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Since this job began for me, it’s been an emotional - and theological - rollercoaster. Which is probably the way it needs to be, given the developing crisis which is the backdrop to anything ‘environmental’.
Preaching Good News, whilst bad news keeps rolling into the inbox, day after day. With some encouragements, such as the increasing insight that almost all the changes advocated to mitigate climate crisis come with substantial economic or wellbeing-related benefits.
The jury’s out on the balance here, but radical change can make for a better life all round. And when you also begin to see things differently, your real experience will be that they are different. Greener. And even.... better.
But how to let go of what you have come to rely on? No room for complacency anywhere at all!
When has the development of vision not been a major calling of the church?
One of the tasks in the job description is to develop some appropriate form of environmental chaplaincy to take over when my term comes to an end. Reflections so far point in the direction of the acute need for something like this role to continue, or indeed, to be expanded, though a formal role would need to find the appreciable funding and denominational backing that makes the current role possible.
Chaplaincy, of course, is widely exercised by people who are neither ordained, nor whose main work is to offer religious leadership. But what might be recognised as key gifts to exercise a catalytic ministry within Scottish churches and society? As something whose presence, though it has no direct power, nonetheless helps changes to take place?
My background in studying both theology and language suggests to me some answers.
Firstly, there is the idea of phonemes.
When you learn a language, your brain is trained in recognising sometimes minute meaningful nuances which distinguish between one meaning, mood, or even just word, and another. I once spent a very intense week trying to teach an unfortunate French Businessman English. By the end of each day, it seemed we were getting somewhere, but by the following morning, his ability to hear the distinctive sounds - even “h” - had evaporated.
An environmental chaplain needs to be able to hear the eco-phonemes of the Signs of the Times: to recognise the mode of language of the Voice of the Earth, and perhaps also of those closest to it, or suffering most immediately from the effects of climate crisis. Especially when these things just don’t register on the radar of everyday church life.
In recent correspondence, a local church leader sounded completely baffled about what ECS could possibly contribute, as, barring a couple of enthusiasts, “we don’t really have anyone [in the congregation] with an interest in ecology” Phonemes needed. And these emerge, as babies learn language, through immersion and repetition. Which is what folk in local churches need to be able to work on. And what EcoCongregation, as a movement, offers.
In the context of moral reflection, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s trenchant criticism of “conscience” is comparable. A number of Christian traditions, my own included, like to be gently respectful of the ‘rights of conscience’. Others may go so far as to suggest that conscience is ‘the voice of God’, setting you right when you go wrong, or at least convicting you, supplying the corrective of shame and guilt when you know you have chosen to harm yourself or others.
The UK has demonstrably suffered an atrophy of human conscience in the movement which contributed to the brexit vote, and the accompanying seeming moral permission to dig in and nurture what previously seemed to be unacceptable attitudes to nation, race, and the neighbour. It’s hardly surprising that among the Brexit Party’s few policy statements, we can discern ( see if you can find any policies here )an antipathy to ‘being told what to do’ by advocates of climate action. This attitude seems also to be rife amongst supporters of some candidates in the Conservative and Unionist Party leadership election.
How can the signs of the times be so glaringly obvious, and yet so easily disregarded? Back to the extreme situation of Bonhoeffer, who was surrounded by very nice well-meaning people whose conscience was nonetheless not triggered (in time) by the evil around them. Even if they were nice people, it’s still evil.
An acceleration of conscience-events and phoneme experiences started happening to me, (actually, alarmingly late), after learning I had been appointed. I began to hear bells ringing, chiming in the everyday mainstream liturgies and prayers of the churches, with the immersive partnership of God with Creation. It’s there in full view. And yet, nice Christian people, our sisters and brothers, our neighbours will still retain their bafflement about what Christianity “has to do with ecology”. Bear with them. They’re your flesh and blood. They are who you are. Even if they make, or infuriatingly refuse to make, obvious decisions.
All the more reason, then, to promote the subversive “world and sacrament” mission of EcoCongregation Scotland, to do, for congregations, what getting this job did for me: a wake-up call, to awareness, to the new edification of Christian conscience. Have the courage to irritate your neighbours until they budge. If a congregation can own the identity of being a registered Eco-Congregation, then fruitful awareness and readiness to change can readily follow. As it is following, alarmingly and embarrassingly late for me. Of course we’re not the only way. But we’re real. And we’ve just begun.
Finally, look at how you tell the story. Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed the teaching possibilities of colour : clergy shirts that reflect the seasons, preaching stoles that bring in themes. like the desirable harmony of creation and human action. When I haven’t found what I’m looking for in the hymnbooks, I’ve written new words to old and very singable tunes. And now and then, I make wee film clips that take ideas further .These have been some of the games I’ve been allowed to play.
“But”, - no, that “but”needs to be bigger needs be bigger:
BUT if that’s not your thing, then Please don’t copy me, because it’s you yourself who are the best resource for environmental ministry. Play the games you’re good at yourself. As the fisher-folk fished for people.
Of course, there are costs: along with the joy of finding beauty, spiritual depth and encouragement in much traditional material, much of the fond and lovely material connecting faith and Creation, presenting it as a ‘gift’ from God or deriving comfort from its eternal resilience, begins to look out of date or irrelevant, just as some things which seemed long out of date, or as with apocalyptic passages, simply too “scary" (as a theological educator recently put it) now find a new meaningfulness.
Thank God for exciting times!
I happened upon a grand old lady (as people like to style the gender of masculine named locomotives!) the other day. After an informal visit to a church, I dropped by at the Bo’ness and Kinneil (preserved) railway, and there, like a great simmering kettle, was the 60103 Flying Scotsman, resplendent despite the subdued BR livery that she is currently sporting, attracting nonetheless the reverence due the oldest mainline working locomotive on Britain’s tracks.
Every panel and pipe shone, no dents or scratches: none of the ‘cellulite’ that creeps into the bodywork of workhorses with fewer armies of adoring fans. Looking, of course, rather different from when she first steamed out of the Doncaster engine sheds in 1923. Re-numbered, with a different livery, thoroughly renewed inside and out, even her face is changed by the compulsory addition of smoke deflectors to channel the smoke and cinders at high speed. She ran with a bell and cowcatcher in America, which are of course now absent.
It’s easy to lose count of the alterations and renovations, as well as “restorations”, reversing technological advance for the sake of “preserving” what she had been, let alone those grim years lying around dismantled in the NRM, that this particular much-loved fossil fuel vehicle (ouch) has been through. And to ask, with reluctant scepticism, whether there is any point in claiming that ‘she’ is at all the same ‘engine’? And although everyone likes to say that the locomotive was ‘designed by Sir Nigel Gresley’, a full list of those skilled engineers who have had a hand in it would fill up your screen.
A television documentary put this iconoclastic question to an enthusiast, who faced it honestly, head on: whilst much of the metal has been replaced, or even functional parts (like the double funnel) swapped in and out so many times, he was confident that the ‘spirit’ of the Flying Scotsman lived on convincingly and meaningfully. Even seeing her simmering in the sidings at Bo’ness, let alone thundering across the Forth Bridge, you’d have to be the most boorish of locomotive atheists to disagree.
This encounter came after a struggle with Scripture: John Chapter 5. If you check online at Biblehub , you’ll find that 16 English language versions are on offer for verse 4. Move to verse 5, and you have a choice of 28. As it happens, the story of Jesus’ intervention with the question “Do you want to be well” only makes sense if verse 4 is included, with a mention of an angel who intermittently troubles the waters of the pool of Bethesda/Beth-Zatha. The angel verse is authenticated in a very important manuscript which was authoritative for Martin Luther and the King James Bible, though seems to be absent in earlier manuscripts. This does not in itself mean it is either inauthentic or a later addition, though some scholars would lean in that direction, and editors of modern-language Bibles exhibit, perhaps an embarrassment both about folk religion and indeed about angels, which is foreign to all the Gospel writers. That’s why you find it in some versions and not others. But is it, or isn’t it “the Bible”?
Maybe the Bible is not far from the Flying Scotsman: inspiring awe, joy and wonder, a spirit of continuity, maintained and re-thought by thousands, and reinterpreted by often very valid agendas. Having had the additional scandalously iconoclastic thought of what might be the implications of a fossil-free steam loco ( e..g. water heated by hydrogen), I also ask you to consider what the Bible needs to be, to help us discern what the continuing identity of the Holy Spirit is saying to us today. Which parts do we take or leave or re-shape? But whatever we do, it helps to be honest about it. “My version IS the Bible, full stop” does violence to the Bible as dynamic and interactive resource for relationship with the Word of God.
In the event, I decided to acknowledge the place of the angel in the story, which, as noted, adds both coherence, and helps us understand that Jesus did not claim any sort of personal monopoly on healing. Neither should we. It also sets certain ‘miracles’ in perspective, but also the importance of letting the church be the church, letting mystery be mystery. The mystic and the realistic are complementary, not at odds. The deep rationality of spirituality, and the experiential power of story help us more fully to grasp the deep currents of change that are vital to our survival in this age.
And when the churches face up to the need to convince themselves to make changes of policy (including financial) and liturgy in the light of the Climate Crisis, they perhaps might reflect on what it means to work with the continuing Spirit of their own identity, rather than falling back on facts and figures unadorned by narrative or passion.
Be church, not just committee. Full steam ahead.
I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience:
Atheists, agnostics or secularists taking the ‘Dawkins’ line of telling you what they think you ought to believe, and having set up this particular straw man, expecting you to be intimidated as they proceed to attack and dismantle it?
It’s important to be able to say with confidence, that you don’t believe in the useless, petty, and obnoxious god they don’t believe in!
Nor in the fluffy bunny!
Nor indeed, in a faith hostile to and domineering with regard to life and natural ‘resources’. Though such assertions frequently go unchallenged.
You don’t believe in that…
But do you? Or do you think you ought to? Is there some voice in the back of your head?
As a grassroots minister, I sometimes wondered if I were continually at war, in preaching, with the Sunday-school teachers of half a century or more before, themselves passing on, with less than reflective obedience, what they had received. Please, if, today you are introducing children to Christianity, immerse them in Creation, and in wonder!
But for now:
Was there ever a time when the narrative of the danger to life of avoidable human destructiveness had more coherence? Or indeed, the peril of idolatry: the lethally misleading worship of false gods?
Catastrophe repeatedly seems to be built into the way the world works, when pushed too hard, and disaster, unsurprisingly, frequently linked to human behaviour, stupidity, greed and injustice.
Surveys of prehistoric Britain show that ecological collapse through defoliation has been well within the capability even of less technological societies. We’ve done it before. We should take note. And I might speculate (wildly) that the importance of sacred trees to the spirituality we dimly glimpse from afar to the ‘druids’, described by writers from the hostile, invading, Romans, and even mentioned (by attribution) by such as St Columba, should not be underestimated.
Returning to more easily attributable thoughts….
A sense of ‘you have been warned’ pervades the whole of Scripture. (And, incidentally, not just in Christianity, but we’ll keep the word-count down for now.) I can’t think of any instance where a bolt from the blue arrives because God had a bad hair day, though the Book of Job – and indeed much of the teaching of Jesus – goes out of its way to disconnect genuinely ‘natural’ processes from any sort of ‘no smoke without fire’ argument. The planet always has its own agenda.
Creation becomes the more alarmingly irrational when we pretend that it came into being for us, or that we are the centre, the pinnacle and purpose of the universe. Mainstream Christian critics of ‘anthropocentricism’ concur. Maybe even that “big word” isn’t strong enough: ‘anthropolatry” – the idolatry of the human might be more like it, though even that, it seems, is a mask to the idolatry of the injustice of the Market, ( mammonolatry) itself a human invention.
Not that human beings are at all neglected in the stories of our faith. Humanity has and evolves a place and purpose in the management of the Garden.
Is the Incarnation “for us”? Or just the Cross? And how wide or how exclusive is the “us”? Every time I try to pin down provision reserved only for human life, it involves a mental pruning of the wide web of Life. Of the thicket, the brush, the forest of intimate connection with the rest of Creation.
There’s realism in the poetic Book of Job: the processes of the earth are not determined by humanity, though we are now effectively at war with “laws that cannot broken”. I wonder if this might seem ‘gloomy’, but it looks as if living well and with justice is not automatically “rewarded” by prosperity, (for that is the fallacy of ‘Prosperity Gospel’ ) though self-destructive behaviour and pig-headedness and complacency, with regard to warning signs, lay cataclysmic foundations.
God the Creator also repeatedly does time as God the Mitigator: what matters is not the wrath or anger of God expressed through cataclysm, but the safeguarding of the seeds of life, in partnership with faithful, and invariably far-from-perfect people. We find God picking up the pieces after tragedy, rather than bringing it on. But also in the tears of Christ, seeing it coming.
Do you find, in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis, a vindictive overlord, or a God creatively limiting damage?
Do you find in the story of the Great Flood someone who has thrown their rattle out of the pram, or who in the face of damage done to the planet holds on to life through partnership with people who will listen?
Do you share in the terror of Isaiah that God cannot be contained either in temples or ideas, but rather that God’s glory fills all Creation?
And are you able to hear, in John 1:14 That the Word became flesh, rather than, in the first instance, only human?
Ah well, this is a speculative blog, rather than a PhD thesis. But if you’ve begin to question some of what imprisons and enslaves us as Christians, and liberated from the feeling you need to defend what turns out, in the end, to be inauthentic, then it’s worthwhile .
I believe…. we should pray and think about what we believe.
And maybe, as Abraham looked up and found in the thicket, confirmation both welcome and disillusioning, that a God worth believing in does not require sacrifice of what we should love, a way forward may be found.
“...The church is big and influential enough to be a significant part of the solution to the current crisis.”
This was the recent banner headline for the recruitment webpage for a ‘sister’ Christian organisation.
I do have a problem with this.
The language still conveys a less-than-fully honest confidence in a “fix-it” ‘solution’, rather than a creative approach to an enduring and already ongoing crisis.
Relying on this sort of strapline, we won’t be transforming ourselves as the church into what we need to be for the damaged world, because we’ll just be buying into doing things the old imperial way.
It’s in our weakness, our differentiation from “might is right” that our strength, and our prophetic ability to speak truth to power, will lie.
We don’t defeat empire by being empire, because empire is seductively expert at co-opting.
(As an example in passing: if you ever get invited to a Royal Garden Party, see how republican you feel by the end of it! Wow, what graciousness, what wonderful tiny sandwiches....)
And yes, when we, as churches, do engage with the mighty industries which already plan to continue selling us extinction and climate catastrophe, we need to do so with the spiritual and moral authority we have as churches, rather than as pathetically insignificant shareholders.
And we need to be honest about our own hypocrisy and imperfection: we fly, drive, drop plastic, and all the rest of it. The distance of repentance we ourselves have to travel should not be allowed to silence us. Because if we waited to put our own house completely in order, there would be no voice to speak that truth.
That we, as “people of unclean lips”, can nonetheless engage with people of unclean lips, is hopeful and wonderful.
Whilst hope, and its sustaining, is a vital part of our work as churches and as Eco-Congregation Scotland, misleading ourselves and others about the magnitude of what we face, is not.
Not, as in distant memory, the ‘Band of Hope’ but the The Brand of Hope we’re after is a deep and durable one. We are a passionate, - and yes, joyful - movement, because realism sets us free to the profoundly defiant power of joy.
(I’ve already had a piece I worked hard on for a church ‘pulled’ for being ‘gloomy’, but this blog is a place for free reflection. For being realistic, not ‘gloomy’. And if the blessing of “dark humour” is part of it, then bring it on!)
We are perhaps the first age of humanity which has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the assurance of Satan to Jesus that ‘angels will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’. We have already jumped off the parapet, and wonder what’s keeping those angels.
I’m not ruling out the odd branch sticking out of the cliff on the way down, though.
We are a culture cherishing a wholesale denial of cause and effect, grounded not even in a twisted, naive faith in God, but in the blinkering tyranny of unlimited greed and growth.
I’ve already noted the ‘greenwashing’ of the job-title of the UK “Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth”.
For it’s the idolatry of growth, and the enforced lie that business as usual can continue with a bit of ‘green’ tinkering, that continues to break the “laws that never shall be broken”.(cf Psalm 148). If we’re attentive followers of Christ, then we do not pretend Sky and Earth will not pass away.
The promise to Noah was that if rising waters destroy, it’s not God’s doing. Again, naive and decontextualised reliance on that sort of promise, is putting God to the test.
Our species (and perhaps the asset managers of some Christian organisations) have presumed to disagree with the God who in conversation with Job, cited the invincible strength of Creation in the Leviathan and Behemoth: and something obscene and blasphemously out of balance has resulted, where other species die out, not in God’s good time of ‘seedtime and harvest’, but wholesale.
(Of course, since we’re not creatures like the other creatures, we might be sad, but we’ll be safe - or will we?)
It’s the most perverse reading - if they bothered to read - of Jesus in Matthew 6: 34
’Do not worry about tomorrow’....
because it disregards the “- κακία -“ (genteel translation) “troubles” or perhaps, given the way language often works, the ‘crap’ (speculative translation) we’re up to our eyes in today. If you don’t deal with today, there won’t be a tomorrow.
Whether we’re also living out the gullibility of Adam and Eve, that ‘you will be like God’ needs more reflection.
I looked at the selection of medieval gravestones in St Andrews Cathedral recently: pretty well all of them had some variation on the words “memento mori” “remember that you will die”.
That’s not gloomy, but part of what we need to know to live well.
To know that everything we know does have an ending, which would be fine.
How would we behave if we were more conscious that this “day” could be our last?
Some, perhaps, would react with despair, some with hope and compassion. Which itself transforms every situation.
We seek a Life Appropriate to the Age, and the church, not the empire, that God call us to be, for God’s glory and the good of Christ’s beautiful, crucified, creation. In joyful faith, we seek the Way, because the solution is not yet in sight.
Hallelujah anyway. Amen.
[Image: a happy bird feeding on the Tree of Life, surrounded by runic script, quoting the poem] .
Once before I have mentioned the Ruthwell Cross, which, in stone, and with the clout of history, presents the fellowship of Jesus with wildlife in the wilderness.
It’s an even more fascinating pile of rock, in that, incised on one of the faces of a cross, presented very much as a tree of life, and a habitat for God’s creatures, is a quote (for Celtomaniacs, wow: it’s in runic script!!!!) from the moving Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The dream of the Rood(the Cross)’.
The poem has been part of my own journey to faith.
Before I came back to Christianity in my twenties, this poetry, completely unexpectedly, reached out to me.
It’s doing so again, after the retreat I co-led on Iona.
Studying Anglo-Saxon as a subsidiary in my German degree, ‘The Rood’ had leapt out at me with an unexpected power, not only in the contextualisation of Christ as a ‘Young warrior’,( though crucially, one who powerfully resisted all pressure to destroy his enemies) but also the predicament of the ‘Forest -Tree’ itself: viciously torn from its forest home and coerced into being an instrument of torture....
....Which is what humankind does daily with the ‘resources’ of Creation. We use good things badly. And neglect even to use bad things well.
In ‘The Dream’, The central words and image of the unity of Christ with the Cross itself (Crist waes on rode) ironically achieved by human evil, let alone the weeping of all Creation, (Wēop eal ġesceaft) - for human mourning cannot be sufficient...... these are staggering ideas.
That violence, both against Christ and against Creation, drives these closer together, to the extent that we cannot evade the concept of the ongoing Crucifixion of Creation.
Whatever/whoever suffers, is the concern of Christ crucified.
This adds powerfully to a theme of how, through the instrumentality of human action, and perhaps despite it, God’s will might nonetheless be seen to be done, in the one who was welcomed by branches and nailed to the tree.
In the nailing of Christ to the Tree, we find we have nailed the Tree to Christ. We cannot henceforth contemplate them in isolation. We cannot follow Christ and neglect the life of the Earth.
In the final lines of the poem, the solidarity of the ‘tree’ with Christ continues, searchingly, after the resurrection, in the question of who might be prepared to put their own life on the line in response to the harm that is done to the world.
Perhaps the ‘Sheep and Goats’ speech from the Risen Christ, of Matthew 25 takes us, with the logic of preaching, a little further. And science, apart from mediating the warning voice of the Earth in climate crisis, also confirms the extreme level of kinship of all life, including us, down to a celular level and beyond.
Thus, when you see the Creatures of God in distress, and respond, you respond to Christ. Whether you know it or not.
After Easter, keep it mainstream!
The days ( and years) ahead in all our lives will require extraordinary love, forgiveness and generosity.
For the churches to burn brightly as signs of hope in the gloom of climate crisis, we need fuel; we need to fill up with inspiration, for where there is commitment, there is also always, the danger of burnout.
So, above all, seek out occasions of feeding this Easter Season, and if you’re shaping worship or events, look any how they encourage and sustain, rather than macho considerations of sacrifice. You can’t compete with the sacrifice of Christ. You can only share in it.
For that, though, there needs to be trust in the possibility that we can be fed. I know that, as with politics in a time of brexit, disabling disillusion stalks our consciousness: the disconnect between threatening reality and ‘theology’ means the stage is free for harmful responses to our situation: the pernicious ‘common sense’ of denial funded by growth fixated commerce; the bitter blame game that polarises and ignores the need for just transition; and of course, the ‘rationality’ of despair.
So let Easter be to you a time of refreshment, as well as of confrontation, in solidarity with Christ on the Cross, on Good Friday, with the genuine threats to Creation.
So, perhaps, play this game: Creation itself, like mission, is a partnership. We cannot therefore ‘imitate’ Christ or be ‘Godly’ by isolation, by selfish power-games. Life, like God, is a community project. Communion.
Most Christian traditions are content to talk of the ‘Communion of Saints’ ( the Church in heaven and on Earth). Of course, they interpret their relationship variously, but nonetheless… The language we are learning again to ‘drive’, to inhabit, and to pray with, is broader. Allowing the Voices of the Earth the standing of fellow worshippers leads us into a ‘Communion of Creation’.
It may not often have been put that way, but it certainly has genuine ancient roots in the churches of the British Isles.
I’ve recently been able to refer to stories of St Columba and his followers; how, when faced with real peril from natural forces, they chose blessing and friendship over cursing and emnity.
There’s wisdom there. In a time of accelerating climate crisis, we might be threatened by natural forces, though these are not our enemies. Rather, they are allies in the fight for survival, to be abused at our peril. The war against the environment, against Creation, cannot be won. The alternative approach, to befriend and cultivate them, seems to be what we were put here for.
Preparing for Palm Sunday in Iona Abbey, a few days ago, I had the privilege of a conversation with a Christian friend of some years standing, about how they were looking forward to Holy Week and Easter. They certainly found the worship, and the celebrations worthwhile, though it seemed that they had given up some years before on the foreground teaching they were based on. Which, like the community dynamism of the Holy Trinity, ( into whose dance, humanity, in the image of that Communion, is invited, ) should get us moving.
Somehow, again, like politics in the era of brexit, with ecocidal parties courting the popular vote, my friend felt disconnected and bored by a ‘theology” , which had been captured by the professionals and locked away somewhere. Even as Easter approached, they were ‘going along with it’, without being ensnared by the connection with our reality. In a low moment, they might just be content to let Jesus be sold short merely as ‘a good man’. And ‘sin’ was dismissed as some abstract concept, rather than about real damage to Creation.
I hope that in these special days, my friend will find it helpful to recall that Jesus, welcomed by branches, was nailed to a tree; that Christians less precious about letting theology be poetic, see in that the Tree of Life, itself torn from the forest and abused by that wicked use, a fellow creature, finding itself in solidarity with the abuse of Christ by power and Empire.
Sharing, ultimately too, in the triumph of life made new despite it all.
Faith makes connections. If you see them, encourage your friends.