Temptations: The pastoral/prophetic dilemma




This blog entry arises out of participation in  a Bible study on Luke 4:1-13 with URC minsters from Cumbria in the North of England. At the end of the Bible study, in the ‘Swedish’ method, participants are encouraged to make a feasible commitment.


Writing this is mine. It reflects a struggle.




Our AGM/Gathering on 30th March has the theme: Transformation.  It could not be more timely or appropriate. 


The most resistant entities to transformation of any kind are  our conviction, conscience and consciousness. 


‘Fix’ these, and  change follows rapidly.  


And right from the start, this is the business of the Church. ‘Behaviour change’ was not invented by governments trying to raise consciousness of carbon footprints. 


 (Remember, in your Bible at home ‘repent’ means ‘change of mind’, and it follows from/goes with the proclamation of Good News. )


Given the alarming progress of climate disruption, we might sometimes feel we are struggling to offer with honesty anything more than “slightly less worse” news, but nonetheless...


Matters of conscience and integrity are amongst the most fraught and  potentially divisive in spiritual conversation. 


This holds good in particular, for those in leadership and those ‘on the ground’ who share the brunt of any immediate consequences. 


The pressure is intense on local churches and pastors - and for that matter, elected political  representatives of one sort or another - to stand with the immediate needs for shelter and career.  


Our conversations with MSPs in particular have shown that ignorance of climate issues is unusual. The confidence  and power to act adequately on them may be a different matter.


The tension between pastoral (in intimate and local solidarity) and prophetic (in global and long-term solidarity) might therefore seem irreconcilable. I can’t offer a solution, but pretending this shared problem  isn’t there will be adding to the burden of denial that we’re already struggling with.


How, as a local church, can you minister to/with people in a place of low or no employment, offered the possibility of, for instance, jobs in a brand new coal mine or nuclear power station, if you also agree -and campaign- in public that coal should be  ‘left in the ground’?



This, because of the urgent (though superficially less immediate) threat to every livelihood on the planet including, in a shorter timescale than we might imagine, those very local jobs as well. And not just jobs, but the whole living environment. 


There's a wilderness of sorts here.


You can prayerfully offer up your own contradictions, but not everyone will be able to be both prophetic and pastoral at the same time. Then again, different parts of the body have differing functions. You may be on different sides, but not antagonists.


Divided, but not polarised.


Conveniently absent and enjoying their immunity from any such confrontation will be the political  and commercial decision-makers whose policies have led to this sort of artificial either-or blackmail  in which no alternative is offered other than environmentally unacceptable occupations, and no transformation of conditions and livelihood is envisaged.


A comparison with scapegoating of migrants and minorities when, through none of their doing,  the health service is starved of funding, would be apposite.



Off the hook entirely  are those in industry and politics who have long known full of well the danger to all life on the planet, but are content to pretend business can still be “as usual”. 



The idea of a ‘Just Transition’  from  where we are now to where we need to be, (in which  the welfare of those in industries which, in view of crisis,  cannot continue, becomes  a priority,) needs to be mainstream in the proclamation of churches and other humanitarian groups.



That said, campaigns for environmental causes, we can expect,  will have costs to someone, (“I’ll support you except if my job is on the line”) though we may also need to be much clearer and more honest both about their limits,  and their unexpected benefits. 


Do you love, and how do you show love, to those who lose jobs in the event of the changes you advocate? 


Jesus offered examples on disagreement with your family  (- whom, presumably, at the outset, you love and feel loyal to -) for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  


Some of these were very strongly and rhetorically  worded. The outrage we might feel at Luke 14:26 is part of our discipleship. It sets any wishy-washiness in perspective.




No solutions, but comments offered in the hope they may be helpful:


Firstly: a church is a body, a community. No one should be abandoned to carry the prophetic burden in a pastoral situation.  Perhaps shaping  this  supportive and transformative  community is one of the key roles of networks in a movement like Eco Congregation Scotland.


Secondly, though churches almost  universally proclaim their respect for the rights of conscience, the witness of writers like Bonhoeffer : that conscience may itself be in need of transformation, is salutary.  Conscience needs to be well-informed, as well as aspiring to be receptive to the guidance of the Spirit through prayer.  


You do have the right to your opinion. Do you also have the right to hold unchallenged, an opinion which will lead to harm for others?


Thirdly: solidarity goes with humilty. A principled and  conscientious stand deserves respect,  though raising questions on a conscience (which defends climate destruction)  may still be the loving thing to do. 


Complacency and smugness, wherever they arise, play into the Devil’s hand.


God help us, even in the wilderness, to love our neighbours, and our fellow creatures, as ourselves.