Welcome to the Environmental Chaplain’s blog – a new page where Rev’d David Coleman shares his thoughts and reflections.
- Giving back control. From “what” to “who”
I’ve been involved with puppetry for a very long time: way back in the 80s, I was part of a European youth film movement, where my perhaps somewhat scary animated puppet films got me around to festivals in Belgium, Germany and Italy. I managed to get a small commission from the BBC for an item in the ‘Golden Oldies picture show, to accompany the Dubliners’ ‘Seven Drunken Nights’, and you can find bootleg versions still on YouTube, where the comments speculate as to who made it and how. I know it happened by being shut in a room with hot lights and a lot of plasticine for seven weeks.
Like many ministers. I’ve found it useful in what folk think of as the ‘childrens’ address slot, to bring in puppets. Not at all just for the children: they’re excellent icebreakers, and like Rod Hull’s emu, people readily accept the phenomenon of them developing a character of their own. What’s even more intriguing is that the characters a puppet exhibits are not always at all the same as their handlers.
Live action/glove puppets mean you can get a video clip together very much faster than with traditional stop-motion animation, though digital techniques also cut corners in what seems an indecent way, thinking back to when I really did have to make 25 adjustments per second. In my work with congregations, they’re even faster than that.
As environmental chaplain, my stable of puppets (- concentrating on those which are functional enough to admit an adult hand and permit some real characterisation, rather than just waving around -) has been growing. Orang-utans are there, reminding us of their plight as their habitat is eradicated for palm oil. The polar bear and the endangered, but vital bee, whales, British seabirds whose migration is vulnerable to climate. I have sheep who can be both lost and found. I have a panda on order! And the human race is represented too – by Punch and Judy! My ostrich introduces the futility of climate denial. But then I have to apologise for the groundless myth about heads in sand!
Let them run wild in a congregation for a few minutes, and you’re getting across the message about the Communion of Creation; that we share God’s beautiful planet with ‘all flesh’, in the covenant renewed in Christ’s self-giving. And it belongs, with complete appropriateness, with wonder at and love for biodiversity, gently re-defining the narrowness of our vision of the Kingdom of God. Wherever possible, I like people to keep the animals with them for the duration of the service: in sight, in mind.
There’s another, deeper and more subtle lesson, which is evident in the extreme dedication of professional puppeteers: there are skills to learn, and significant physical fitness is involved if you are providing an evening’s live show. It’s a different sort of self-giving from up-front acting.
What moved me most on a short course with a professional puppet company last year was the point at which, whilst supporting and sustaining the puppet, the handler lets go control to what has been until then a few bits of wood and/or fabric. That’s when wonders happen. Using blue-screen in films, the puppeteer is not seen, but they’re still there, giving life.
In a framework of respect and acknowledgement of personality as well as interdependence. Yes, it’s reminiscent even of when we celebrate eucharist/holy communion: we gather and provide and facilitate and enable, but the central celebration of Christianity, I would suggest, in all traditions, involves a surrender of control and determination to life beyond out own life; power beyond our power, in the wonder of relationship.
Communion is impossible without our participation, but equally impossible if we only “take back control”, which attitude is killing the Earth. The crises we’re experiencing give terrifying meaning to the concept of being ‘out of communion’.
Absolutely the greatest spiritual contribution of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, and much other inspirational writing on faith and the environment is the recovery of the imperative of acknowledging the sentience of creatures, the personhood of the earth.
Moving in our dealings with Creation from object to subject. From ‘what’ to ‘who’.
‘Rat Rapure’ – the grown-up fable reflecting on finding your place in crisis.Continue reading →
- In response – following a visit to a historic town
Dunblane has drawn visitors for many reasons over the centuries: the complex story told by the walls and the many components of the cathedral itself is witness to this, though it’s interesting to reflect on how the evolving life of that building, in response to the changing needs of the worshipping community, slowed down with the re-roofing and restoration of the late 1800s.
The sustaining and maintenance of our built and spiritual heritage undoubtedly enriches the lives of our citizens, though the question of “how, and for whom” needs always to be there, acknowledging that ‘preservation’, as ‘keeping things exactly the same’ is a very modern and not particularly sound idea. We cannot approach history of any kind, other than through the lens of our own time, and that is something both to get used to and to celebrate.
There was also a time when the streets of Dunblane would have been full of those seeking health and wellbeing during the hydrotherapy boom. Different modes of ‘pilgrimage’ have enriched your life.
Most of my own earlier visits were due to Scottish Churches House, providing a safe place for Christians of varying traditions to encounter, challenge and befriend each other. That way of meeting has had its day, though it’s good to see the ‘oikumene’ all-in-the-same-boat symbol still on the wall.
It’s a reminder of the value of bringing together our diverse treasures of insight and experience: the spiritual biodiversity which can enrich the lives of all, and together, be a sign of hope in times of stress and worrying outlook. Ecumenism works best when we are drawn together by what we have in common, whilst seeking to value, rather than eradicate our differences. Dialogue risks that we might all come out of the experience looking a bit different ourselves, but if our trust is in God, that may be a gift, rather than a tragedy.
This latest visit was also in the context of a common vehicle of the churches, though broader than any in living memory: Eco-Congregation Scotland is a response, ( involving so far about 12% of Scottish churches,) to the many-layered and disarmingly complex environmental threats which are rapidly overtaking our planet. These alarming changes are not just in conveniently far-away and foreign places, but on our own coastlines, in the impact on the wildlife around us, and indeed, reflected in the low-key ‘mitigation’ plans of local authorities and government agencies, now compelled to be looking to a different approach from mere ‘preservation’ of historic places…such as Dunblane.
But how might churches and other faith communities respond to climate crisis? More meaningfully than might be apparent, – but most basically, by being who they are; by coming into their own as distinctive beacons of blessing in a time of threat. ‘Be alert!’ is a key New Testament message, and a lively awareness of the state of God’s Creation is a starting point for how we might live out our faith and find ourselves in partnership with many others of goodwill.
In common with many other faith traditions, Christian scriptures, and especially the New Testament, came into existence in times of threat and oppression. In quieter and more stable eras, some of the ‘wilder’ poetic spiritual responses, (which are actually beginning to ‘speak’ to people around the world today ) have in our lifetimes tended to be ‘retired’ or set aside, on a mantle shelf, though a ‘quiet life’ might sometimes lack interest. My work as environmental Chaplain, travelling to visit many and varied local congregations , suggests that the environmental crises are once more calling us to find an identity, not as powerful or determinative communities, but as partners with many others in the care of Creation, able to contribute vision and experience from what it means to be church today.Continue reading →
- A peculiar man
‘We need a peculiar man, for the young people’.
So ran the opening of an article in a Congregational Christian magazine of the early twentieth century, defending the right of ministers to be boring ……and reliable. The dilemma of local churches’ frustration with their less-than-imagined appeal to absent generations, goes a long way back.
And it has been the burden of those sharing my calling, to be measured against a cherished magic solution, and frequently found wanting.
For a while, I was probably, on paper the ideal sought-after item: male, married to a woman, with two children, and neither too old nor too young, with good vocal projection. But then the specification might have slipped a bit, as I was vegetarian, I didn’t drive, had a pony-tail, wore sandals, and was rumoured to hang around with peace-loving activists. At least I wore a collar (it opens doors) and preferred to use the pulpit to preach from (as, frankly, you get better eye contact!)
In recent years, where applicable, the profiles churches assemble for their ideal minister have also taken on a still more intrusive slant, and the position on ‘marriage’ of a prospective candidate, one way or another, additionally, and sadly, narrows the field.
Still, the demand is great for someone young, mature, scholarly but not highbrow, prayerful but down-to-earth, who will gather a crowd of compliant young people, and CHANGE NOTHING.
Right now, however, I am actually delighted that more than one church in vacancy has begun to include a further criterion: commitment to environmental concern in prayer and action. Then again, for a local Christian leader publicly to espouse climate denial could do serious spiritual harm to the vulnerability of people becoming aware of the crisis we’re in.
We need to be able to cope with the scary truth of climate emergency on the holy ground of church, and keep the inevitable rude awakenings and penny-droppings to a minimum . (Heaven knows, I’ve had enough of those myself!) . Churches need to be sanctuaries first, before they can be hotbeds of activism, and that will now include the task of gently and compassionately easing heads out of the sand; helping folk see that it isn’t ‘just a matter of opinion’, and it’s not going to go away. Truth – even the frightening truth – sets us free.
Most sorts of church do, however, quite reasonably, look for someone, as pastoral leader, who has studied, and acquired skills in Biblical interpretation and spiritual reflection. Good. These are vital resources for a time of crisis. And they are actually pretty widespread, though colleagues often lack the confidence to stick their necks out in a sermon or elsewhere, when, like Moses and the unburned bush, they notice something worthy of a double-take. That’s where the encouragement of a congregation – and maybe their tolerance for attempts falling flat now and then – comes in.
I am heartened when I see current ministry training prioritising responsiveness to context and circumstances, because whatever else the future holds, I’m sure there is going to be more, and more unprecedented change to deal with.
And these are the parameters of Eco-Chaplaincy that Eco Congregation would dearly like to see spreading. To be normal, and run-of-the-mill , not ‘peculiar’. (But not boring, either!). Because this is what it means to be church in our day.
No minister, pastor, priest or whatever, in a local setting, can do the magic that is looked for without consistent and compassionate collaborative support from the congregation. I hope and pray (and from what I have seen, have confidence ) that eco-congregations in vacancy look to share rather than offload what it means to follow Christ, the Word made Flesh, in an age of uncertainty and threat.
(Hint: part of it does mean having fun along the way!)Continue reading →
- Disproportionate thoughts
(Picture: visiting the Rodin museum in Paris last year)
Feelings are a gift. To feel reminds you that you’re human, or at least, a living being. Feelings, along with faith, are our equipment for the unexpected.
And we can expect more of that.
Even some of the more questionable feelings, like anger and outrage. It was one of the most smugly quoted verses I encountered early in my faith journey: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).
If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice.
I remember Fr Gerard Hughes, author of ‘God of Surprises’ talking about the uses of pain. I was sceptical. Though that was a long time ago. He also spoke inspiringly to that group of Iona Volunteers (that included myself) in 1990 about the crucial value of spirituality in sustaining a life of activism without burning out.
Over the last year, I have opened myself as never before to bad news. It drip-feeds into my consciousness every time I open my computer to check my emails. Perhaps I’m grateful it still seems strange to someone who did their growing up in the sixties and seventies. When crassness and (nuclear) despair about ‘no future’ seemed to be something one could dismiss or rise above.
Those were the circles I moved in, then.
I even, reluctantly accepted the manifest lies about the ‘need’ for nuclear weapons.
I had quite a few ‘conversion’ experiences ahead of me. And by the grace of God, I also found friends to help me through them. Companions. Angels in disguise? Thank God, anyway.
And I became angry, and afraid, I experienced injustice, and sadness. A year of inescapable bitterness, being held up for ministry training. And these things all passed. I married, we had children, my wife became terminally ill, I became exhausted, then a widower. Feelings were big, crushing at times, but not inappropriate. I didn’t wish them away. They had a logic.
But the question of what to do with the feelings about the climate crisis is still a new one. Nothing has (adequately) prepared me. I need a bit more ‘conversion’. I’m still learning.
The Amazon is burning, the Arctic is burning. And yet we’re still here, for now.
Why? what have we still to do. ?
Seriously – and maybe surprising, even if it ought not to be surprising – scripture is significantly sustaining. Matthew chapter 6 helps me each and every day. Worrying less about tomorrow than I might, even though there is plenty to worry about. And it’s likely that will be the case for the rest of my life and those of my children. And accepting that to be the case, we need a sustainable approach to the gift of emotions.
A taller order. ‘Hope beyond hope’, I think someone called it. Retelling a story ancient even in his own time.
For now, I’m comfortable, not in immediate danger. Some of my property was stolen, but I was in a position to replace it. A bit of stress, but Life carried on.
The most irritated I got recently, was when a train which was running in the middle of the night claimed to have no room ,and I knew this was not the case, but an operational fiction. Maybe that’s out of proportion. But emotional proportionality often eludes me.
(I was going to say “ eludes us”, but I can’t presume to speak for you.
The political developments of the last few weeks, involving reprehensibly total indifference to the environmental situation, have been much more problematic.
The crimes of pig-ignorance…..
The stability I knew growing up, including my delight to be part of a European Community, has made almost every development seem outrageous. It’s been suggested that this is calculated: ‘outrage fatigue’ enables unacceptable things to be slipped in or hidden behind other news, or strategically numbs us. Better than crushing us?
To sleep, perchance to dream. Or not.
Somehow I need to preserve and give thanks for the feelings which are there for short-term action, without experiencing them all day every day.
The fight and flight stuff, in reserve, and the keeping going stuff, in balance, denying neither.
Well, maybe that’s what prayer is for. And the idea of “sustain” rather than “save” is creeping more into my own. As well as the acknowledgement of limits. Transformation, rather than resolution of conflict. And the companionship of God, come what may.
This ‘conversion’ malarkey is a lifelong ….thing!
Again and again and again.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).
If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice, as the sun goes down, and there’s still tomorrow.
And joy, and laughter as well.
Just.Continue reading →
- Conversations about trees: part two:
In January I recalled the tragic poetry of Bertolt Brecht “What times do we live in, when a conversation about trees seems like a crime, because it involves silence about so many horrors?”. (See this archived blog entry) . Just a few months later, in one of so many grim reverses jammed into this ever-concertina-ing age, I find even those thoughts tossed up in the air and shaken to bits. January has already become “back then”. Spiritually, we are, or ought to be at a tipping point. ‘Business as usual’ is slipping beyond mere obsolescence into toxicity.
Because as if we needed more perspective, the Amazon and the Arctic, those areas perhaps so like the wilderness in which Christ was prepared for his ministry, – and this precisely because ‘wilderness’ was presented in the New Testament as the place impervious to the shaping influence of “civilised” humanity – these holy places of God’s encounter are ablaze.
Out of the end-of-the-world atmosphere of Nazi Germany, just heading into War on the back of Fascist racist populism, Brecht lamented the tragedy that soft and beautiful things like “a conversation about trees” seemed to provide “the opium/anaesthetic of the people”. Getting them through a dark day without the engagement that was called for. I saw today that even in defiance of the recommendations of a right-wing think-tank, the naked bribe of reduced fuel duty -and thus encouragement to burn more with impunity – may be dangled before voters. You couldn’t make it up!
Never mind religion or opium: try “The petrol of the people!”
Today, if I were to approach the desperation of Brecht, I might suggest that it has finally become a crime to *avoid* conversations about trees: even that to worship God or indeed, to pursue social justice without acknowledgement of the deep spiritual challenge of global momentum to catastrophe, will ring hollow because it ignores the overarching context of our day.
Though, in the meantime, I also do continue to be comforted by the experience of the “bells that can ring” as the creation-connectedness even of regular worship comes to light: the treasures of our faith, hidden in plain sight.
Is it enough to draw attention, rather than waiting on transformation?
The vitriol of Amos 5 is nonetheless lurking in the wings. How dearly we always hoped that referred to someone else, conveniently distant in time and space.
This is a blog, not a sermon. It is an exploration of thoughts. Sermons have to be pastoral. And not only my various audiences, but I myself need God’s help with stomaching the bitter pills cascading down our throats ..of scientific findings and news of real events and damage that won’t be undone.
Am I realising that to describe myself too, in all this, as a ‘sinner’, or in Brecht’s terms ‘a criminal’ is not to be condemned , but to be blessed to claim a starting point for hope? The obsession with tidiness and perfection strangles more than it encourages.
This, then, is truly raising the bar: To do the little I can do, and offer the rest to God.
For now the daily and weekly devotions of Christian communities, like conversations about trees, do comfort and sustain. That must not be diminished. The indefinable goodness that sometimes indwells becomes daily more valuable. It can be more so.
Though I heard of a Christian leader of a local congregation who demanded that worship should be kept free of “all that tree-hugging nonsense “. “Which Bible“, as Desmond Tutu used to say, more or less, “is he reading?”. How I would love to be incredulous at that report.
The ecological conversion of the spirituality and liturgy of the churches, let alone their institutional frameworks, takes time that we do not have. But that need not disable us. No matter: the Spirit prays where we are incompetent, Christ is with us, when our footsteps falter.
So we give thanks for any and every step nonetheless. Every spark of hope.
Even our own small encouragements, actions, and conversations.
Help us not to under-value the small things God can use.
And allow that God’s people will find the reward of joy and even laughter on the way.
For meaning, and relevance of the quest for Good News and the Kindom of God,
is calling our bluff, right here in front of us.
God, help us sing, and give us hope.
Even on days where Christ himself seems the only reason remaining.
And may we always,
when we turn to you,
speak of trees.
AMENContinue reading →
- Passionately caring
I sent this in as a response to the recent article in the Church of Scotland’s magazine on the reasons for the decision of that denomination to continue to invest in those fossil fuel companies that are not convincingly and transparently making plans to comply in the whole of their operations with the targets of the Paris Agreement. The deadline for letters was approaching, so I sent it in, and there’s no guarantee it will be used. Editors have their job to do. The point here is to challenge, but in love. In the debate on what churches are doing with their money on public, there’s no doubt that all involved are trying to act for the best, for the common good. But we are now in a completely different and more unstable world situation even than just a few years ago. This does call for a different approach to mission, and in all organised churches. We need to stand up to the idea that those who look for the end of fossil fuel exploration do not care for those involved in it: just as we know those who protest with integrity for the end of war care desperately for the welfare of soldiers and those caught up in it. The website description of our movement is of those who care passionately for Creation, which of course includes our neighbours, however employed. Tonight I’m at an ecumenical conference, listening to a talk by Lord John McFall, introducing the idea of ‘Good Disagreement’ . Perhaps that might be one of the possible roles for Eco Congregation Scotland. And yes, we are likely to encounter intimidation in this respect: the call to shame that we might suggest such a thing: the insistence that, because of our detachment and ignorance, we should keep silent. But please, friends, do not be seduced into the situation of accepting the role of enemies to those whom we love, and the planet we share.
Letters to magazines are necessarily short and incomplete . But everything I write in this role is public. The blog gives me a chance to add context.
Response to the second article on Disinvestment, September Life & Work
What is the Church – any church – for? Should churches hold to Jesus’ strategic priority of the kingdom of God, or allow over-riding ‘prudent’ considerations to dictate policy? In time of Climate Crisis, these questions become more acute, visible and difficult.
The false alternative of “engagement versus disinvestment” in dealing with corporations, which consciously, cleverly and intentionally evade compliance with Paris targets, gets us nowhere fast, but we have long since run out of time. We can engage -as churches – without playing the part of shareholders, but in wholehearted solidarity with those employed in these industries, as we energetically advocate a “just transition” towards a carbon-neutral economy.
The idea of “forcing” transformations in corporate behaviour” is, one churches should abandon. Christian mission cannot be of coercion, only persuasion. Freed from the aspiration to dictate, our witness gains power and momentum to touch hearts and change minds. Nor can we wait until we ourselves are perfect before we take the relatively easy first steps of reshuffling money. However strange and counter-cultural that might seem, public witness will continue to be compromised when mouths appear to be where money is, or where hearts appear to be where treasure is. To wait, shoots mission in the foot.
Brian Duffin mentions injustice “to those companies” making cosmetic changes towards compliance. What of the manifest climate injustice, long highlighted by Christian Aid and others, of devastation of crops and inundation of homelands? And if you wish to reward those companies that really are changing, switch investment to those primarily engaged in sustainable energy. The location of investments is ultimately a moral, rather than a financial decision. That was the journey that led to a unanimous decision of the United Reformed Church to disinvest, (and switch) with ripples beyond their expected financial clout. It also led to a recognition that conscientious financial and other advisors can be reconciled with those who have seemed to be opposing them. This isn’t about victory or defeat. It’s the hard lesson, for churches, of responsiveness in faith, to the signs of the times.Continue reading →
- All Together Urgent
As a preamble:
It’s been observed that the proportion of single-occupant households in the UK is rising, and with it, inevitably, the per capita environmental impact. At the same time, there are many signs of hope – community gardens, tool and other libraries: sharing of vehicles, sharing of resources which, with goodwill, enriches the lives of a neighbourhood.
Perhaps the most environmentally friendly direction you might choose is to build community; whether as lone or multiple householder, to ween ourselves off the idea that everyone has to possess their own copy of everything, and that life is otherwise diminished or impoverished.
Like almost everything we will recommend in EcoCongregation Scotland, it’s a ‘rewarding sacrifice”. Think about clean air, better health, less stress, when we learn again to walk even those short distances… to the post box… the shops…. to church?
But of course, you know that already, don’t you? Community’s “carbon feet” tread more lightly. When everyone feels the pressure to own everything, the costs to the planet are wont to spiral.
There’s a recurring motif in science-fiction and horror genres: –Stephen King’s ‘It’ and Dr Who are examples that spring to mind – where we see significant and earth-shattering events, which should permanently have changed public consciousness, or at least raised suspicion that all was not as it should be.
And then everything just reverts to the default position.
It’s as if the event, tragedy, wonder, or revelation had never been. Which does make it easier for the next team of writers to pen a subsequent series.
I’m wondering if Scottish churches have been afflicted with something of the same syndrome. And I’m wondering how to get the scales to fall from eyes. Prayer perhaps? (Is a blog a prayer?- answers on a postcard!)
Eighteen years ago, as a minister from Barrhead, I managed to sneak into the “first” Scottish Ecumenical Assembly, held in Edinburgh, with a procession of banners in the streets, and an uplifting and challenging opening service in St Giles’ Cathedral, where, as I recall, the sermon reminded those present of the danger of the default: that way of just resetting everything once the pressure is off, when significant changes have actually been agreed, or seem likely. Sliding back to square one.
A loss of hope, a drought of vision.
The Assembly was an occasion of significant fellowship. Pretty well all available RC bishops were present, as bishops, moderators and superintendents. And low-status hangers-on like me. There were luminaries from politics and religion, and indeed, from quite a wide spectrum of organised churches. No attempt at inclusiveness is ever perfect, but they had a good go.
We looked at a number of themes, many of which are still highly relevant, such as poverty, migration, alienation, work, and the churches’ relationship with science and technology. All of these are now brutally impacted by climate crisis.
That is our context. It won’t go away.
As to the two parallel communion/eucharistic services, at the Assembly, which shared lovely music by James MacMillan, a significant number of us attended ‘the other side’, still bearing the painful burden of respecting the status quo of church regulations which to this day prohibit (though not unevenly or in both directions) the sharing of Christ, by faith, in bread and wine.
I remember, (and I hope I’m not embroidering the memory), that few could have come out of the experience still just wishing that everyone else would “see sense” and “do it their way”.
Uniformity is the totalitarian and imperialist ‘dark side’ of unity.
At my induction as chaplain, I expressed the hope that EcoCongregation involvement might make you all, respectively “a more catholic Catholic,
a more truly evangelical evangelical, a happier presbyterian…” though all these identities depend on what we share in Christ, who talks of a Father’s House-of-Multiple-Occupation (οἰκῐ́ᾱ) and prays, for all to hear and share “that they may be one”.
There’s little in the Gospels so clear and yet so fiercely resisted.
A bit like our defence of private property in all things.
Re-reading the essays published for the Assembly with the perspective of our current crisis, it feels as if ‘environment’ is only dredged up as a means to an end: to prop up rhetorical flourishes, as a scaremongering bogey, to offer romantic words of comfort….. and of course, anything globally scary or apocalyptic in tone is decidedly future-focussed. The safe world for the great great-grandchildren… and other such obsolete hopes.
There is a mention of “companionship” with Creation, quite tellingly in the bit on science and religion.
(We now depend on science as we listen for the Voice of the Earth, the groans, the cries, the warnings….)
Back in 2001, we still had the remnants of nuclear angst. And since the Assembly convened just a few days after “9:11” threats to life and peace were – compared to what we now face – on the relatively pedestrian scale of war and politics, that is, of possibility if chosen, rather than inevitability unless acted upon.
(And if you want to read that last sentence again, go ahead. Relatively pedestrian.)
Although I soon after realised that the “statement” that came out of my own reflection group had been skilfully watered down at the drafting stage by an experienced church bureaucrat, nonetheless, there was a feeling of collaboration, movement and momentum.
But I’m wondering where that all went. Like the “Invasion of the…” – whoever they were- or the outbreak of child disappearances in Stephen King’s town of Derry.
The impetus for the Assembly had been the ‘Great Jubilee’ of the Millennium, encouraged by Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical ‘Ut Unum Sint’, in which proactive dialogue and repentance over disunity were affirmed as essential to Christianity,
And the “Lund Principle” was proclaimed anew, that, “at local, regional, national and international levels, churches must act together except where deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.”
It’s been good to see similar words surface relatively recently at national committee level in various places, but you and I both know that at the grassroots of locally neighbouring churches, (-where fear and misunderstood respect dictates hesitation over seeking permission rather than risk of apology, -) such a a basic and obvious “principle” as Lund might as well be obscure and esoteric.
Ecumenism, where sidelined to toothless committees, has suffered all the more from the battening down of the hatches as denominations struggle with financial pressures. Some of us have jealously guarded what we felt to be our distinct identities, though no church can with integrity prioritise any other identity than that of the Body of Christ. Everything else is derivative, with or without the vows and promises that bind us over ( me included) to uphold our particular rules and regulations.
It’s as if the Ecumenical Assembly had never been at all. And the vastly expensive luxury of division, not unlike the costs of loneliness and divided communities of any kind, presses down towards a time of deserts of Christian Witness.
Here too, the internal combustion engine has played a role. How many folk, who live within walking or cycling distance of a church, nonetheless burn fossil fuels to attend one of their preference? And in how many small settlements does one small portion of a minister share ‘responsibility’ for that town or village with a smaller portion of another?
(See how these Christians love each other!)
Rural and island communities, with a hugely practical attitude to thinly-spread church leadership and the shareability of resources, often offer, if not a model, at least some sort of direction. And I’m not being romantic about this, because I know of the hardship and sacrifice that nonetheless sometimes triumphs in such circumstances.
We also see, where attention to carbon brownie points goes together with the loving expression of Christian witness in the alleviation of poverty and the elimination of waste, in community gardens, sharing of clothing, rescue of bread, fair trade, buying locally, and those other wonderful expressions of love…. we see that when Christians let themselves be seduced into living out their faith with integrity, then care for the Planet is part and parcel.
Is it far-fetched to suggest that the urgency of the environmental crisis should powerfully kick-start our confidence in the Spirit’s gift of the Unity of the Church?
Could the range of an electric bike, rather than of a petrol engine, determine the radius of the ‘Sunday journey’ ( as they put it in Welsh Presbyterianism) of a denominational chameleon of a local church leader?
I sometimes laugh with God at what I get away with. You should try it!
A few years later, I managed to wangle a trip to Brazil, to the World Council of Churches, as part of my first sabbatical. And I sneaked into an ecumenical session entitled “the implications of common Baptism”.
As it happened, this meeting was reviewing a report produced at a high level between churches which had clearly taken its remit as, with the utmost eloquence, to find ways of avoiding the implications of common Baptism, because no one was quite ready to confront the most blindingly obvious of those implications.
I can say that here, because I’m not speaking for anyone else. But read the document, if you don’t believe me, and then be honest about your own conclusion.
Back then, I also heard that old self-congratulatory chestnut “this wouldn’t have happened forty years ago” . That stung. Back then, in my forties, I pointed out that I had been hearing that in churches all my life .
Wasn’t it time to regret, rather than congratulate on the slow progress?
A certain Archbishop commented that I must have been “an awfully precocious child!” I was far too polite in those days (maybe I still am) to ask why we didn’t just yell “Get on with it!” But, as you might say, that wasn’t the end of the world, or even the world as we know it. (That’s what we face now!)
Churches have learned the sleight of hand of being good neighbours by avoiding the most obvious progress towards unity. And so time goes on. Perhaps we need to learn to smile and say “this wouldn’t have happened sixty years ago” .
Things are different now
Not only the Pope’s visionary encyclical letter Laudato Si, but the screamingly urgent bulletins of scary environmental news that drop each day into my inbox confront us now with the implications not only of common Baptism, and Christ’s prayer for our unity (it was in prayer that he shared his fears, by the way, as well as his longings) but, most undeniably all , a common home. A home shared not just with other Christians and people of good -and bad – will, but the multitude of stakeholders in God’s covenant with All Flesh.
Now is the time and place when we cannot evade an urgent call to “get on with” many things we have left lying by the wayside, not least that gentle ecumenical principle of the conference of Lund Sweden, that Churches “should consider, for the sake of the Gospel, being prepared to do together everything that only the deeper differences of conviction prevent.”
In our day, we have become painfully aware of the environmental costs of divided living. The level of waste rises higher, where there’s no one around to enjoy your leftovers. … And of course, churches, when they can swallow their pride and learn to trust each other, can share premises, suppliers, and in many cases youth work or even clergy. If not for every task, then for many. Some years ago, I did hear of a Church of Scotland parish and a Roman Catholic parish sharing preparation for Baptism. But the personalities it depended on moved away. And it fell apart.
A couple of years ago, I reviewed the Pope’s encyclical letter “Laudato Si” for the national magazine of the United Reformed Church. I read it again, more intensely, and with the perspective of my role as Environmental Chaplain with a remit and aspiration to dance with a loving boldness across the borders of Christian division.
I have been, actually, unexpectedly shaken by the level of relevance and overlap. Given that it should be in my interest to find areas of agreement, that should be reassuring:
And yet the level of relevance was such that Pope Francis, or maybe the Holy Spirit, underneath all the layers of diplomatic nicety might have been yelling “get on with it!”. So too are the stones beneath our feet, of which Jesus said that, if the Lord’s disciples keep silent, they would shout aloud.
Get on with acknowledging in meaningful ways the voice of the Earth in the chorus of praise.
Get on with reading the Bible with eyes wide open to the integral call for care: not stopping at page one or chapter one, but being ready to discover in the subsequent twelve hundred or so pages the richness of God’s partnership through Christ with the World God loves so much that God gives Godself in Jesus Christ…
Christianity is ecological.
Christianity is ecumenical
(And this chaplaincy is arguably an expression of the Lund Principle)
God has broken down all the garden fences.
And love is a crime against extinction.
- Summer reading! Summer rambling!
Note: in the Creation Time resource for Week 4 written by our friend Rev Dr Tamás Kodácsy of the Hungarian Eco-Congregation ( Ökogyülekezet )you will find a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminding us powerfully that human relationships can be a “Yes to the Earth”.
There are many ways in which you can use the material we have gathered and presented: for personal devotion, small group work, and to enrich congregational life and worship.
Summer reading….sort of.
In line with my belief that it is in our reading of mainstream Christianity that the most compelling environmental arguments will be found, I’m trying to look at some few things which might have been referred to in theology books and courses, but which I otherwise never got round to inspecting first hand in the whirl of everyday ministry, or the unseemly haste of university study.
A case in point are the “Prison Letters” of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, as a ‘martyr’ pastor of the Confessing Church in Hitler’s Third Reich, is almost always referred to in hushed tones. The translations we have ‘grown up with’ of course, like the Bibles we live with, reflect the times in which they were made.
So, for instance, Bonhoeffer’s scathing attacks on, lukewarm and pliable ‘religion’ (= lacking in integrity, and more concerned with heaven than love for the Earth) which were used in the sixties to support a damaging attack on spirituality altogether in (British) churches, really don’t seem to lend themselves to this use. The (mixed) comfort he found in the resources of traditional devotionalism is also instructive.
Reading in German, I’m finding a picture of a deeply conventional citizen and committed, even patriotic German Christian under impossible, intractable pressure and threat, confronted by his own flaws (not least, a somewhat belligerent nature).
It’s comparable, in that sense, to the wilder apocalyptic literature of the New Testament: what happens to your faith when the pips squeak? What of hope, when each day brings reason to abandon it? Though hope is more meaningful when your faith is characterised by “this-sidedness” [Diesseitigkeit] rather than an anaesthetic longing for the Other Side/World Beyond, which to the great credit of Bonhoeffer, he sees as appropriate, if at all, only to the moment of death.
Like some Christian writers of our day, reflecting on a damaged climate, Bonhoeffer is drawn to a more radical incarnationalism, an appreciation of the underlying reality of the goodness of Creation and the relationships it offers, which are to be savoured and celebrated.
““dass ein Mensch in den Armen seiner Frau sich nach dem Jenseits sehnen soll, das ist, milde gesagt eine Geschmacklosigkeit und jedenfalls nicht Gottes Wille”
[The idea that someone might, in the loving arms of their [partner] be longing instead for the World Beyond, is, to put it mildly, lacking in taste, and in any case, not the ‘Will of God’]
Thus, the value of the letters from prison, remembering too, the letter of Paul from prison (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) is as a window onto faith under desperate pressure. More pressure, admittedly, than pressures under which I labour, though in some ways, well-nigh as ‘global’ in their impact on everyday life.
So given the threats we (and the world) face, which few of us can fully take in, then, in order to act and pray appropriately what can we really learn from such Writings of Crisis?
In one letter to a theological soul-friend, Bonhoeffer raises the squeamishly uncomfortable subject of ‘pudenda’ : the parts of what we are that we tend, for decency’s sake, to cover up. He suggests that fear may have become part of this: we are ashamed of our fears, as if they were in some sense an improper reaction to threat.
As I’ve noted before, fear is a gift: there are times when it’s right to be afraid, even if only because it opens our ears to the angelic message not to be!
We should probably also understand, in perspective, Bonhoeffer’s tendency to be comforted by a hierarchy of suffering, which disrupts many of our own discussions of sensitive issues.
People who are ‘up against it’ may well see everything more sharply, though, first of all, that doesn’t actually make them right. (And I realise I’m stepping outside some over-easy conventional wisdom in saying this.)
The folk reading of the ‘IHS’ on the pulpit drop as “I have suffered” does not necessarily lend authority. Suffering may lead to bitterness, vengefulness and damaged ability to make decisions – as well as insights not previously accessible. But you can understand how Bonhoeffer felt that
“Nur, wenn Man das Leben und die Erde so liebt, dass mit ihr alles verloren und zu ende zu sein scheint, darf man an die Auferstehung der Toten und eine neue Welt glauben”
[“Only if you have come to love both life and the Earth [as you know it] to such an extent, that with their passing, everything seems lost and at an end, are you permitted to believe in the Resurrection of the Dead and a New [Heaven and Earth]]
…but I beg to differ. Christian faith is not restricted to the pioneers of suffering. The hierarchical exclusivity of suffering should be resisted, even as its insights are respected. Because, secondly, even if they are right, the gift of their witness may need the spiritual interpretation (strengthening as well as, more usually, softening) of a community’s contextual interpretation. This was understood in the congregations of the Earliest Church. (cf 1 John: 4).
How, though, do we, like the prosperous status quo of Nineveh, (cf Book of Jonah) act right now on the warnings of the climate prophets and suffering sisters and brothers of our day; how do we act on the prophetic messages of the Earth itself , before they reach disastrous fulfilment?
Green Christian concern is not a minority or marginal calling, nor one to be shuffled off onto the annoying enthusiast in the congregation with an environmental conscience. On the contrary, look with genuine pride on your own fellowship if they find room for such a Green Thorn in the side of church life. And if you’re the thorn yourself, remember you have grown from the stem.
In passing, this is a story I hear very frequently, and not just in churches: the burden of ostracism (whether overt or unspoken) carried by those who insist on talking about climate issues on “inappropriate” occasions (Christmas, family parties etc). I usually congratulate such offenders. We should also congratulate the churches that, even if they don’t move ‘fast enough’, find room for, or even welcome these irritating people.
In the Early Church, ‘awkward bastards’ were known as ‘prophets’. Respected advocates of change for the benefit of others. Though not ruling out their own welfare: we are all of us enmeshed in communities of one sort or another. The possibility, that helping others helps you, is no cause to hesitate. We’re back with the inhibiting force of inappropriate shame here:
Theres’s always a danger that promoting something, that might benefit you personally, undermines what you’re about. This goes back a long way, not least to the document known as the ‘Didache’ or ‘the teaching of the Apostles’,
“no prophet who orders a meal in a spirit shall eat of it: otherwise he is a false prophet.
12 …. whosoever shall say in a spirit `Give me money, or something else,’ you shall not listen to him; but if he tell you to give on behalf of others in want, let none judge him.
The Didache comes from the first century, earlier than some parts of the Bible.
This was a time when the emerging culture of the church, a grudgingly tolerated and sometimes persecuted faith group, liked to welcome visiting ‘prophets’ who came with a touch of spiritual theatre about them, perhaps comparable to the “hwyl” of a Welsh preacher, getting carried away.
Not just the preacher, of course: congregations are allowed to be passionate. When I preached in Jamaica some years ago, it was amazingly affirming to hear ‘amen’s and the odd ‘hallelujah!’ coming from the congregation.
Passionate spiritual enthusiasm, however expressed, (and there are infinite varieties of expression) is a life-saving expression of a church with an awareness ( or a remembered tradition) – or a myth – of threat. From which might follow a questioning of the calm acceptance of the status quo (which is now, de facto, a slippery slope to climate catastrophe).
But passion and enthusiasm too, suffer under the barrier of shame.
How did I arrive at these thoughts?
I attended the Climate Challenge Fund’s Transport Gathering, and, to get there, travelled the narrow canal toe-path cycle route. It’s lovely, though when it gets busy, you’re in some danger of ending up in the canal. I could not but be impressed at how it is taken for granted that passive (conventional motor vehicle) rather than “active transport” (walking, cycling, public transport) has dominated most of our lifetime decisions about infrastructure, and indeed finance. The cycle route is hidden away, shoved in a second-hand space, or acknowledge with an intermittent white line. I recall one in North Wales which was barely the length of a bus.
The “real road” is still the one for cars. It’s a mindset in stone, asphalt steel and space. Anything else is a ‘less worthy member’. Clear, in a language we understand, even if unstated in words.
And it isn’t just infrastructure. Throughout the whole of my ministry, the expenses acknowledgment of cycle mileage has been exactly the same, whilst car claims have risen. Brake-pads, tyres, chains, gears are a cost that cyclists have, on the whole, gladly carried.
What if churches and businesses could offer the same mileage for bikes as for cars (which might actually be realistic, for quality or e-bikes). And yes though , I’d benefit from that myself. (£4 from yesterday’s outing) would that be another aspect of the change of mind we need to embrace, the shame we need to put behind us? The HMRC hasn’t got there yet, so employers can still shift the blame.
There was more carrot-rather-than stick wisdom too at the gathering: from those working with hard-pressed communities whose immediate and over-riding concern is to feed their families: you don’t start your conversation with climate change and carbon footprint, but rather with the tangible benefits of the small changes that EcoCongregation Scotland also encourages: saving money, feeling cosy in your home, and so on.
On a broader scale, remember, if you’re feeling prophetic, the real good-life benefits of cleaner air, exercise, more jobs for a given investment. In the midst of all the bad news, remember the good.
That’s the way God made it.