When I began as EcoChaplain, there was no shortage of advice: …..
’Oh you’ll be able to….’ stuff, some of it envisaging a life of leisure, free of funerals and local church irritations. Whatever else, it has turned out to be highly rewarding, and in a way few of those well-wishers considered.
Simply working with a felt obligation to find the ‘treasure in the field’ of what the Spirit is saying to the churches today has gifted the most creative relationship with the Bible I can remember since I first began to feel drawn back to the church in my early twenties.
Yes, if you want to know what books to read in EcoCongregation Scotland, please, always, include the Bible, (wow!) though how you read it, given your awareness of the urgency and threat of multi-layered environmental crisis may be more crucial than any other resources anyone might point you to.
Just as, with recorded reflections, ‘location is the language’ don’t ever kid yourselves that you approach scripture neutrally, without any agenda or prior concerns. Get used to that. Be happy with it! Don’t resist it, or regard it as a weakness.
The same goes for everything people have discovered, suggested, and rethought about how and when the texts were written down, used, and interpretatively translated. It’s all a gift. Play with it!
Some of this really is unexpected: my first look at the part of the job which involved gathering lectionary resources for Creation Time/Season of Creation, (when most churches are locked into a programme of Bible reading whose compliers had been oblivious of the threats and urgencies of climate ‘change’) suggested it might require some unduly hard pedalling to come up with environmentally relevant insights .
Which, initially , it did, though the discipline of ‘finding the green’ is one you can become more fluent in, without twisting the Bible’s arm. What’s already there is richer than what you might try to cram in.
But none of that is beyond the capabilities of any competent general practitioner in local church preaching and Bible study.
I suspect that what holds many colleagues in local leadership back from plunging in with both feet is a combination of the underappreciated heavy pastoral demands of local leadership, and a fear of overstepping the bounds of what they feel they ought to do. Can you catch a breath in the permissible lull after Easter?
Even ecotheology has developed intimidating and disabling hierarchies. And has not been immune to “we’ve settled that matter!”
There’s also ‘attribution syndome’: the inability to utter an original thought of one’s own (which is very different from not having original thoughts) without desperately tying it down to a greater academic authority. The study of theology accordingly carries much more clout than doing it.
But a note to preachers: have you ever thought that your congregation might actually be more interested in what you yourself have to say, than someone they know, love, and trust less? Especially if you go into it with the mutual, gracious, understanding that, doing your best, you can also learn from getting it wrong.
That said, the leadership of some prominent figures has been vital, perhaps beginning with Pope Francis, but including moderators, bishops and the like who realise they are in a position to stick their necks out. At conferences, festivals, synods, assemblies and more. To dare to challenge the (currently) toxic anthropocentricism (human-centredness) of our inherited approach to the Bible and re-establish historic links to a partnership and relatedness to fellow creatures, with whom, science insists, we have so much in common.
Others, well-meaning, want to be seen to be taking climate crisis seriously, but are hesitant to take advantage of their office to make that leap from the respectably minimal nursery slopes of Genesis (“dominion, made safe as stewardship”) , Revelation, (“leaves of the tree”) and nothing much in between.
If you have their ear, befriend them, encourage them. They are human too!
Still, the greatest leap that any traditional Christian can make -without needing to become anything other than a more committed mainstream traditional Christian – , is to learn to look fellow creatures in the eye; to look and learn from the birds, to recall how Jesus spoke just as firmly to winds, waves and trees as he did to people in need of guidance. To sing with the Psalmist as part of the choir of trees, mountains, waves, lands, birds and other creatures.
Then there’s the intimidating legacy which I probably locate somewhere in the sixties: the ‘demythologisation’ of truths which are necessarily expressed in the sophisticated medium of mythological language. At times it seemed as if, for something to be mentioned in Scripture was taken to be a guarantee that it can’t have happened. Some took this further with a fundamentalism of what you ‘mustn’t believe’ rather than letting poetry be poetry, story be story, in their power and beauty.
The congregation I worked with for a while in the south of England included people who were surprised that holding the view that “all that stuff about Jesus – which heaven forbid you should bother newcomers with – is just made up” did not make for a sustaining or viable church.
Whatever irritates me, personally, though, about all that’s described above, I’ve also recognised that theological ‘stable’ and churchmanship is absolutely not the decider as to whether your faith is expressed in care for the Earth today: it’s whether you can learn, not without critical discernment, to trust the witness of science, whilst still being aware of its provisional nature, its margins for error, its caution, and the cultures of behaviour and thought in which it happens. The expressions of our faith – and how could it be otherwise – are not independent of the time and planet in which they occur.
Thus, I’m not, myself bothered about whether what I do has validity beyond my own time. I can happily acknowledge the integrity – but not the continuing unassailable authority – of those who wrote and prayed in very different circumstances.
So we come to Easter 2021. Last year, as Lockdown began, and many churches, understandably, floundered, I put together what I imagined would be exceptionally time-consuming pieces of work to provide online what local churches were not going to manage face-to-face.
This year, some are taking steps back into their buildings, but many have also got well up to speed with digital media.
This sets me free not to compete, but to offer something alternative and complementary to local church Easter. In the year when lectionaries concentrate on the Gospel of Mark, I’m having a wrestle with the untouchable, marginalised ‘old long ending’ of Mark 16.
It’s a summary of resurrection happenings which my eminent teachers at Oxford University simply told me to leave alone. It has, nonetheless, accompanied the churches through many centuries of faith, and made its way into the Iona Community’s constituting body of prayer, with its great commission to bring good news “to every creature”.
There’s some explosive, or even superficially embarrassing stuff alongside this wonderful phrase, but the last couple of years have taught me not to give up on the Bible.
Indeed, the best response to those who still put hope in God being ‘in charge’, specifically as an excuse for not engaging with change of life and outlook, is to go with them straight back to Scripture. Where God is certainly in charge, but disasters happen when we take no notice of that.
Whatever else, though, all I can offer is ‘what seems good to me and the holy Spirit’. A snapshot of inspiration, which insists on not being definitive.
Even theologically, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’, though that verse too, has become far more meaningful in a world which is not going to be ‘fixed’ but where our partnership with Christ and with fellow Creatures gives us a place and purpose which would not occur outside of crisis.
Mark 16:20 is one of those verses which looks back on our own work, as well as that of our siblings in the Gospel, this first disciples.
“And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”
Good News. Everywhere. Let’s do it. Working with Christ.