Going up? Looking down!


The  environmental chaplaincy is in crisis mode.  

And that’s OK

Maybe that’s  actually the most realistic place to be for the foreseeable future. 

Never a normal again.

I remember with enduring and sustaining gratitude and delight, that it’s two years since I heard that Would be able to take up this wonderful and impossible post. 

The ways of working over past years  ( travelling, face-to-face encounter) have been put beyond use, though these may remain in our residual repertoire for now.

But, for now:….

Some roles are unavoidably “furloughed”, such as interaction with those in training institutions, though I have reason to believe that, like the blossoming of Network meetings online through the perseverance of our programme co-ordinator,  this might actually become more possible due to current circumstances. Likewise, or so it might first appear, the obligation to lay foundations for environmental chaplaincy beyond the time of the current iteration ( though read on…)

For the time being,  following discernment, rather than anything in my terms of service/job description, I am a full-time digitally visiting preacher, putting into video ‘sermons’ a level or energy comparable to that involved in planing and carrying out a visit to a local congregation. 

Also emerging more strongly at this point, is to  continue to pioneer a green approach to the waypoints of the Christian calendar.  Like Ascension.

The project of ‘Creation Time/Season of Creation’  ( and coming up, ‘Climate Sunday’) is an additive, rather than transformative step in this direction, though these remain  as vulnerable as ‘green issues’ generally are to being sidelined as icing on the cake.  How many congregations  will want to know about ‘Climate Sunday’ if churches are still subject to lockdown measures by September? 

To break into the most memorable and constitutive festivals which, (for good or ill,)  help people to grasp and define for themselves what the church is when the church is being the church, has been one of the most difficult nuts to crack. Even making plain the missional implications of Christmas as the  story of a refugee family can be rather uphill.

We’re happy to have a special eco-service now and then, and might even enrich it by inviting neighbours,  though Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity are still, for most of  British Christians, ‘too holy to be green’.  And, for pastoral reasons, we can often add Mothering Sunday and Harvest  to this list.  EcCongregation Scotland is an agency of Mission and evangelism to the churches.

Lockdown circumstances are pushing me into more worthwhile reflection, precisely on things to which I would not likely be invited to be part of by local churches. For instance, that the extremely odd and often unhelpfully picturesque festival of Ascension is indeed Ascension into Creation, rather than out of reality. In this I am building on some liturgical models from the Iona Community.

 In the ‘old days’ , someone in my position would head off on a sabbatical and come up with a manuscript for a book, “Greening the Christian Year”  – or some other such predictable title….. which would be published, reviewed, swiftly remaindered, then pulped.

Should such a thing happen, at least digital publishing saves the environmental impact of those  final stage. 

But where the green dimension of completely mainstream and identity-defining customs and celebrations is brought out , that’s where the answer lies to continuing ‘environmental chaplaincy’, and precisely because  everyday churches and leaders will make it happen. 

The question of how  to reach this stage still requires further reflection and inspiration.

But please do not underestimate this potential for lasting transformation of church life by targeting what people think of as the under-rated and empowering foundations of that life.  Right now, under very real pressure from the Pandemic (which we really do have to see as the ‘foothills’ of the greater layers of crisis,)  the old solutions of trusting money  and giving greatest  power to those who administer it might look to be  reasserting themselves. 

One wonders how deep the awareness in our institutions of the magnitude of environmental emergency ever penetrated at all?

What is needed is dialogue and partnership, rather than a power game. Or a blame game. As noted, the pressures are  horizon-blockingly real. We need to pray for and constructively support those who are trying to respond to them.  No one would want these things on their plate!

As part of the preparation for the online retreat I was asked to lead during  Laudato Si week, I looked in greater detail, than ever I had  before, at the ‘commandments’ of Jesus. I combed the four Gospels on the lookout for direct commands, instructions and interventions.  The occasion was a reflection on John 14, where, rather than insisting disciples ‘obey’ commandments, Jesus asks that they ‘keep’ (treasure) the commandments that they ‘have’. In the version of the Bible I was using, ‘obey’ occurs in John’s Gospel  when it is used not by Jesus, but by his complacent opponents:

“We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” (John 9:31)

Our hope as Christians, of course, is precisely that God does listen to sinners, and loves and guides those who realise they have acted against God’s will.  And  of the friends of Jesus, more is expected than the mere obedience of slaves. (cf also Luke 17:10)

And that instructional teaching from Jesus is the starting point for the concrete and grounded decisions, of varying scale and moment, which lie before us together and alone.

Still, you can’t legislate on the basis of one translated word. And every theological assertion will have holes. This is something we have to live with, and not be disabled by. The most destructive and unhelpful theology is one which intimidates by trying to sew everything up, or to annihilate opponents. That also throws away the great advantage of theological reflection: that, with honesty, we responsibly  make leaps of reasoning before the pathway to our landing-point may fully have emerged. The colours of the rainbow coexist, even when we insist we only see white light.  How to find our place and purpose in the created World, without continuing our ancestral capitulation to the injustice and idolatry of the systems of the human “world”?

(For the record: a huge proportion of  Jesus’ ‘commands’ are for the equipping/formation/shaping of disciples. Healings are accomplished by direct intervention against natural forces, but generally only with the consent  or at the request of humans who look to be healed.  Rather more of Jesus; teaching ( especially in Luke)  is of the order of “this is the situation: you decide, though take the consequences”.  Jesus commandingly  evicts, rather than destroys, natural forces/demons who are in the wrong place. And I wondered if his robust conversation with the wind and the waves, to the benefit of terrified disciples, might be helpful in giving us confidence in managerial interventions to ‘tend and keep’ the environment, whilst mitigated by the comforting nuance of “peace, be still” ( Mark 4:39)).

Reflecting on differences of church tradition also throws up  the sense in which imperatives emerge through discernment. Reformed churches are reticent about acknowledging as ‘sacrament’ anything not directly ‘ordered’ by Jesus in scripture, though others are more than content to allow discernment to command, albeit with very heavy safeguards.

Circumstance, like Jesus, both prunes us  and enables. What is the fruit we look to bear?

Nonetheless, the question I’m left with is this: what does Christ command us today, equipping us as friends, and how, having discerned this, will we allow our lives to be transformed?

As the ‘men in white’ of Ascension bluntly advised the Galileans on the hill  [paraphrase]  

“Stop looking up into the sky, and get on with it!”