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.