Welcome to the Environmental Chaplain’s blog – a new page where Rev’d David Coleman shares his thoughts and reflections.
- A goody bag of links and stuff to play withContinue reading →
As summer is approaching, here’s another chance to download and use material which has come out of the life of the churches in our movement, and the chaplaincy :
Sing, pray, read, think (scroll down to see)
As you emerge from lockdown in various ways, and perhaps begin to sing again: give some thought to singable hymns and songs which also deal sharply with our global situation.
is a collection of easily-singable, thoughtful songs written for visits to our churches.
For Climate Sunday services and/or any climate-themed or creation-aware worship in the months ahead, please creatively plunder this extensive resource, assembled as the URC contribution to the Climate Sunday Worship page. [https://www.climatesunday.org/service-resources]
We’re grateful to the churches and musicians who have made these recordings available ( below) . Visuals from Rev David Coleman ( and very occasionally, but legally, other sources). Names of performers are on-screen in each case, and words are in the ‘Friends and Troublemakers’ PDF file. ( above)
What will change your life’s direction
Now Christ lives here ( Blaenwern)
Now Christ lives here ( Courage brother)
Deep our longing to dwell with you
Our legacy is dire ( to Kingsfold)
Whilst still the ground is hard ( best early in year)
Additionally: ‘Guide me O thou Great Jehovah’ with thoughtful visuals.
From the waters’ fond embrace
A prayer for COP
Teatime prayer for Christian Aid
Prayer framework for Creation Time
Candle with prayer for EcoCongregation Ireland
Aaronic Blessing: for Glasgow Churches Together
The Glasgow Crest Bell Litany ( with introduction)
Litany of the elements ( at St Andrews)
The Friend’s Prayer ( reflection on Lord’s prayer)
Our Father with perspective ( on the top of Beinn Damh)
Pavestones gravestones ( Reflection on ‘The Stones will shout aloud”
A thought on the way
A second thought on the way
Pastor Martin ( puppet) Martin Luther, the sheep and the goats!
The sermon: a story from the Middle ages
Matthew 28: the Great Commission
Matthew 15: the Last judgement ( on the Pentland Hills)
Matthew 13: Parable of the Sower
Mark 1 9-12: baptism of Jesus
Mark 11:1-11:Palm Sunday
Psalm 8 as a pilgrimage
Psalm 23 on the Pentland Hills
Psalm 36 by a mountain stream
Isaiah 55: ‘As the snow and rain”
Psalm 95 with strangers
Psalm 121 on Sgurr Alastair
- Asked for a plug…. Climate Sunday, for churches not yet involved, from the Chaplain’s perspective
[For a UK national Christian radio/video channel ]
Thank-you, for this opportunity to talk about Climate Sunday
That is the title of a lively and ongoing campaign across the brilliant spectrum of mainstream churches in the UK and also in Ireland which is a response to the the UK’s hosting of the twenty-sixth United Nations Conference dealing with the very very urgent threats to the beautiful balance of the way this planet works, which have been so clearly and forcefully brought to our attention by the honesty and integrity of science.
We use the word climate, of course, as shorthand for a whole terrifying heap of linked emergencies: extinction, the loss of habitat and of biodiversity, the accelerating rise in sea levels and in the incidence of extreme weather events. There is no point in pretending these things aren’t happening, nor can people of faith in conscience stand by [cf Ezekiel 33] and leave their friends in the dark.
If God delights in the benefits of the balance and cycles which have cradled the whole of recorded human history, [cf psalm 147 ] then surely, when our species, through unjust use of Earth’s resources, knowingly lives and act in such a way that these are destroyed and disrupted, and all that has breath [cf Psalm 150:6 ] is gasping, this has to be seen, as a minus – as disobedience to God, which calls for a change of mind and lifestyle. [Mark 1:15]
But it’s the particularity of what it means to be followers of Jesus that leads us beyond mere concerns into a life lived in abundance with love and an active and joyful concern for justice.
Christians are called to read the signs of Creation, indeed Jesus expects us to be able to. And the things that we would understand as climate are definitely included. God doesn’t just make lifeless objects: every creature is made to offer praise.
Jesus intervened as directly in the life of the wind and the waves as when he spoke to human beings whose lives were out of kilter. No surprise: God makes them both. And those who romanticise fellow creatures need to appreciate that ‘satan’ is in natural causes as well as in human malice. There are some things with which human beings, like other creatures, find themselves in opposition, and that’s something to get used to. We’ve all been germicidal maniacs over the past year.
Jesus directed our gaze to the short, hard life of the birds, showed we should learn from the trees, and led his disciples to recycle the skills and gifts of the life they had known hitherto, for the sake of Good News.Continue reading →
Good News, as it says at the end of Mark’s Gospel, not just for us, but for every creature.
Now as a grassroots minister, for twenty-five years I’ve seen countless special Sundays come and go. A flash in the pan, then back in the filing cabinet and back to the predictable cycle of everyday Sunday worship.
Climate Sunday -and the situation that its responding to is profoundly different. It should move us forward, and insure against slipping back. And whilst the service churches are bing invited to celebrate this year might be a one-off, it’s an opportunity for healing, for change, for growth, for mission and outreach as the church learns to come into its own as people of hope beyond hope, letting others see the good they do, that they may praise our Father in heaven.
Google Climate Sunday: you get to a page with abundant resources for praise, preaching and celebration. What you choose and how you do it will be up to you and the gifts and treasures of your own location and tradition, though there are three emphases.
First of all that worship happens. the Church with psalms must shout. No door should keep them out. Let everyone know you’re dedicating celebrating a Climate Sunday Service: praise God our Creator and sustainer: enjoy it, be encouraged. I’ve written material suitable for URC/Presbyterian or Congregational Churches, there’s material for Anglican/Episcopal and other traditions too, (including Salvation Army) as well as some brand new worship songs and links to Bible readings and suitable hymns.
Then Commit: make a holy promise to yourself, and as a church, to try out some of the very very easy stuff, like changing all your lightbulbs to low energy, turning church grounds into a haven for wildlife. and showing a welcome for God’s other creatures, reducing waste in all sorts of ways. No more single-use plastic in church events. Make sure you enjoy what you do, because then you’ll keep going, and others will join in.
Finally Speak Up: churches have very different views and relationships with our national leadership, but broadly speaking we will want to encourage and show our permission for government to give leadership in choosing a blessed direction, shouldering the costs ands spreading the load of the changes that are going to happen, for the good of the whole beautiful planet, the home we share; the church, as it were, where life gathers in such abundance and such variety to praise the God who makes us, loves us, sustains us -and calls us, by grace, into action, for his name’s sake.
- I would say that, wouldn’t I? -Thoughts if I had the time, when introducing a Hustings.
This is the year when the UK as a whole, and Scotland in particular are on display to the rest of the human world.Continue reading →
We have the immense privilege to be playing host to the biggest -and one of the most ponderous – of global talking shops, which we call COP – the United Nations Climate Conference.
And I’d be here all night giving it it’s full name, so let’s just stick with COP.
Whilst we’re on shorthand, we might also use the word ‘climate’ and mean thereby the whole interwoven stack of environmental crises: free-fall extinction of key species and those whose place we do not yet understand; the loss of biodiversity and the habitats that facilitate it; the rise of the seas and the change of their chemistry. Not just elsewhere. Here as well. Then there’s Carbon dioxide and its hyperactive greenhouse gas friend methane, let alone the pervasive presence of plastic in the tissues of almost every living creature on Earth.
Every walk of life, every sector of activity has change to embrace, to acknowledge this, though do bear in mind that life could be cleaner healthier, better, happier, rather than just harder.
Everything about this crisis has in common that it emerges through injustice at every level of a global economy naively predicated on endless growth as if a single-use planet could still be imagined when the population of our species is approaching eight billion.
But don’t blame the poor, when the education and empowerment of women is shown to result in rising welfare and falling birth-rates. Overseas aid can cut the carbon footprint of nations like ours.
The difficulty is, of course, in measuring that, and making the case for it.
Or could you take it on trust from a leader you trust?
No approach to the climate emergency which neglects inequalities, and injustices either in the human or non-human realm, can now be taken seriously.
Greed and excessive wealth – it’s now clearer than ever – are toxic to the planet.
In Christianity as in other traditions, the onus is on those to whom much is given, to intervene most, though we also need the courage to act in ways which will impact on our neighbours, for the greater good.
Jobs at a ‘factory for poison’ might be music to the voters’ ears in the town where it is built, but the voices of those it’s directed against should also be heard. Thanks to science, the voice of the Earth is now translated for us with greater than ever clarity. We can’t look away, or stop our ears.
Horror films love to use the word ‘Biblical’ to describe catastrophe that gets out of hand.
They’re not wrong.
This is what the Bible was written for, and in common with most great faith traditions of humanity, a spiritual approach is one which provides wisdom and resilience, rather than, as Karl Marx naively supposed, an anaesthetic without relief, for those who suffer.
Faith is of course shockingly undersold where anyone imagines it’s about keeping your head down. People of faith are obliged to be the most subversive of all when they see injustice – even where they themselves are implicated. Politicans – you have been warned. In love, you understand!
The COP conference in November is an opportunity unlike any other huge event, and I’m getting tired of reminding some folks in Glasgow that it’s not just like the Commonwealth Games. For a start, all the issues it brings to a head will continue.
All the things we have alarmingly shelved during the last year, most of which are so scary that politicians don’t always speak clearly about them for fear that people might shoot the messenger, as it were.
When I offered the ‘Time for Reflection’ at the Scottish Parliament, the MSP who had invited me anxiously took me on one side and spent twenty minutes establishing his environmental credentials. Bless him. Maybe I should just have said early on: it is for the voters, for the people, to convince politicians, few of whom are badly informed, to act for the common good. How do we give this sort of courage to those we chose?
In my own free church tradition we are clear that God alone is in charge: which means : we wholeheartedly support and encourage leaders when they seek justice and peace; we hold them to account when they lack integrity, or when they seek their own or their cronies’ advantage.
I’m not particularly bothered about motivations: whether our leaders do the right thing because it’s right or the right thing to look good, but neither Scotland nor the UK is going to gain anything anything by anything other than setting an admirable example of embracing transition with justice.
It’s also unlike any other great natural or wartime disaster, in that everyone is involved. We may not all be in the same boat, but we’re on the same planet.
The farmland – and coastland of Dumfries and Galloway will be increasingly affected by climatic changes, including the rise of sea levels, as time goes on.
The coasts of Scotland advance and retreat with greater speed; the rising acidity of the seas begins to affect shellfish and those who deal in them.
As of course do our relations with the close European – and UK – neighbours who were the most obvious markets for fresh produce. And with whom the closest and most ambitious environmental co-operation makes sense. Climate knows no boundaries, either at Gretna Green or the coast.
So, always, unless those with power and influence have the boldness which voters alone should give them to act with love and justice, it will be the poorest that suffer first and most, (even though history has a habit of catching up with those who neglect these things. )
As church people, we have spent the last few decades getting very well connected – for instance with friends in the Pacific, whose homelands are already suffering directly from salt water inundation. And of course, being aware through Christian Aid and others of the number of entirely genuine refugees seeking sanctuary from the environmental and social effects of climate change. Are these human beings entitled to our help, or not?
The other difference is that these changes are -without any remaining reasonable doubt whatsoever – so let’s not waste anyone’s time at all by trying to deny it – are happening alarmingly faster due to human activity than any measurable natural processes. I hope that those in the chair will feel free to pull anyone up who would choose to insult this gathering by that sort of conscious dishonesty.
It’s also substantially different from other global crises – even world wars – in that the momentum is so colossal that even if every nation on Earth were to do the right thing in terms of adjusting their economies to be carbon neutral or even carbon positive, climate crisis will be what everyone here is living in for the rest of their lives.
The easy, crass, thoughless thing to demand is, or course, draconian legal measures to enforce what needs to happen. History doesn’t support this as an effective strategy either for governments, or those like Christian missionaries, who, lacking the clout of armed violence, have to convince and convert, rather than compel.
The best outcome of this election is a parliament and government that lives in dialogue with the people: that tells the truth about challenges, and challenges where there is a need for powerful truth.
The best outcome of this evening is that someone – with no exceptions on the platform – actually does change their mind or shift their position.
Perhaps we proceed with a minute of silence, to let the Spirit of Wisdom get in.
- Easter 2021: being nothing, yet not inferior
When I began as EcoChaplain, there was no shortage of advice: …..
’Oh you’ll be able to….’ stuff, some of it envisaging a life of leisure, free of funerals and local church irritations. Whatever else, it has turned out to be highly rewarding, and in a way few of those well-wishers considered.
Simply working with a felt obligation to find the ‘treasure in the field’ of what the Spirit is saying to the churches today has gifted the most creative relationship with the Bible I can remember since I first began to feel drawn back to the church in my early twenties.
Yes, if you want to know what books to read in EcoCongregation Scotland, please, always, include the Bible, (wow!) though how you read it, given your awareness of the urgency and threat of multi-layered environmental crisis may be more crucial than any other resources anyone might point you to.
Just as, with recorded reflections, ‘location is the language’ don’t ever kid yourselves that you approach scripture neutrally, without any agenda or prior concerns. Get used to that. Be happy with it! Don’t resist it, or regard it as a weakness.
The same goes for everything people have discovered, suggested, and rethought about how and when the texts were written down, used, and interpretatively translated. It’s all a gift. Play with it!
Some of this really is unexpected: my first look at the part of the job which involved gathering lectionary resources for Creation Time/Season of Creation, (when most churches are locked into a programme of Bible reading whose compliers had been oblivious of the threats and urgencies of climate ‘change’) suggested it might require some unduly hard pedalling to come up with environmentally relevant insights .
Which, initially , it did, though the discipline of ‘finding the green’ is one you can become more fluent in, without twisting the Bible’s arm. What’s already there is richer than what you might try to cram in.
But none of that is beyond the capabilities of any competent general practitioner in local church preaching and Bible study.
I suspect that what holds many colleagues in local leadership back from plunging in with both feet is a combination of the underappreciated heavy pastoral demands of local leadership, and a fear of overstepping the bounds of what they feel they ought to do. Can you catch a breath in the permissible lull after Easter?
Even ecotheology has developed intimidating and disabling hierarchies. And has not been immune to “we’ve settled that matter!”
There’s also ‘attribution syndome’: the inability to utter an original thought of one’s own (which is very different from not having original thoughts) without desperately tying it down to a greater academic authority. The study of theology accordingly carries much more clout than doing it.
But a note to preachers: have you ever thought that your congregation might actually be more interested in what you yourself have to say, than someone they know, love, and trust less? Especially if you go into it with the mutual, gracious, understanding that, doing your best, you can also learn from getting it wrong.
That said, the leadership of some prominent figures has been vital, perhaps beginning with Pope Francis, but including moderators, bishops and the like who realise they are in a position to stick their necks out. At conferences, festivals, synods, assemblies and more. To dare to challenge the (currently) toxic anthropocentricism (human-centredness) of our inherited approach to the Bible and re-establish historic links to a partnership and relatedness to fellow creatures, with whom, science insists, we have so much in common.
Others, well-meaning, want to be seen to be taking climate crisis seriously, but are hesitant to take advantage of their office to make that leap from the respectably minimal nursery slopes of Genesis (“dominion, made safe as stewardship”) , Revelation, (“leaves of the tree”) and nothing much in between.
If you have their ear, befriend them, encourage them. They are human too!
Still, the greatest leap that any traditional Christian can make -without needing to become anything other than a more committed mainstream traditional Christian – , is to learn to look fellow creatures in the eye; to look and learn from the birds, to recall how Jesus spoke just as firmly to winds, waves and trees as he did to people in need of guidance. To sing with the Psalmist as part of the choir of trees, mountains, waves, lands, birds and other creatures.
Then there’s the intimidating legacy which I probably locate somewhere in the sixties: the ‘demythologisation’ of truths which are necessarily expressed in the sophisticated medium of mythological language. At times it seemed as if, for something to be mentioned in Scripture was taken to be a guarantee that it can’t have happened. Some took this further with a fundamentalism of what you ‘mustn’t believe’ rather than letting poetry be poetry, story be story, in their power and beauty.
The congregation I worked with for a while in the south of England included people who were surprised that holding the view that “all that stuff about Jesus – which heaven forbid you should bother newcomers with – is just made up” did not make for a sustaining or viable church.
Whatever irritates me, personally, though, about all that’s described above, I’ve also recognised that theological ‘stable’ and churchmanship is absolutely not the decider as to whether your faith is expressed in care for the Earth today: it’s whether you can learn, not without critical discernment, to trust the witness of science, whilst still being aware of its provisional nature, its margins for error, its caution, and the cultures of behaviour and thought in which it happens. The expressions of our faith – and how could it be otherwise – are not independent of the time and planet in which they occur.
Thus, I’m not, myself bothered about whether what I do has validity beyond my own time. I can happily acknowledge the integrity – but not the continuing unassailable authority – of those who wrote and prayed in very different circumstances.
So we come to Easter 2021. Last year, as Lockdown began, and many churches, understandably, floundered, I put together what I imagined would be exceptionally time-consuming pieces of work to provide online what local churches were not going to manage face-to-face.
This year, some are taking steps back into their buildings, but many have also got well up to speed with digital media.
This sets me free not to compete, but to offer something alternative and complementary to local church Easter. In the year when lectionaries concentrate on the Gospel of Mark, I’m having a wrestle with the untouchable, marginalised ‘old long ending’ of Mark 16.
It’s a summary of resurrection happenings which my eminent teachers at Oxford University simply told me to leave alone. It has, nonetheless, accompanied the churches through many centuries of faith, and made its way into the Iona Community’s constituting body of prayer, with its great commission to bring good news “to every creature”.
There’s some explosive, or even superficially embarrassing stuff alongside this wonderful phrase, but the last couple of years have taught me not to give up on the Bible.
Indeed, the best response to those who still put hope in God being ‘in charge’, specifically as an excuse for not engaging with change of life and outlook, is to go with them straight back to Scripture. Where God is certainly in charge, but disasters happen when we take no notice of that.
Whatever else, though, all I can offer is ‘what seems good to me and the holy Spirit’. A snapshot of inspiration, which insists on not being definitive.
Even theologically, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’, though that verse too, has become far more meaningful in a world which is not going to be ‘fixed’ but where our partnership with Christ and with fellow Creatures gives us a place and purpose which would not occur outside of crisis.
Mark 16:20 is one of those verses which looks back on our own work, as well as that of our siblings in the Gospel, this first disciples.
“And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”
Good News. Everywhere. Let’s do it. Working with Christ.Continue reading →
- Holy Week 2021
Good News to every Creature
Eco-Congregation Scotland shares reflections this Holy Week and looks forward to celebrating an Easter message that brings ‘Good News to every Creature’. We also encourage job applications and campaign activities next week as we look further ahead to the Scottish Parliament election in May and the COP26 United Nations climate summit in November. Thank you for your continuing involvement and support of our activities and events. Wishing you in advance a very Happy Easter this weekend.
Eco-Chaplain Rev David Coleman is very grateful to St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh for being able to record a major Palm Sunday reflection on Mark 11:1-11 and to Our Lady of Loretto and St Michael Catholic Church with final reflections in a special Musselburgh Covid Stations of the Cross.
As many churches opened their doors for the first time since Christmas with changing coronavirus guidance, our Eco-Chaplain has also been sharing reflections online for devotional use this Holy Week, complementing local worship and prayer across Scotland:
Maundy Thursday – “Let the sea come and wash your feet”, a Holy Thursday footwashing reflection first shared last year, with scripture matched alongside images of our coasts and waters.
Good Friday – reflection on “The Dream of the Rood”, a dream in which the “True Cross” speaks in an ancient “heroic” Passion poem of Creation.
Easter Sunday – reading and reflection on Mark 16:9-20 “Dangerous Words”, live from 7am on 4 April 2021 and accessible any time after on our Facebook page.
David outlines the special reflection for Easter Sunday: “Exceptionally, this works from the neglected ‘old ending’ of Mark’s Gospel, which contains the Inclusive Commission of the Risen Christ to bring ‘Good News to every Creature’, as well as some other untamed and challenging verses.”
“It’s presented as a complement, not a substitute for your own local church events, and will premiere live on our Facebook page at 7am on Easter Sunday.”
Easter 2021: being nothing, yet not inferior – Finally for Holy Week, David shares an Easter post on the Chaplain’s Blog proclaiming “Christ is risen…let’s work with Christ!” – and may be spotted ringing a bell at Gullane. Please contact our Eco-Chaplain to connect and work with your own church, online or in person.
We also encourage you to join in individual or household prayer with Christians across Scotland at 7pm on Easter Sunday evening:
Scottish Church Leaders Forum Statement and Prayer
Eco-Congregation Scotland is delighted to be working with Glasgow Churches Together and its COP26 Co-ordinating Group, a special ecumenical committee encouraging local churches, denominations and faith charities to co-operate in unity on activities and events relating to the city hosting the climate conference.
There is still time to apply for two exciting job opportunities to support the Glasgow Churches COP26 Co-ordinating Group, funded by Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), with applications sought by Easter Monday, 5 April 2021:
Glasgow Churches COP26 Ambassador
Encouraging Churches to prepare for, engage with and be changed by COP26 coming to Glasgow. Self-employed consultancy basis for at least 40 days, April to 30 November 2021.
Support before and during COP26 to member and partner churches, 0.4 full-time equivalent. Co-ordinating hospitality and welcome, including offers of accommodation to individuals and premises to groups visiting Glasgow.
Share, Show, Shout for Climate Justice
Wednesday 7 April 2021
6pm – 7pm
Register at this link
We are sharing work from coalitions we are members of and key partner organisations towards the Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May, encouraging candidates to hear directly on the demand for Scotland to do more in championing climate justice. At this training event policy experts and experienced campaigners will share the most effective ways for making your voice heard. There are three ways you can make a difference today:
1. Share the message
Post this video on social media or share with your group chats.
2. Show you care
Strike a pose and share a campaign selfie on social media with your message of climate action, using the hashtag #ClimateJusticeScot.
3. Shout out loud
Reach out to your local candidates to ask for a 15 minute virtual cuppa over Zoom.
This Stop Climate Chaos Scotland campaign is supported by Scottish Communities Climate Action Network, Christian Aid, SCIAF, Tearfund, Justice and Peace Scotland, Quakers, Global Justice Now, Water Aid, Oxfam Scotland, WWF Scotland, Arkbound, Jubilee Scotland, Unison Scotland and Water Witness. You can read more in the campaign toolkit.
Monthly Prayer Gathering
Thursday 8 April 2021
4pm – 5pm
Register at this link
South Glasgow and North Glasgow Local Networks of eco-congregations invite you to join their open Monthly Prayer Gathering in the run up to COP26, taking place in their city this November.Continue reading →
- Palm Sunday 2021
Rev’d David Coleman was delighted to visit St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh to record a major online reflection for Palm Sunday on Mark 11:1-11.
With churches now able to open for worship from this weekend, please contact our Eco-Chaplain to connect and work with your own church, online or in person.Continue reading →
We are also encouraging you to join in individual or household prayer with Christians across Scotland at 7pm tonight, Sunday 28th March:
Scottish Church Leaders Forum Statement and Prayer
- Hymn Text for Lent 5: what will change your life’s direction
Use with John 12:20-33. The emphasis not only on the turning point, but the re-useability of revelation, and the Word of God : ‘I have glorified it and will glorify it again’.
Continue reading →
(e.g. use with Groeswen, ( uplifting) or ‘Meine Hoffnung’ ( haunting) or Michael, ( hopeful)
If with Michael, then you may prefer to add the word ‘loud’ after repetition* in verse 2
1)What will change your life’s direction?
Whose the story you need hear?
Which of all our fellow creatures,
when endangered, we hold dear?
All alike face the threat
Christ, alert, alongside, yet!
2)Prophets, pilgrims, foolish martyrs
Gave their all to warn and guide;
Seeking signs and scanning stories
till it’s time to fling gates wide:
“God won’t hide turning tide!”
-glory’s repetition, *cried!
3)Christ, with mission and momentum
building on his own land’s creed,
recognised the common calling:
sky and soil and flesh in need!
Once again, Jesus’ reign
active for a world in pain
4)Tipping points and one-way journeys:
Glory and God’s word, employed;
love re-purposed, re-committed
lest green beauty be destroyed
Once more, Christ, dawn’s bright ray:
hope from crisis, crafting day.
- Science and Faith The war is over: the peace is more demanding. For all.
Picture: painting by my son, who has grown up very happy that faith and science inhabit the same planet!
Blogs are a useful medium, in that thoughts can happen without the demands of other genres.Continue reading →
Throughout much of my career in Christian ministry, I have been able to reflect with congregations on science and faith. In a lockdown situation, this is rather difficult, but this is that time of year!
Herewith therefore, some inevitably flawed and opinionated thoughts from this experience.
Ever since the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and indeed, well before, I have found it beautifully useful, as a grassroots minister in various places, to emphasise the mutual concern of science and organised (Christian) religion, where both are pursued with the discipline, integrity and openness proper to their traditions and cultures. Perhaps, also, with love.
From the outset, people in the (Welsh, English and Scottish) congregations were overwhelmingly grateful and encouraging.
More than twenty years ago, a lady in a village church came and said how good it was for her that she ‘can now own up to believing both in God and dinosaurs’.
More worryingly, a church-connected child in a city primary school ( about 2010) was told by a teacher, precisely, that these things were incompatible. Museum curators who had been hassled by obnoxious Creationists, were extremely wary about any contact with churches, but generally also relieved that this was not the only face of religion.
The myth of the war between science (observation) and faith (interpretation) has been so pervasive, and damaging, and the barriers between these fields so heavily fortified, that we did need a period comparable to the recognition of colonial injustices, of the rights of colour, or women, and LGBTQ+ communities, when perhaps people of faith for a while stood back, as if we only had things to learn, and listen, rather than contribute.
It’s sad and complicated, that this point will be reached at different points in different places, but from where I’m standing, it’s happened, and I can’t continue putting energy into battles no longer worth fighting, (here) even if skirmishes continue elsewhere. My condolences if you’re still under heavy fire.
If the cultures of science can also trust faith (though I appreciate people of faith can make this enormously difficult!) we’ll be getting somewhere. But ‘victory’ is the toxic option for all.
Similarly comes the shocking point at which even faith/science initiatives can become a distraction from the existential urgency of multi-layers environmental crises, ignoring these with the same apparent anxious meticulousness as some Biblical education bodies still undoubtedly do.
Some years ago, my congregation accepted funding from a foundation happily encouraging churches to engage with science, with – in the small print – a prohibition on environmental projects. The resultant exploration was fun and worthwhile, though in 2021, I hope every colleague in ministry would spot that glaring moral inconsistency and call it to account. Science/faith must never be an excuse for fiddling whist the Earth burns.
With the fun branding of ‘Dinosaur Sunday’, and inspired by the ‘Clergy Letter Project’ in the US, I led congregations on explorations both of scripture and science. The magic that spreads through a congregation when a genuine (and local) fossil is brought reverentially into the sacred space of worship has been wonderful to see. In these excursions , it seemed that evolution- as life’s adaption to changing circumstance through engagement with disaster – provides a hermeneutic (a mode of analysis) far more congenial to scripture than the forcible imposition of a nineteenth century model of linear progress.
Likewise, we should proceed with far more respect for the efforts of our forbears, more ready, helpfully to recycle whatever resources, spiritual or otherwise, if we do not only see ourselves automatically as superior to previous generations, but assess instead, how well they adapted to their time, place and environment.
As environmental chaplain, I have had the opportunity, additionally, to discover the hermeneutic of recycling: that the spiritual and other ‘assets’, with which threat and oppression were encountered, can and should be repurposed (rather than crassly, blindly re-used) as we encounter global threats which appear without precedence. Even some scary and wild parts of our traditions can be valued and reassessed as spiritual responses to crisis, and the real challenge of Endings, rather than the comfortable capitalist mythology of a singe-use planet, which can be discarded.
There’s certainly an idolatry of ‘eternity’ seen as a featureless continuum, rather than a succession of ‘ages’ with turmoil at times of transition. This emerges from the specious ‘logic’ that because God is assumed to be endless, the pursuit of endlessness – and endless economic growth at all costs – must be sacred!
And yet elsewhere in the archive of faith, we find a befriending of mortality; a recognition that endings – and even death – are not failure, but part of life. Memento mori! Creation is serially recycled. Nothing is single-use. Thank God.
Can anyone begin to engage with the state of the Earth, without accepting that disaster -or even extinction – is a possibility? Can anyone engage with Christian Scripture without a similar acknowledgment?
Following that particular leap, of re-use, re-cycling, repurposing, things go deeper: discovering the surprising coherence – as a record of experience- of an Old-Testament closed-earth view of sky and soil (heaven and earth as one Creation) , and the deep awareness of the cycles of nature, identical with divine partnership in continuing life. And the ‘kingdom’ the ‘reign’ or ‘way of rule’ of that sky seems close to these cycles. There is no ‘incompatibility’ with science here, if we approach with respecting humility. Likewise the wonderful, if differently expressed insights in science and scripture, of what human beings share, down to a molecular level, with all the life. In Christianity, ‘the Word was made flesh’, rather than merely human.
In my own ‘field’ of theology, where I seem to have become more a ‘folk-singer’ than ‘classical musician’ I note that poetry, preaching and storytelling are potentially the most sophisticated tools we have for processing existence, where a more systematic approach sits back and assumes that for just so long as we analyse something, then we will have no cause to ‘fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day’. Ivory towers are as fragile as any other human construction. The life of the world and the danger we urgently face, does not wait for an essay to be fully referenced. Urgency is now a condition of existence, not a threat to it, though if we do speak or act urgently, we do so in humble awareness that we may turn out to be mistaken. And grateful for any chance to correct or refine our provisional vision.
It was always useful groundwork to share in a worship context, insights about the great age of the Earth, and evolution. Creationism has precious little to offer in comparison. 4000 years, and a big stick if you disagree, compared to 14 billion and counting. For someone concerned with building up the faith of a worshipping community, awe and wonder are amongst the most basic building blocks.
There were two additional bonuses: first, the clear awareness that both faith and science are essentially evidence-based, even if the modes of what can be admitted as evidence vary sharply, and secondly, that both fields, in order to maintain any authority at all, must needs modify their statements and habits when new evidence comes to light.
Awe and wonder should sharpen our abilities to process such evidence, rather than insulate us against them. And yet it is possible so to love a snapshot way of expression and of faith, that such enrichments come as a threat.
We see, all of us, ‘though a glass, darkly’ pending enlightenment with a small “e”. The capital E of the rationalist movement in the Age of Enlightenment, whilst lending authority to positive ideals of liberty, progress, toleration and more, also intimidated and entrenched division between different, but inevitably overlapping aspects of the broad richness of human reason, when not limited to its verbal expression.
Alongside the great achievements of the Age of Enlightenment, the place of women, of enslaved people, and those lacking the privilege of the philosophers, let alone of fellow creatures, was not at all fully addressed by that movement, and worst of all, the priority of purely human modes of thought over all else in Creation, laid some terrible foundations that it has taken the threat of environmental catastrophe finally to shake.
The objectification of everything other than ‘Man’ ( sic) forbidding ‘who’ in place of ‘it’, remains a shortcut to violence, exploitation and gross injustice. The frequent biblical insight of the co-occurence of injustice and environmental devastation should be no surprise. Welfare and happiness, though notoriously difficult to quantify, are values nonetheless. Science always requires the humility to acknowledge, that to disregard the immeasurable is an experimental expedient, rather than a final resting-place. And the most disciplined of scientists remains richly human.
Though Christianity can teach, with integrity, that ‘conquest’ is an inferior outcome to reconciliation, nonetheless, conquest, domination, victory and the pursuit of perfection, were powerful spiritual drivers of an age when ‘improvement’ of, for instance, Britain’s native wetlands, took precedence over the understanding on which that improvement was believed to be based.
The Voice of the Earth, which is now ( with irony?) conveyed by the insights of science, together with the voices of marginalised and oppressed humans, was always easy to ignore in these circumstances.
Working ecumenically, I have discovered that traditions and ‘churchmanship’ are far less significant as to whether a congregation is able to embrace care for the Earth than the presence or absence of trust in science. Catholics and protestants, liberals and evangelicals, conservatives and progressives all inhabit the same common home, all cherish the same scriptures, though of course, with diverse traditions of interpretation.
But, truly, a critical trust in the honest observation of the Earth (as opposed to the crypto-spiritual overstepping of this by militant atheist movements) should be native to all wings, at least, of the Church.
In this, the re-emergence of the scientific respectability of regarding, for instance, the Earth, as a ‘living’ entity in her own right, as well of the erosion of the human monopoly on language, complex communication, intelligence, reason, and feeling, have been signs of hope.
Many authoritative leaders, above all Pope Francis, have recycled the authority of spiritual – yes, personal – relationship with the Earth married to scientific observation, in the pursuit of justice.
The more we do learn about the ‘simplicities’ of nature, the more we are challenged by her complexity and the interdependency of all life.
Of course, our species has a decisive role, and having long since ‘filled the Earth’ with our populations, we have also reached the tipping-point frontiers, simply to step back and ‘leave well alone’ is not an option either.
With regard to the continuing destruction of habitats and ecosystems by humanity, there is no fence left on which to sit. We learn instead, from the experience of invariably faith-based liberation movements:
“In the end, “ says Martin Luther King, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
Will the Earth now say likewise?
Desmond Tutu adds
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
This mouse, we have discovered, is neither vermin nor a mere object of pity, but the key to our own survival.
Two, perhaps unscientific, words, also along here: ‘Halleluyah anyway’.
The ( unwitting) Enlightenment intimidation of spiritualities, which often extends to the unspoken demand that the transforming power of hope must demonstrate a clear rational pathway, is most often rebelled against only by those who have already lost everything.
By those who have nothing to lose but their chains. Even out of lament, hope can emerge. Faith has a vital -and arguably objectively positive – role in maintaining ‘hope against hope’. From them we learn. Them we neglect at our peril.
Just as a scientific observer cannot but be part of the experimental environment, a community which, with eyes wide open is not naively optimistic, but rather embraces the spiritual resilience of apparently irrational hope, will encounter different outcomes to one which has only rationally extrapolated despair.
In the meantime, some generations of religious teachers unwittingly(?) took the species absolutism of the Enlightenment to heart. Representing the human responsibility for fellow creatures (including the land/earth) which is such a huge theme of the scriptures, as dominational sovereignty, and where this seemed too authoritarian, to the cosier ‘stewardship’, which, though honourable, demands, spiritually, little less than looking after someone else’s property, rather than a partnership. I have encountered (and in my training read) respected teachers of previous generations of religious scholars who, though acting with discipline and integrity are as oblivious of their anthropocentric bias as would be (the early) Immanuel Kant to ‘Me too’ and ‘Black lives Matter’.
To have to account for your treatment of an entity who ‘looks you in the eyes’ repurposes the laboratory. Science, though pursued passionately by participants in a very particular culture, with rules, doctrines and prejudices, will never be morally or spiritually neutral, though efforts in that direction are often honourable and perhaps essential.
Maybe this is a ‘get used to it’ insight. Like the one that all scripture is necessarily interpreted.
For all of us, ‘by their fruits, you shall know them!’
Please, let us all both learn and contribute. It’s later than we thought. More difficult. More exciting.
- A prayer for COP ( United Nations Conference of the Parties)
Continue reading →
as in November, at great cost and with great urgency
the leaders of our species
and those with concern for their common home
will gather in Glasgow,
we ask for your welcoming, affirming presence
in the many layers of gathering
which are part of that event.
Give to those who make decisions
a freedom from the burdens of a past
which have pushed us to this cliff-edge.
Give a dawning vision of your offer of healing
greater than the blocked horizon of what it might cost
Argue and wrestle with the powers and principalities
of expediency and despair
Open every human ear to the voices of the Earth, and of sisters, brothers, siblings
who already suffer sharply
Save us from the despair of complacency
and the toxic temptation
when the visitors have departed
to embrace ‘business as usual’
for that ‘normal’ has gone
And our only future
will be in wakefulness
as we live out your love for the Earth we are part of
through your Word made Flesh
Jesus, our Friend.
- Friends and troublemakers: recycled hymns for immediate use
This is a resource of hymns using singable and well-known metrical tunes, which can be used, printed, projected, recorded and sung without further ado.
If you do record any of them, please send an MP3 to email@example.com as this may be very useful for work with other congregations. Download the PDF below:Continue reading →