Since this job began for me, it’s been an emotional - and theological - rollercoaster. Which is probably the way it needs to be, given the developing crisis which is the backdrop to anything ‘environmental’.
Preaching Good News, whilst bad news keeps rolling into the inbox, day after day. With some encouragements, such as the increasing insight that almost all the changes advocated to mitigate climate crisis come with substantial economic or wellbeing-related benefits.
The jury’s out on the balance here, but radical change can make for a better life all round. And when you also begin to see things differently, your real experience will be that they are different. Greener. And even.... better.
But how to let go of what you have come to rely on? No room for complacency anywhere at all!
When has the development of vision not been a major calling of the church?
One of the tasks in the job description is to develop some appropriate form of environmental chaplaincy to take over when my term comes to an end. Reflections so far point in the direction of the acute need for something like this role to continue, or indeed, to be expanded, though a formal role would need to find the appreciable funding and denominational backing that makes the current role possible.
Chaplaincy, of course, is widely exercised by people who are neither ordained, nor whose main work is to offer religious leadership. But what might be recognised as key gifts to exercise a catalytic ministry within Scottish churches and society? As something whose presence, though it has no direct power, nonetheless helps changes to take place?
My background in studying both theology and language suggests to me some answers.
Firstly, there is the idea of phonemes.
When you learn a language, your brain is trained in recognising sometimes minute meaningful nuances which distinguish between one meaning, mood, or even just word, and another. I once spent a very intense week trying to teach an unfortunate French Businessman English. By the end of each day, it seemed we were getting somewhere, but by the following morning, his ability to hear the distinctive sounds - even “h” - had evaporated.
An environmental chaplain needs to be able to hear the eco-phonemes of the Signs of the Times: to recognise the mode of language of the Voice of the Earth, and perhaps also of those closest to it, or suffering most immediately from the effects of climate crisis. Especially when these things just don’t register on the radar of everyday church life.
In recent correspondence, a local church leader sounded completely baffled about what ECS could possibly contribute, as, barring a couple of enthusiasts, “we don’t really have anyone [in the congregation] with an interest in ecology” Phonemes needed. And these emerge, as babies learn language, through immersion and repetition. Which is what folk in local churches need to be able to work on. And what EcoCongregation, as a movement, offers.
In the context of moral reflection, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s trenchant criticism of “conscience” is comparable. A number of Christian traditions, my own included, like to be gently respectful of the ‘rights of conscience’. Others may go so far as to suggest that conscience is ‘the voice of God’, setting you right when you go wrong, or at least convicting you, supplying the corrective of shame and guilt when you know you have chosen to harm yourself or others.
The UK has demonstrably suffered an atrophy of human conscience in the movement which contributed to the brexit vote, and the accompanying seeming moral permission to dig in and nurture what previously seemed to be unacceptable attitudes to nation, race, and the neighbour. It’s hardly surprising that among the Brexit Party’s few policy statements, we can discern ( see if you can find any policies here )an antipathy to ‘being told what to do’ by advocates of climate action. This attitude seems also to be rife amongst supporters of some candidates in the Conservative and Unionist Party leadership election.
How can the signs of the times be so glaringly obvious, and yet so easily disregarded? Back to the extreme situation of Bonhoeffer, who was surrounded by very nice well-meaning people whose conscience was nonetheless not triggered (in time) by the evil around them. Even if they were nice people, it’s still evil.
An acceleration of conscience-events and phoneme experiences started happening to me, (actually, alarmingly late), after learning I had been appointed. I began to hear bells ringing, chiming in the everyday mainstream liturgies and prayers of the churches, with the immersive partnership of God with Creation. It’s there in full view. And yet, nice Christian people, our sisters and brothers, our neighbours will still retain their bafflement about what Christianity “has to do with ecology”. Bear with them. They’re your flesh and blood. They are who you are. Even if they make, or infuriatingly refuse to make, obvious decisions.
All the more reason, then, to promote the subversive “world and sacrament” mission of EcoCongregation Scotland, to do, for congregations, what getting this job did for me: a wake-up call, to awareness, to the new edification of Christian conscience. Have the courage to irritate your neighbours until they budge. If a congregation can own the identity of being a registered Eco-Congregation, then fruitful awareness and readiness to change can readily follow. As it is following, alarmingly and embarrassingly late for me. Of course we’re not the only way. But we’re real. And we’ve just begun.
Finally, look at how you tell the story. Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed the teaching possibilities of colour : clergy shirts that reflect the seasons, preaching stoles that bring in themes. like the desirable harmony of creation and human action. When I haven’t found what I’m looking for in the hymnbooks, I’ve written new words to old and very singable tunes. And now and then, I make wee film clips that take ideas further .These have been some of the games I’ve been allowed to play.
“But”, - no, that “but”needs to be bigger needs be bigger:
BUT if that’s not your thing, then Please don’t copy me, because it’s you yourself who are the best resource for environmental ministry. Play the games you’re good at yourself. As the fisher-folk fished for people.
Of course, there are costs: along with the joy of finding beauty, spiritual depth and encouragement in much traditional material, much of the fond and lovely material connecting faith and Creation, presenting it as a ‘gift’ from God or deriving comfort from its eternal resilience, begins to look out of date or irrelevant, just as some things which seemed long out of date, or as with apocalyptic passages, simply too “scary" (as a theological educator recently put it) now find a new meaningfulness.
Thank God for exciting times!