Environmental Chaplaincy is something which those who drafted my job description wanted me to find ways of spreading, but in order to reach into the ‘hat’ and grab the requisite pair of ears, I need to have some idea as to what sort of [droid or ] ‘rabbit’ it is that we’re looking for.
I’ve reached down the odd burrow as well over the past year. Asked around, pondered.
And reviewing the past year, of all the Christian Seasons, it is probably Advent, into which we are now launched, that has most shaped my spirituality, insights and theology in this role. At least, now we know we’re well into an age of Emergency, the Season of Environmental Chaplaincy par excellence, is Advent. Advent, though, has long been the poor relation of Christian seasons, an embarrassment to the outside world, reduced to a ‘Countdown to Christmas’ rather than a time of reflection, longing and urgency in its own right. There is, therefore, plenty of scope: plenty of space to work into, without seeming to threaten festivals like Christmas.
What has long been apparent, is that environmental pastoral and liturgical input at a local church level needs to arise out of the ‘general practice’ of the life of the churches. Whatever shape I might find for this project will not emerge by becoming remote from the day-to-day life of churches.
There is also no way round the imperative of getting the key issues into Sunday worship and teaching. Fringe meetings have great value, but without developments in prayer, liturgy, preaching, hymnody and the rest, it will still be too easy to marginalise the evolution of transformative ‘green’ attitudes, together with the evangelistic mission bonus it represents to young folk and many others to whom ‘church’ and ‘irrelevant’ go together like….. well.
Thus, although on occasion, and by invitation, I do pick and choose Scriptures for worship, I work, as far as possible from the ‘run of the mill’ that is, with what would anyway have been part of the worship life of the local church. Often, this means the Revised Common Lectionary (and its very close cousin used by the Roman Catholic Church).
A reservation, and sometimes a problem, is that at the time when these programmes were devised, the climate emergency, which is our defining context, was not even on the radar. Nor did any of the committees or companies of translators of any of the most popular versions of the Bible see any cause either to highlight the earthed outlook of so much of the writing, nor even to fill in the gaps, as paraphrases (like the Good News) like to. Sometimes quite the contrary. As if the ‘world’ meant the human race, and so on. But if it were all ideal, it wouldn’t be realistic.
As regards the shape of chaplaincy, one possible dimension began to emerge last year in Advent, and this happened simply because I was not avoiding what goes with this season. I became aware in a different way of how the traditions of that poorly observed Christian Season focussed on ‘apocalyptic’ themes, including the ‘Second Coming’, on which neither I myself nor most preachers I have heard have ever had much of value to say, other than perhaps recognising a vague longing for justice.
Not that that is a bad thing.
Global injustice and the climate emergency are so close as to be identical: the imbalance of causal responsibility and the experience of hardship and catastrophe is extreme. Even if that is all we grasp, it is worth going with the flow of the season.
Just to pick up this point before adding more. I heard of a story told at a party, (it would complicate to attribute) recently of a western church worker being welcomed in the midst of poverty, asking what it was that the church could offer such downtrodden people. The answer they received was”hope” , with the proviso that we “should not confuse hope with optimism”. Our global situation, where even the biggest, richest, and most powerful churches lack the scope to offer ‘solutions’, now evens out the pretension of those with an imperial legacy.
Hope gets communities through crisis, even in the face of apparent impotence and insignificance. And the message of Advent and then Christmas, is of realistic hope, through the solidarity of God with Creation.
Being sign of hope, a ‘Light in the Darkness’ is indeed a key gift, identity and task of all the churches, including our own. It’s also what we’re qualified for, across the board. ‘You are the Light of the World’… said the Light of the World.
The wilder bits of the Bible actually locate us there. God knows. Especially these ‘Advent readings’. Which offer, when you go back and look at them, spiritual guidance for times of crisis, such as those in which they emerged. Even if we’re still not sure how to ‘drive’ them. There’s a harsh realism in the idea of “one will be taken, one left” : pause for thought on the indiscriminate nature of crisis and disaster.
A closeness of catastrophe and redemption is certainly noticeable in the New Testament. The ‘Kingdom’ ‘draws near’, as does redemption (cf Luke 21:28). The Day of Judgement, or of Doom, as our friend Alastair McIntosh put it in his visionary speech at the Edinburgh Climate Fair in the Summer, are decisive times; likewise the coming of the ‘Lord’ ( Matthew 24)
The ‘coming of the Lord’…… whom some have identified, more or less as ‘the Destroyer’, which fits perhaps better with other faiths than Christianity. The Second Coming ends up as a fantasy of holocaust. “It’s OK to press the button”, religious advisors told presidents, “because it will be the will of God anyway”. (!!!!!) No wonder sensible theologians leave it well alone. But in so doing they leave the stage clear for heavy rock musicians and nutcases.
As things stand, and without very radical change of direction for our species as a whole, we are on course for some terrible outcomes. This is no longer alarmism, but the most respectable science. As reports of possible global ‘tipping point’ thresholds emerge, following on from all the terrifying wildfires of this last year, and plenty more besides, from the very humble position of Environmental Chaplain, I can’t but hazard a few fresh views, and in particular one positive slant.
Which, given our trajectory, is to look to the mythology of Second Coming as a reassurance of God-with-us: that ‘Emmanuel’ business the carols will be going on about.
The solidarity of God that we need, not to dictate a solution, but to face with hope and courage what does lie ahead. And respond in some ways more wonderful and creative than paralysis and despair.