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Up to the top of the hill, and not so far down again

A personal report on a study-leave attendance at a far-reaching, global, ecumenical conference. With Video Blog & Paper on ‘Season of Creation’.

As a URC minister I’m obliged to seek study leave opportunities, with moderate funding available to make this possible. Towards the end of last year, I received an invitation which looked very suitable: Seminar: The Feast of Creation and the Mystery of Creation: Ecumenism, Theology, Liturgy, and Signs of the Times in Dialogue. 

The travel involved also meant that I could better fulfil the chaplaincy remit to be in touch with the various training institutions serving the churches within Scotland, by visiting, if they were willing, the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, just after the seminar.

The –unregulated and personal – report is presented, for convenience, as a downloadable PDF

Click here to download the report

After an un-green Easter…..

Confessions of an EcoChaplain

Thirty  and forty years ago, the fashionable whipping-boy  still was St Augustine, for the ‘Deadly Disconnect’ between humanity and the rest of Creation. A Disconnect which those of us inclined to see ourselves as definitive of humanity still regarded as ‘universal’. 

 I was myself caught up in this, even as I moved  in my mid twenties from seeing Christianity as a ‘benign museum movement’ to something in which there was real truth and life. And very early in my journey of faith, I stumbled through Augustine’s confessions (Penguin classics paperback), not quite finding there either the harm or healing others suggested should be staring me in the face. What a surprise!  Perhaps I would have to trust the verdict of others after all!. A love for Creation did get me into trouble in my studies at Oxford, but somehow I got through the sausage machine. Somehow I looked safe enough, as perhaps by then, after four years of ‘formation’  I  actually was,  to  begin a couple of decades  of pastoral ministry in postindustrial small towns, with an interlude of three years in a brutally  secularist seaside city. I was sustained throughout  in many indefinable ways by the very special family of the Iona Community,  preserving in their key prayers the Great Commission of the Risen Christ that had been censored by historical criticism and the committees who gave their all to the Lectionary: to “bring Good News to every creature”.

The practicalities of getting started in ministry can be crushing. But I retained a quiet fondness for the disreputable liberation of those who offered that  ‘new, old’, way of care for Creation, purporting, as reformers always do,  to be more authentic than the tried and tested. And my ‘finals’ dissertation on the “Spirituality of St Columba” had yielded the treasured insight of the ‘Communion of Creation’ enfolding the Communion of Saints.  I carried that with me. And in the years that followed I still smiled from time  to time at the good, naïve intent of those who still took the name of Augustine in vain. How can I not love those who mean well?

A key part of this obsession was still, I think,  underlyingly, and despite lip-service,  a disregard of the spirituality of those in other cultures, who have at least  an equal claim to be Christians, but whose outlook was not so constrained by global north assumptions.  Or  by the insidious influence of colonialism and Empire. Our part looked like the whole. Thank God, though, it’s just a part. Thank God!

The Creation-Spirituality rhetoric against Christianity  as a whole  was therefore  often rather negative as a result: a shooting ourselves in the foot, rather than a repurposing of what we had, what we have, and have yet fully to value. These are Christianity’s roots as a valid spiritual response to threat and injustice, masked and misrepresented by its wanton abuse as a tool of oppression,  as if the poor and downtrodden should  be robbed of the means of spiritual resilience as well as of all else.  As if the dogs really are forbidden the scraps. That totalitarian refusal to recycle. As if vision were single-use. Or else!

So stories were perhaps set on one side in uncomprehending faithfulness, and the bizarre mysteries that incumbent preachers habitually fled, leaving the pulpit free for the dutiful stumbling of  visiting students, were pickled in dutiful obscurity. Transfiguration, Ascension, Trinity and more. Creation, Incarnation, Redemption. Transformative Mysteries too easily and despairingly discarded. All of which, taken seriously, should lead us more surely to care for Creation as an imperative of faith. None of which should prompt us, in their celebration, to put away and set aside  green things until all the proper holy stuff is out of the way once more. But how green was your Easter just passed? 

Even in the  objectively very different planet some of us inhabited in the late twentieth century, the manifest  results of the Disconnect , there for all to see,  were injustice, pollution, warfare, and many such evils. The existential threat of nuclear obliteration offered itself readily as  radioactive fuel for anxiety, and yet, I have to say,  yet again,  we lived on a different planet. One in which oblivion was a possible choice by the irresponsible powerful, but for all that, not yet a slippery slope of inevitability. In that sense, the world could be ‘saved’.  Problems could be fixed, rather than only transformed as the best outlook available. Everything still could be all right.

The practicality  for the spiritual blame-game of Creation Spirituality,  for which I was an onlooker, in the 80s and 90s was that far fewer folks would ever read  or ponder on a word of Augustine, than would piggy-back the iconoclasm of those who pinned the blame. Or even get high on it. The hat seemed to fit, and to some extent, perhaps it did.  Augustine has of course been very influential in the history of the more elitist aspects of our faith, but not nearly as much as late twentieth century Creation Spirituality  would like to be the case. Grassroots Christians are probably limited to one or two decontextualised but  inspiring  and comforting quotes culled from the enormity of Augustine’s writings. Their souls are “restless until they find their rest in God”, and maybe, sometimes, they do.

The way things have turned out as we conclude the first quarter of the twenty-first century, a far more powerful influence has begun to assume that mantle of universal bogey, namely the rather complex movement of the [European] Enlightenment. And  pig-ignorant caricature once more carries with it an infuriating quantum of truth.  

As with Augustine, diagnosing a malign influence will to some extent involve leaving aside the optimistic and compassionate concern of so many and diverse Enlightenment thinkers  with ‘improvement’ and, indeed, with what they saw as justice – even their legacy of human rights and more. The problem is not the blessings, and yet the ‘curse’ of the Enlightentment, its possibly unprecedented concern with human supremacy, which does very real harm from day to day, is intimately  tied up with whatever ‘progress’ we have made in knowledge and technology, if not with the wisdom to know what to do with it all. 

The Disconnect in our day, is reinforced by  the most perverse conception of maturity. And of the ‘childish things’ that should be ‘put away’.  Reinforced by shame and contempt for the very  relationships, emotions, and poetic faculties that help humanity find meaning. It does not insult or damagingly romanticise the languages, traditions, feelings and other faculties of fellow creatures to recognise these as meaningful  parallels rather than ‘mere metaphor’.  To recognise, as did those who adorned Rosslyn Chapel with Green Men, Women & Children, the knowable personalities of Creation, rather than worrying about who should be accorded ‘personhood’.

We approach God not only through, but overwhelmingly with all who have breath, all flesh, all life. They are not mere means to an end, and if Creation is a Book of God’s Works,  then we too are the handwriting on their pages. With a special place and purpose. With the chance to choose to be more blessing than curse. Redemption, for now, and for the foreseeable future, cannot mean ‘everything’s going to be all right’.  But the solidarity of Emmanuel, God With Us,  Sustainer, will have to be enough for now. Content with that, I’m not about to ask for more. 

Earth Hour – 23rd March 2024

Invitation from St Ninian’s church

Good Food Nation Consultation

Link to Easy Read Version
Link to Full Consultation

Host a Kitchen Table Talk

To widen participation, the Scottish Food Coalition are encouraging people who care about our food system to host a Kitchen Table Talk. These informal gatherings can be organised by anyone, any time, anywhere, and there are handy resources available to support hosts. This could be done as part of your Eco-Group, Homegroup, Youth Group, Guild etc. Find out more here: https://www.foodcoalition.scot/kitchen-table-talks.html