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’, 

Chapter 11:9

“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. 

To conclude.

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.