum of a  supermarket, even at 8am, and you’ll see every reason for spiritual guidance and reassurance: having  begun last year to order ‘ethical’ toilet rolls online, (and taken an order the week before last)  I’m expecting the burglars to leave the electric bikes next time they break in, and make off with the more attractive contraband!  

We also seem to be observing what used to be caricatured as the masculinity of society: the complete  inability to multi-task. We can do the virus, but only if we forget the climate.  But the bigger, if deceptively less acutely present emergency of the climate and environment has not gone away. Not that it has ever been taken with the seriousness of this real, but – yes, almost manageable – crisis.  Suddenly no one bothers about plastic any more.

Yes, really, this is a practice run, or perhaps ‘work experience’  and hopefully with a bit of breathing space the far side  in a few months, though there will be loads to learn each day, especially about responsiveness.

In terms of theological insights: one which was very dear to my late wife is this:  God never restores. (cf the final chapter of Job).  There may be good times ahead, though we will never ‘go back’ to how things have been. So:

Live each day as if it were your last.

Why? firstly, because it might be – and actually, when has that not been the case?

But secondly, get used to that idea, and that each beautiful experience  that we yet receive is to be savoured and honoured with gratitude.

Joy in each day, prayer in whatever mode. 

As I noted recently: the worst and most misleading thing in the conversation of the snake and the first people in the Garden of Eden was the comment “you will not die”.

Without that realisation, of our mortality, we won’t get round to living either. 

Love yourself as your neighbour, your neighbour as yourself, and the Earth, because we’re part of it!


POSTPONED: All about food- Stirling Network Meeting

Eco-Congregation Scotland Stirling network are looking forward to their meeting on Wednesday 25th of March from 2-4pm (New date to be confirmed) when the topic is “All about Food.” Stuart Guzinski of Forth Environment Link will be talking about the work that they do involving food and growing.  FEL has run Stirling NeighbourFood an online farmers market for ethical, local and seasonal produce which they have recently handed over management of to The Kitchen at 44 King Street, a soon-to-open community kitchen, food event space and cookery school. Sara Macmillan from this social enterprise will also be joining us to share her exciting plans for more community food activity in Stirling with the network. 

All are welcome to attend this event. To assist with catering, if you would like to come along please let us know by filling in the contact form on the events page of this website.