The accommodation provided for the chaplain includes a garden, which contains an apple tree. Some apple crumble has resulted, as well as chutney and jelly, made by a close friend. But this year saw a bumper crop, and we didn’t manage to (or were too lazy to) pick up all the apples. Now I could always blame this on the deceptively wise and ecological guidance in Leviticus , but the fact is, it has been a huge source of delight for my family, to look on, as a variety of wild birds piled in and devoured the windfalls.
So often, the things we disregard, neglect, or avoid, turn out to be of great value. Anyone re-reading the Bible with a ‘green’ awareness is going to discover something similar. But not just the Bible.
Long before the possibility of being the second Eco-Chaplain was even on the horizon, it fell to me to review, for the United Reformed Church’s magazine ‘Reform’ the 2015 papal encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ (‘Praise be to you...’) ‘On the environment and human ecology”.
The review was one of those jobs you take on, and then think ‘ what have I got myself into’. The text is densely written. But overall, it was a reminder to re-think any prejudices I might have had about official church documents, especially given some years of numbing experience.
I know every denomination has its jargon; its ways of finally getting round to saying what needs said, but also that squeezing urgent environmental messages into the ponderous procedures of synods and assemblies is a demanding task. Those of us in ‘organised’ churches may need to have our wits about us, to help their life and work be responsive to the global disruption of which each day brings additional confirmation.
One of the wonders of the New Testament, by contrast, is that so little is smoothed over and homogenised, or forced to agree too precisely with other parts.
In the age of climate disruption, we can be grateful for the remnants we can turn to of the historic apocalyptic preaching of Jesus, expressing a vibrant consciousness of threat, and encouraging alertness in disciples, to the ‘signs of the times’. That New Testament writers invested the time and commitment to bring these things into a written medium suggests both commitment, and perhaps, that they had ‘nothing to lose’ by passing on memories of the robust, provocative, and experiential imagery employed by Jesus.
That’s why Laudato Si is amazing. It uses and acknowledges the conventions of a Papal encyclical, but goes further, to challenge every reader of good will. The Pope is writing as the Pope, not sloping off somewhere incognito to do a bit of environmentalism on the side. What he is writing is integral to his role and calling.
This is what Eco Congregation looks to the churches for: to be. whilst being recognisably themselves, the beautiful gift of God they’re called to be in this day and age. Like Scripture, Laudato Si includes many gems that are easily missed on first reading. What took my breath away, reviewing my own review, was this quote:
“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs..”
There’s lots of argument, and some easy point-scoring about the idea of human beings having ‘dominion’ over the Earth, which most wise Christians interpret as a mandate for care and stewardship, rather than ruthless exploitation. but perhaps here, Pope Francis challenges that remaining shred of unjustified superiority that we cling to, when we think of the rest of Creation on this planet. Yes, like it or not, we are governed by the Earth. We aspire to dominate, but that brings danger for all. Good government requires wise citizenship, and partnership, and acknowledgement of mutual need, rather than greed and anarchy. An ecology, indeed.
Many of us, even in Christian environmental circles, struggle to make the leap from seeing Creation as an object ( a’thing’) to respecting her as a subject (a ‘person’, perhaps, a soul). In this lyrical sentence, the Pope leads us several steps further: Creation as part of the government of all our lives, and all life.... to break faith with which, we do, perhaps, at peril.