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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.

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.

Growing food at Springburn Parish Church

Just some of the jams and jellies which have been made from the fruit produced at the church.

In 2016 Springburn Parish Church were awarded a grant from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, Keep Scotland Beautiful.
With the funds 12 raised beds, 2.4m long and 1.2m wide were made from railway sleepers and a patio was also constructed. Glasgow District Council donated five tons of compost to fill the beds.
The raised beds were mostly placed on the patio, with the remainder situated round one side of the church. In addition, apple and plum trees were planted on the grassy slope which leads down from the church.   Blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry bushes were planted too.
Last year blackcurrant jam and apple jelly was made to sell at the Trefoil Guild’s annual coffee morning.
This year 10lbs of apples, 4lbs of plums and 9lbs of gooseberries were picked from the growing area.
It has been a successful project involving people from the church and open to other groups beyond the church if they would like to take part.

Bee Hotels and Wild Flower Banks at Fullarton Connexions, Irvine

Bee Hotels set in the wild flower banks forming part of a 50 mile long pollinator corridor on the Ayrshire coast.

Fullarton Connexions is the latest development of Fullarton Parish Church (Church of Scotland), originally built in 1838 as a Chapel of Ease to serve the growing harbourside population in Irvine. The buildings have been extensively renovated and remodelled to serve both the church and the wider community. Such has been the success of the project that the church decided to buy a triangular patch of woodland to the north of the site for a possible future phase of development, but in the meantime for use as a car-park extension. 

A member of the church volunteers with the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), who are the lead agency for the Irvine to Girvan Nectar Network, working with landowners to try to create a pollinator-friendly corridor for 50 miles down the Ayrshire coast. The church and SWT agreed to work together on a habitat creation project. The land had been partially cleared and surfaced for the car park, leaving 3 banks of earth around the plot, which rapidly became colonised with nettles, brambles and sticky-willy. The earth banks looked ideal for development to include bee hotels to provide suitable habitat for solitary bees and other insects, habitat which is in short supply around our towns.

SWT volunteers cleared some of the more aggressive plants from the banking and constructed two bee/bug hotel structures, which were subsequently filled by children from the church. The materials used came from local SWT reserves and from the site. An inventory was taken of the flowering plants growing in the area, including some sown earlier. More wildflower seeds were collected from around the parish and sown on the banks and surrounding area, again by the children.

Volunteers identified the plants already present in the area- in this case meadow cranesbill.

The project draws favourable comments and interest from church members and visitors alike. The remaining woodland has been used as an outdoor classroom and is regarded as an asset to the congregation and a contribution to the Nectar Network. We hope it will raise awareness of the need for wild habitat and provoke thought about our place in creation and our obligations to be responsible stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

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!)

Good Money Week 2019

Statement from Selkirk Parish Church for Good Money Week 2019

Eco-Congregation Scotland supported the Good Money Week event organised by the Church of Scotland on Saturday 5th October 2019 and provided this statement as a divestment example for local churches to consider.

Selkirk Parish Church is a typical small town parish church, with around 400 members, and 60-70 regular attenders at Sunday services.  For a number of years, members of the congregation have become increasingly concerned about the damage being done to the environment and, in particular, the growing threat of runaway climate change.

The congregation registered as an eco-congregation back in 2013, and achieved its first eco-award in 2015.  Care for creation has become an integral part of the congregation’s life, impacting its spiritual life through worship and study groups, and showing itself in practical actions to reduce environmental impact, at both individual and congregational level.

In early 2018, a congregational 1/2 day conference was arranged by the eco-group, with most office bearers and many of the congregation in attendance.  The title of the conference was “Caring for Creation – asking the difficult questions”, and through presentations and interactive group activities, many issues were addressed.  These included considering the environmental impact of our financial decisions (what we buy, where we bank, and our investments). 

One outcome of this discussion was to consider whether the congregation’s investments were compatible with our environmental policy.  We ascertained that we had around £14K invested in the Church of Scotland’s Growth Fund, and became aware that this fund held investments on our behalf in three major oil and gas companies, Shell, BP and Total.  This was discussed by the Congregational Board and the Kirk Session, who resolved to withdraw the invested funds.

The following letter was sent to the Church of Scotland’s Investors Trust on 21st June 2018:

Dear Sirs,

In the light of our concerns about climate change driven by the continued burning of fossil fuels, most recently highlighted by Pope Francis in his meeting with oil executives, and the failure of the Church of Scotland’s policy of engagement to bring about significant change in the policies and practices of Shell, BP and Total over the last 2 years, Selkirk Parish Church has decided to withdraw its funds invested in the Church of Scotland Growth Fund.

As an eco-congregation, we do not believe it is ethically acceptable to invest in, and gain profit from, companies whose main aim is to continue to explore for, and to extract, fossil fuels.  For example, BP states on its website that its strategy is to “invest in more gas and oil, producing both with increasing efficiency”. In fact, we believe that these investments are contrary to the Investors Trust’s current policy not to invest in companies whose “activities … are felt to harm society more than they benefit it”.  The activities of Shell, BP and Total (and other similar companies) are driving the whole world towards dangerous and potentially uncontrollable climate change, already causing harm to people across many parts of the planet.

We disagree with the Church of Scotland’s policy to continue to “engage” with these companies as being impractical and ineffective.  Many large institutions, including cities, universities, some pension funds, the British Medical Association, the Church of Ireland and the United Reformed Church in Scotland have already agreed to fully divest from all fossil fuel exploration and extraction.  We believe that the Church of Scotland should be leading the way for others, and should fully divest now from all companies involved in fossil fuel exploration and extraction; this would give a stronger signal to these companies than any engagement is ever likely to do.

Within Selkirk Parish Church, we are committed to caring for God’s creation.  We can no longer wait for the Church or Scotland to act in this matter, so we are taking our own small steps to make ourselves “fossil free”.  Withdrawing our funds is one step in this journey that we are able to make now, and therefore we are doing so.  We hope that other congregations may follow our example.

The funds withdrawn may be either reinvested in an ethical fund or used to part-fund a children and families worker; we consider this to be a much better way to invest for growth in God’s Kingdom.

This was a small, but significant practical action that we could readily take. Other congregations may lack the confidence to take this step, and so it is important that we continue to campaign for total disinvestment by the Church of Scotland from all fossil fuel companies, and reinvestment into other areas that are compatible with the church’s care for creation.

Selkirk Parish Church still has other investments held by the Church of Scotland in its “consolidated fabric fund”, but we have no information about whether this fund includes fossil fuel investments. As we are not able to withdraw these funds, we hope that the 2020 General Assembly will resolve to divest completely from fossil fuels across all its investments.

David Bethune

Elder, Selkirk Parish Church