Rev’d David Coleman is eager to get to know local congregations’ initiatives, and to hear of your trials and joys, and to lead or share leadership of worship, when appropriate, taking note of your own tradition. Encouraging the committed core of congregations is also a high priority. David is an experienced, ordained minister in the United Reformed Church, a mainstream Christian church in the UK, and is also a Member of the Iona Community, having led programmed weeks at the Abbey.
Invite David to visit you by getting in touch through our staff page here
In preaching and in presentations, David makes exciting use of multimedia (see one of his videos below), and is well-equipped to work in very varied venues, not just on Sundays, or Sunday mornings.
A visit from the chaplain is an opportunity to celebrate what it means to be an Eco-Congregation.
Continue reading to follow his thoughts and reflections:
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EcoCongregation Scotland has been preparing material for use during the ‘Season of Creation’ for some years, previously gathered by Miriam McHardy of ACTS and my predecessor Rev Trevor Jamison. We've struggled this year, with the background of COVID, which has added to everyone's workload and stress, and we are thus all the more grateful to this year's writers who found they were able to take part after all.
We began the project looking forward to preparations for the COP conference, which will now happen next year in Glasgow: we have a breathing space to work towards a fruitful use of the opportunities for prayer, and the raising of consciousness which that will bring.
We aim to provide something which is of real use to local churches, many of whom will be using the Revised Common Lectionary, or its close relative used by Roman Catholic congregations.
We’re grateful for permission to use the graphic from the Global Catholic Climate Movement this year, as we’ve very much aiming at partnership rather than competition, and the overarching theme of Jubilee for the Earth has deep biblical resonance.
We also welcome the initiative of Climate Sunday from Churches together in Britain and Ireland, whose launch coincides with our first ‘Sunday’.
Our approach, quite appropriately, is encouraging and challenging, though never prescriptive: use these things as seems good to you and the Holy Spirit. Work it in together with the way you do things: between us we provide both the medicine and the spoonful of sugar to help it go down. Grab a phrase, an image, or an idea, and run off with it! Have fun! Get carried away! See what you can get away with!
We’re indebted to the care taken by Church of Scotland Weekly Worship in shaping their own very helpful guidelines, though, necessarily, we go further.
We are not ‘filling in a gap’, but rather making space. We bring to this task a belief, born of current and practical experience, that much of the Bible can immediately be read, with integrity, in a way which highlights the rootedness of our faith in the partnership of God with Creation - variously described as ‘covenant’, in which human beings have a vital part to play, though by no means the only part. We are, as Pope Francis has said, “ruled” by the Earth.
I’ve discovered that this may require the cashing in of some reserves of daring. We often exist in a theological environment patrolled by what Alastair McIntosh calls “silverbacks”
“:Silverbacks” = older and once eminent men (as they usually are) who still pronounce with a head-of-department authority on matters over which they’re either out of touch, or aren’t within their field”[Riders on the Storm, published 13th August 2020 ]
So sometimes we need to say things differently, which seemed long ago to be settled. But God alone is unchanging. To be clear :we never impugn the integrity of those who came to different conclusions in a different time and context, but we do need, most urgently, to open wide eyes ( including our own) to the signs of these particular times, which are not by any means exclusively, of the virus threat, which seems, prematurely and lethally, to block out all others.
The surprise for some is that no mode of churchmanship has a monopoly either on ‘climate’ issues, nor, for that matter, the problems of denial and incrementalism within our communities. We turn up treasure new and old.
Once a church, congregation or community learns to trust and read the Voice of Creation through the honesty of science, Christian commitment compels involvement.
I’m relieved that I’m not a ‘climate’ chaplain only, as there are so many stacked up but interweaving environmental crises, of which COVID 19 is but one.
in our writing, we have required the discipline of taking note, but not being overwhelmed by the crisis which has forced us online , thereby actually multiplying the scope of our audience.
In Bible poetry - frequently - the mountains dance, the trees clap hands, the stones (threaten to) shout aloud and Creation groans. Poetry is so often the most emotionally accurate way of expressing deeper truths - without conflict with science.
The currently renewed appreciation of the sentience of fellow creatures, brings a new depth of meaning to this imagery. We ‘hear the voice of the earth’ as never before, though we have a whole raft of wonderful ( and well-financed) strategies for ignoring, or postponing action on what that geo-prophetic voice might have to say.
The most obvious images ( beasts, birds, seas, skies, soil) are not at all the only ‘creation’ themes. As environmental scientist Gus Speth has famously said,
“The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy”,
Thus themes emerging from this year’s texts are as follows:
Responsibility ( Given our (collective) complicity in global damage.... It is responsibility, more than ‘control’ that God gives to our species in Genesis 1:26
Love for neighbour (taking neighbour rather widely). There’s a very serious need to hear and be shocked by the partisan xenophobia of some of the passages; to grow beyond local parochialism to a global concern.
’Payback’ and revenge vs Forgiveness = as enabling power.
Urgency in all things: though set against the disabling idea of ‘already too late’.
Maybe forgiveness, and the experience of grace will be the key to the most effective Christian environmental witness, especially where churches have been bombarded with the demand to “do more”.
This last attitude is, of course, one of the errors which is killing the world with the pursuit of endless growth.
It takes little study of the New Testament to confirm that Jesus’ practice was to liberate with forgiveness first, before evidence of changed life came to light, so encouragement takes precedence over condemnation.
Should it be a surprise that the best we have to offer in the state of the world today are also the best expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The sheer practicality of making forgiveness/healing/enabling a priority over vengefulness shoes through.
If the one who sings prays twice, then the one will also hurt twice, who insists on suffering and punishment, rather than a more ‘restorative’ sort of justice.
Enjoy the Season, and see where the Spirit leads!
If Ian Bradley’s ‘God is Green’ is a primer for green theology, Professor Alastair McIntosh’s ‘Riders on the Storm’ is a handbook for well-informed and authoritative activism. Two hundred pages bursting with quotable and meme-able sayings to reflect- and act – on.
As activists and pastors, actors and prophets in this spiritual, environmental, ecumenical movement, [EcoCongregation Scotland ] we seldom have time or space to read every book that’s going.
To be practitioners, in an age of urgency, we seldom have the luxury only to be students. Reading matter on which we can hitch a ride, without being taken for one – not even the pleasure cruise we think we’ve paid for – turns out particularly rewarding.
With startlingly frequent permissions to ‘skim over’ this or that chapter, and an apology in the acknowledgments that this, actually quite short, book is twice its intended length, Alastair is clearly mindful of that. However, even if you think you know what you ought to know about the climate emergency ( the more pedestrian ‘climate change’ is used throughout) this small library of interwoven books will repay attention, and perhaps non-sequential reading. “Be warned that I love few things better than moving from hard science to spiritual reflections by a Hebridean loch”.
And it’s seriously up to date in late 2020. Great preparation for COP in Glasgow next year.
As a public speaker, Alastair has the charming knack of speaking with authority: irritating, independent-minded, but the twenty-three pages of meticulous notes at the back of this volume should leave you in no doubt of his rigour; why he’s hard to dismiss, and why he pulls off what others might see as the scandalous trick of combining the insightful power of science, academia, poetry and eclectic spirituality.
We discover why the notoriously cautious IPCC ( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is “an incredible organisation”, and also how to interpret its jargon of “highly likely” “unlikely” , and so on. We unpack the crucial difference between emissions and concentration. We are forced to reflect on why “Climate change denial is a waste of time, but climate change alarmism is a theft of time”.
“My view is that if a case can’t be made without it being over-egged, either the case is not valid or those to whom it is being pitched are being spun. “The unembellished science is quite bad enough to be good enough”. For the reader, anxious for the tide to come in of radical actions and commitment, have patience: the ninth wave is on the way! (“‘Sustainable economic growth’ . There’s an oxymoron if ever there was one”.)
This writer has the courage to be discerningly, compassionately critical of friends and movements like Extinction Rebellion, without falling prey to the idolatry of false equivalence:
““There is no substitute for balance. That said, the balance says that only by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and thereby stabilising and preferably heavily reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, can very serious future risks be averted.”
“What if nations were to dig into their treasuries of poetry, song, literature, mythology and spirituality, and draw out oft-forgotten material..” Precisely for those who approach climate change from a faith perspective, this is excellent advice. “ “If the journey of the head looks like solar panels, heat pumps and green new deals, what of the journey of the heart?”
Alastair delights in myths, and values their capacity to point to truth, but is ruthlessly hard on any that are wantonly unfounded. Pseudoscience of every kind has a bloody nose from this radical moderate who, whilst walking the walk in personal commitment, refuses to deny his- and our – complicity in a situation of threat to life and being even beyond that of warfare. “Climate will remain the most pressing global leadership issue of our time.” Although facts, figures, and peer-reviewed science provide a playing field, with this book, we gain courage to assert that spiritual emptiness, the clearances of the soul, constitute the more determinative malaise to be addressed in building resilience of community and planet. As in Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, justice for the planet is absolutely inseparable from ‘integral human development’. Justice and ecology are near-identical siblings.
As we each only can, Alastair brings out of his treasure of a lifetime’s activism and study, treasures of experience which inescapably ground the crisis in our own homelands and coastlands, refuting with humour many of the denialist staples, for instance, about the small amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, comparing it to mine but dangerous blood alcohol levels: “Our whisky is quite the best, but at 414ppm you’re banned.”
If we might be tempted by the ‘devil we know’, Alastair makes a point of introducing us to all the devils we need to know. Though face to face with Pacific islanders – fast becoming the go-to example of a comfortingly distant crisis – we’re left in no doubt that, with sea-level rises in our lifetime “ . On the beaches of Harris and Berneray, “it’s happening before our eyes”
This should be the end of any Scottish complacency, any delay in pulling out “all the stops of sustainable development”. Or of reclaiming the wilder spiritual resources, so often born in times of trouble, that providence and love have made available to humanity.
Hope-lessness is no valid option, nor to take refuge in pernicious narratives of the pointlessness of individual action and commitment, indeed Alastair conveys a heartfelt case for doing whatever you can, without succumbing to burnout and toxic indispensability .
“As with the making of the proverbial stone soup, if we can all add just one ingredient, we can end up with a rich broth round the hearth”.Continue reading →
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(Released in September: Available for order from DLT http://dltbooks.com)
This is a fuller version of a review that may appear elsewhere.
The first edition of ‘God is Green’, by Rev Prof. Ian Bradley, has lurked in my bookcase since it irked the tutors in my training when I was inspired by the epidemic of ‘Creation Spirituality’ at that time.
That tendency itself perched on twin shoulders of the late twentieth century environmental movements and an interest in the justice and peace dimensions of what might be gleaned from the remnants of a ‘Celtic Church’, with which Ian Bradley is very familiar, and of which he has held differing opinions over time. Our movement includes plenty who bring with them a fond familiarity with all that, and they will welcome what Ian describes as a “short book” from such a stable.
Even back then, Ian Bradley offered one of the sounder, more orthodox - and therefore more deceptively radical - approaches. There is more to be said for bringing the resources of your faith with you into environmental crisis than fumbling around to cobble a new one together from scratch.
Thus, God is Green, if it introduces to a congregation, a study group (discussion points are provided after each chapter) or an online fellowship, something hitherto un-heard of, will be an enrichment, and a reinforcement, and not a threat.
Christianity, despite slings, arrows and much to be apologised for, emerges as the hero of this book. It is heartening to have such allies on board in the struggle to be the Church for these strange and threatening days.
All the more so, on those occasions when someone with rank to pull, but not having woken up to the crisis, says “you can’t say that!”.
Green preaching and worship - which our movement works to make less of an endangered species than Ian suggests it currently might be - involves a fair bit of sticking your neck out, both in congregations and in the public sphere. Although, in common with most academic writers, Ian always finds an external authority to say what he wants to say, the risks and leaps we need to make will seem less foolish and fragile with Ian beside us. He also has the confidence to say “I believe” in some conclusions. However much evidence he may have assembled to make his point, he is honest about the fragility and provsionality of all we proclaim. Though this is insufficient cause to pipe down!
Alongside dignified humility at our self-centred wrong turnings there is also grateful acknowledgement of the positive initiatives of the churches, such as EcoChurch and EcoCongregation.
Some of the quoted exemplars of past narrow-mindedness finally seem all the more crass in 2020, yet we are reminded that these attitudes remain for now, part of the landscape of our churches. There’s some considerable giant-slaying there too: Calvin, Aquinas and Newman lined up with horrendous statements on the dispensability of non-human life, and it might be good to investigate how all three can also, on occasion, be quoted in support of wonder at and appreciation of Creation. This might forestall the widespread phenomenon of ‘blaming Augustine’ for all the church’s ills, without actually having read him.
I would feel completely happy if this current edition found its way into every one of the five hundred congregations of EcoCongregation Scotland, as, like a good sermon, there is so much food for thought, so many occasions for further reflection and action. And none of it would hinder or handicap the process of ‘ecological conversion’ which Pope Francis identified as the mode of pilgrimage for faithful Christians today.
Revisiting ‘God is Green’ in this edition is a delight and an affirmation of the directions which should urgently be commending themselves to everyone in any sort of leadership role in every sort of church, and for which, so we discover, we are actually well equipped as active communities of faith. With Herbert, Hopkins and Teilhard de Chardin, it does get very cultural at times, and Ian’s wide ecumenical overview of the spectrum of environmentally aware Christianity and literature will be nourishing, though there’s not much cited more recent than ‘The Circle of Life’ from ‘The Lion King’.
The changes in tone and conclusion in this edition, especially those highlighted, with explanation, in the final chapter on the place of human beings, encourage the reader, excited by the green meaningfulness of Christianity, to continue the journey, led by the prophetic voice of the Earth, equipped with with a readiness for further guidance and insight.
The key insight of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, that we recover the Biblical habit of addressing and listening to the Earth and creatures as ‘who’ rather than ‘it’, as subject rather than inert object , runs all the way through, with rich support from many theological and literary authorities.
Whilst ‘God is Green’ has not been converted into a resource of existential urgency, nor one which risks much dalliance in the ‘scarier’ apocalyptic resources of Christianity, which may be commending themselves to those in most acute situations, it is an authoritative toolbox and annotated booklist par excellence on which the day-to-day life of the churches can confidently build.
If a scribe of the Kingdom requires treasures both new and old, the strength of God is Green - some will feel, reassuringly - is in the treasuring of older, yet deep green threads which not only comprise, but hold together, the faith of Christianity.
A welcome transformative rather than additive approach to the defining festivals and ceremonies of Christianity is encouraged: who knew how ‘cosmically aware’ was Wesley in the original version of ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing? Is your church’s Christmas ‘greenery-free’, at least in the story you will tell?
Though played by Queensberry rules, this is, thank goodness, a book that pulls few punches. Ian abruptly calls back to scripture many who might be under the illusion that their anthropocentricism (humans as God’s be-all and end-all) rested precisely on that foundation. If a complacent attitude of disregard to the life and dignity of fellow creatures seems to be well-explained, you can look forward to it being knocked flat in the following paragraph.
Without neglecting the usual culprits - the ‘dominion' problem in Genesis 1:28, God is Green offers a good wide spread of Bible quotes and references, with discussion of how the consensus of their interpretation continues to evolve. Theology is a snapshot, but also like an Iona Pilgrimage: those at the front may think they’re getting there, but it only works if we take care to cherish those who move more slowly.
‘God is Green’ hasn’t become a book for ‘the last days’, yet leaves plenty of room for ‘bells to ring’ as you recognise the inherent immersion of liturgy and scripture in our partnership with Creation.
I was asked to comment elsewhere on whether there is a ‘theology of plants’… Perhaps I should have responded that “a theology which excludes them is likely to be deficient!” But this induced the following ramble, some of which regular readers may recognise.
I have needed to be wary of claiming “theology” due to a culture which takes it for an empirical science, requiring water-tight arguments; a discipline which proves rather than convinces. ‘Natural theology’ has to work a bit too hard in its reasoning, where the awe and wonder may already have done its job for it.
Human beings don’t need to think and pray only in that way, and in my work as EcoChaplain, I was openly commissioned, from the outset, to recognise the value, scope and power of ‘poetic theology’. Hymns and prayers, with all their logical flaws, may be at least as valid as essays and theses as we encounter the mystery of God. Should we, when we turn to God, always speak of trees/plants? I’m convinced!
Though some of this requires an appreciation of divine irony.
Jesus was welcomed (Palm Sunday) by branches, hung on a tree. The identity between Christ, affixed by human cruelty, and the abuse of the tree (of life) to hang him up there should take our breath away. When I’ve used the Iona prayer about ‘wood and nails…purchased our salvation’, have I forgotten that wood comes from plants? The deeply moving Anglo-Saxon poem ’The Dream of the Rood’ which is quoted ( in runic script) on the tree-like cross now sheltered by Ruthwell Parish Church narrates the feelings of the tree wrenched from their forest home by ’stone enemies’ and forced to become an instrument of torture of the World’s friend’. On the sides of the cross, happy birds much berries from its leaves. The animals Jesus encountered, without antagonism, in the unkempt wilderness, are also there.
It’s clear that ‘wilderness’ is not lifeless ‘desert’, but perhaps more, as the Celtic Christians would have sought it out, a ‘deserted place’, where you can escape the bustle and listen for the voice of God. But can there be a wilderness in the midst of a city? The last few weeks, when we hear the birds as the traffic subsided, suggest there can.
What do you grow in your garden? In Holy Communion, through faith, by grace, fruit and grains are offered as the flesh and blood of Christ, broken and scattered, gathered and shared, for the good of all. Few of us would be outraged at singing along with’JesusChrist the Apple-tree’. The convergence of God and nature, whilst we remain calmly aware of the difference between creator and creation, wonderfully reconciled in the body of Jesus Christ, deepens rather than damages our faith. Can a garden speak of this ?
The hyssop that comforts and eases pain on the cross (John 19:28–30) reminds of our awesome debt to the healing powers of plants, celebrated in Revelation, 21, where the leaves of “the tree” (and when you read this, “the tree” implies wonderful diversity) are for the healing of the nations. A right relationship with this part of fellow creation implies justice and peace as well. Out of utter practicality, monasteries and Christian communities cultivated medicinal plants, as do we, though they’re so often masked by blister-packed pills. My late wife’s cancer treatment came from yew berries. Foxgloves help people with heart disease. The list is well-nigh endless. And few folk remedies are lacking in a grain of efficacy.
And Pope Francis recalls a tradition many churches are now happy to revive (Laudato Si Paragraph 12. “What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.
Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”
It’s truly refreshing that people have begun to delight in wildflower borders and meadows – even on the grass verges in Motherwell!
In our approach to climate crisis, do we try to fight a war, or befriend an abused neighbour and carer? So often too, there is need to balance the arrogance of ‘care FOR Creation’ with the humility of acknowledging how we might be cared for BY Creation. The shaping of a garden should surely take this into account. Just as it should provide for other creatures than ourselves. It is with unambiguous approval that Jesus notes how the mustard-shrub provides habitat for the birds. ( Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19)
The parable of the Sower ends with an abundant harvest, perhaps because of and not despite the modus operandi of scatter-sowing. It allows for the ecosystem in which this takes place. The birds are fed, and there are weeds. Nature can do their part. Likewise, ecological wisdom underlies the prohibition on superficially efficient reaping. Extreme tidiness, we are discovering, kills: not only starving the creatures whose habitat is on the margins, but also the poor, and ultimately even the rich. And it’s with the authority of God that this point is made. Nothing we do will affect only ourselves. Only sinful arrogance says otherwise.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you are not to reap to the very edge of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not strip your vineyard bare or gather its fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the resident alien; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:9-10).
This provides the food-bank which ensures the survival of Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, all the more as Jewish tradition values the female line of decent).(Cf Matthew’s genealogy.) Many community gardens provide open access to passers by whilst going food. With all the challenges of regulation that this involves!
I’ve noted that even German churches are being encouraged to allow for wild-flower borders in the graveyards and green spaces they administer, to let foliage cover their church buildings, recognising that managing structural damage may be offset against the welcome for other creatures whose habitat the church then provides, and the bonus in delight for the people who visit. Church authorities even appoint consultants to advise on this, though it’s also necessarily an education in perseverance and collaboration with the needs and demands of nature. Our recent and timely appreciation of our dependance on pollinating insects surely encourages us to acknowledge their place in our spirituality. I don’t know how far we may have come in the appreciation of decay: of the sheer beauty of a rotting log, or indeed what goes on inside a compost bin; and yet life continues because life recycles, and plants and fungi are the workers involved. Not ‘bondage to decay’ comes to mind, but partnership with it. Bondage, like all slavery, is an abuse, and the processes of decay are themselves wondrous aspects of creation.
The ancient and fundamental duty and honour of hospitality is surely key: a locked and completely private, walled-off garden says much about its owner. Abraham welcomed God in person from under the shade of the trees. And in the Book of Isaiah, is it the abuse of the holiness of trees, rather than that the pagans had sacred groves, that so infuriates the prophet?
Next time someone tries to make a case for cutting down a tree in church grounds “because it takes light” think again. In so doing, it’s helping you breathe. Always question such things.
You might have visited various types of historic gardens: those where nature is collaborated with and thoughtfully managed (the school of Capability Brown and others) and those where the aim is to show the complete human mastery of nature, forcing it into artificial geometries and shapes (look at pictures of Versailles). I cannot see that the second expresses a spirituality appropriate to our own age.
The mention of the fig tree in Luke 21 often obscures the following phrase: that we look at and learn from “all the trees”, and there has never been a better time to do so. Science, of course, far from undermining a biblical approach to vegetation, has begun to give meaning to the ‘personalisation’ of plants in Biblical language. We shouldn’t be intimidated into neglecting this though fear of inappropriate anthropomorphising. Green leaves do not just feed us, they give us and all other creatures oxygen for life. Not only do they ‘clap their hands’, (watch the trees in a stiff breeze) but plants certainly communicate, and respond to stimuli. They work together . We share in the building blocks of our DNA so much of what they are, that any approach towards the domination of nature which disregards its spiritual nature and value will tend towards an idolatry of the human. Your garden needs to be someone to ’tend and keep’ rather than to dominate and ruthlessly exploit. Be wary, please, of popular Bible translations which, in your living memory at least, have “weeded out” references to fellow creatures and replaced these with the assumption that it’s only about people. (see Mark 16:15 in GNB!!!). Again, nothing is absolute and clear-cut, but open up you mind to the partnership of plants and animals in the background of everything you hear, pray and sing in church, and you might find the garden of your faith is richer, lusher, more sustainable and sustaining in the turmoil of present day life.
A garden is a privilege, and access to it, even if it isn’t ‘your own’ should be a delight. In sight, sound, smell and peaceful hospitality. I don’t know the details of the ‘paradises’ of middle eastern aristocratic gardens, but it’s worthy of a final comment, that this was what Jesus, from the wood and the nails of the cross, promised the barbarically punished and lowly fellow creature on the point of death. In a garden, we may be with our ancestors, and they in God’s hands. Do you keep memorials fresh and tidy or allow nature to take their course, in the faith that God remembers? What do you think.
And since it is not ourselves, but the Sabbath, which is the culmination of the first Genesis story, perhaps a garden must be a place to value rest, rather than just of labour. God ‘walks in the garden’.
Ultimately, we don’t need to stretch points or lean over backwards to feel how a garden can be a sacred space. But it’s worthy of some discernment and thought, what message we receive from it and give to others.Continue reading →
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!”Continue reading →