Special Issue 6 – Faith and Ecology

This article has been written for QE by Bishop Nigel Stock, who was ordained in 1976.  He was a curate in Stockton-on-Tees and then spent five years with the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea.  On returning to the UK he was the incumbent of two parishes successively in North Tyneside over thirteen years and then for a short time residentiary canon to Durham Cathedral.  He became Bishop of Stockport (an assistant bishop to the Bishop of Chester) in 2000, and in 2007 Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, a diocese covering most of Suffolk.  In 2011 he entered the House of Lords as a ‘Lord Spiritual’.  In 2013 he became Bishop at Lambeth, (a senior advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury) combining that with being Bishop to the Forces and Bishop for the Falkland Islands.  He retired to Bicknoller in 2017.

Faith and Ecology

I was asked “What is the Church doing about the Climate Change Crisis” and somehow the conversation ended up with the proposal I write an article. A few caveats to begin with. I am now retired from full time ministry, and I know that there is a lot more going on than I currently know about.

I am aware that in the western world the practice of faith within a formal religious setting is a minority activity, and that has been true right through my lifetime.  However, in the Global South the situation is very different, and if the adherents of formal religion were added up throughout the world it would be a very large number. 

However, within that “very large number” there are a huge variety of belief systems, and a great variety of attitudes to Climate Change.  That is true within my own faith group of Christianity, and even, to narrow it down further within my own Christian denomination of Anglicanism and its local expression in the Church of England.

All that being said, from my point of view, the climate crisis is so serious, that it calls for a coalition of the aware; people of all faiths and none and a sympathetic encouragement for the churches when they respond to the crisis.

I hope that we can get past a certain antagonism that tries to lay blame at various doorsteps.  The church is particularly unattractive when pronouncements are made about the perceived ‘sins’ of others, and the injunction to remove the beam from your own eye before trying to remove the speck from another’s eye can be too easily forgotten.  Equally I find far too simplistic the arguments of some that a too literal reading of the book of Genesis, where Adam is told to ‘subdue’ the Earth, is the cause of our careless attitude to the environment.

There is a very plausible case to be made about the beginnings of a whole change of attitude from as early as the thirteenth century stemming from Francis of Assisi.  Like many who change human attitudes, he was not an establishment figure.  But his attitude to creation influenced a huge swathe of people.  Francis of Assisi  can be domesticated as a cuddly person who loved animals and flowers, but he was much more challenging than that.  He called into question the whole attitude to the environment, or created order as he would have put it, that predominated in medieval Europe. His ‘carbon footprint’, (not that he would have remotely understood the term) was about as slight as is possible for a human being. 

Of course, the Industrial Revolution and burgeoning populations submerged that particular stream of Christian thinking, but it re-emerged last century and there has been a consistent revival which culminated in Pope John Paul II declaring Francis to be the “Patron Saint of Ecology”.  It might be anachronistic, but it was a clear signal that a particular branch of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church, was taking the whole matter of climate change seriously. Two Popes later and the signal is even stronger.  The current Pope took the formal name Francis quite deliberately, and one of his first ‘encyclicals’ or teaching documents was about the care of the environment.

This has continued with an emphasis on raising awareness of another result of climate change; that the effects of it fall more harshly on the poor of the world than the rich.  This is a huge injustice which the churches can and should speak up about adding their voices to many others.

Another major strand of Christianity, the Orthodox Church also has a significant contribution to make in raising awareness of the acute nature of the climate crisis.  The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has made Ecology one of the main issues of his ministry.  The Ecumenical Patriarch is the senior Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, who resides in Istanbul, or Constantinople as the Orthodox refer to it.  The following appears on a website:

“Known in Europe as the “Green Patriarch,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has taken the lead among all religious leaders in his concern for the environment. His All Holiness has initiated seminars and dialogues to discuss the need for the mobilization of moral and spiritual forces to achieve harmony between humanity and nature.”

That doesn’t do justice to some of the work that he has been able to initiate, but more importantly the reach that he has to some eastern European countries, which are sometimes not amongst the forefront of nations concerned about ecology.

These international churches have spokespeople in the poorest parts of the world, and so they can speak from experience, and bring the effects of ‘climate injustice’ into the public realm.  At the end of July an African Roman Catholic bishop wrote an article for the ‘Credo’ column of the Times.  He outlined very clearly the dire consequences of drought on the pastoralist farmers of the Marsabit region of Kenya. It is worth quoting two excerpts from Peter Kihara Kariuki’s column” “In the months leading up to the Paris climate talks in 2015, Kenya’s National Council of Churches launched a multi faith campaign to lobby governments, industries and multilateral agencies to agree on a binding climate treaty. ‘We Have Faith – Act Now for Climate Justice’ sought to mobilise African religious communities on climate justice. As religious leaders our commitment to the health of our planet is not an option. It is an obligation.”

Bishop Peter Kariuki is being equally vocal in his lobbying of COP26, and calls for ambitious action from world leaders, looking for the strongest measures to keep global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees or below and to commit to binding agreements to cut carbon emissions.

To quote him again; “Climate change is real for us in Marsabit”.

My own small experience of working outside the Church of England in a different part of the Anglican Communion only confirms the Kenyan experience.  I was in Papua New Guinea for five years, and more recently I chaired a group in the UK that supported the Anglican Church in the Solomon Islands.  As long ago as the 1980’s I remember the foresight of Bishop George Ambo of Papua New Guinea, warning of the effects of ruthless commercial logging on the climate of Eastern Papua.  He spoke of increased heat, and lack of fertility in the soil and an increasingly dusty atmosphere as precious hardwoods were cut down. 

The practises of rogue logging companies were particularly pernicious. Under the guise of supporting local business they would set up a locally run subsidiary company. They promised a ‘responsible’ approach to felling large swathes of forest as they would replant.  However, once the parent company had taken all the timber they wanted, they withdrew leaving the local subsidiary to go bankrupt, so that there was then no-one to do any replanting.

That loophole has been blocked, but the careless methods of exploitation constantly change, and are often beyond the means of poor nations to combat.

In the Solomon Islands the churches again are a voice for people who are losing not just their livelihoods, but the very place they call home. The Solomons is a nation of thousands of islands, and rising sea levels mean that islands are disappearing under the ocean destroying whole villages and displacing the populations.  Rising ocean levels are not just a theory for these people, who again are not powerful enough to have a voice in the world.  But the combined lobbying of the churches of the Solomons and their international connections can begin to raise a more acute awareness in the wider world.

The Anglican Church has a wide reach across the nations of the world being present in 165 countries.  However, I won’t pretend that it is as coherent as some of the other international churches.  It does however have various uniting statements including a set of statements called the Five Marks of Mission.  Mission is to many a loaded word, but it is actually a much more comprehensive concept than the recruiting of more Christians.  What is important for those concerned about ecology is the Fifth Mark of Mission which states quite simply that Anglicans should “Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

To take the whole matter forward there is an Inter-Anglican Environmental Network that encourages international work across the various nations.  The purpose of the Network is clear from the following statement:

“Anglicans worldwide have long been concerned with environmental issues. From extreme weather to food shortages all of us are affected. Guided by the Fifth Mark of Mission members of the Anglican Communion Environment Network strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation and sustain and renew the earth. The Church should be engaged in combating climate change simply because this is God’s world and the right thing to do; the Anglican Fifth Mark of Mission calls us to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. But we also absolutely have to make creation care a core part of our faith and witness if we want to have any credibility with young people.”

These are examples of the sort of awareness-raising that the Networks do:

“The main impact of climate change in the Central America region has to do with drought and flooding; it has to do with farmers not being able to identify the time to harvest and when to plant. It is also having an effect on women and children who are usually the most excluded people in society, who usually fall through the cracks. It also has an effect on forced migration, because if people don’t have places where they can work or produce for their families, they are forced to move to places seeking somewhere they can be productive and provide a future for their families.”  Archbishop Julio Murray, Primate of Central America and Bishop of Panama.

A grave in Carriacou, one of Grenada’s three islands, where the cemetery is being lost to the rising seas.  “Carriacou is a place where people feel particularly connected to their ancestors.  I can understand, in that context—where people feel that close and that connected—how painful this must be.  You can see the date on this gravestone is 2014.  This is not somebody who died two hundred years ago, whom somebody alive today might not actually remember.  This is someone who was held by a person who is living now, someone they knew, someone they loved.  Who speaks for them?”  Clifton Nedd, Anglican Alliance Facilitator for the Caribbean.

To bring this nearer home, what is the Church of England doing?  It has been taking the whole, matter very seriously for a number of years.  The historical anomaly of being an “Established” church is a contentious issue for some.  I would argue that it brings many more responsibilities than privileges but that is another subject.  What it can mean is that the Church of England can act as a convenor and at times as a voice for all faiths.  One of the ways this has been done was in 2015 by convening the leaders of a number of Christian denominations and leaders of the major faiths to make a declaration about Climate Change.  It is worth reproducing that in full:

Lambeth Declaration 2015 on Climate Change:

As leaders of the faith communities, we recognise the urgent need for action on climate change. From the perspective of our different faiths we see the earth as a beautiful gift. We are all called to care for the earth and have a responsibility to live creatively and sustainably in a world of finite resources.

Climate change is already disproportionately affecting the poorest in the world. The demands of justice as well as of creation require the nations of the world urgently to limit the global rise in average temperatures to a maximum of 2oC, as agreed by the United Nations in Cancun. We have a responsibility to act now, for ourselves, our neighbours and for future generations.

The scale of change needed to make the transition to a low carbon economy is considerable and the task urgent. We need to apply the best of our intellectual, economic and political resources. Spirituality is a powerful agent of change. Faith has a crucial role to play in resourcing both individual and collective change.

We call on our faith communities to:

  • Recognise the urgency of the tasks involved in making the transition to a low carbon economy.
  • Develop the spiritual and theological resources that will strengthen us individually and together in our care of the earth, each other and future generations.
  • Encourage and pray for those engaged in the intellectual, economic, political and spiritual effort needed to address this crisis.
  • Work with our communities and partners in the UK and internationally to mitigate the effects of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world.
  • Build on the examples of local and international action to live and to work together sustainably,
  • Redouble our efforts to reduce emissions that result from our own institutional and individual activities.

As representatives of the vast numbers of people of faith across the globe we urge our Government to use their influence to achieve a legally-binding commitment at the international Climate Change talks in Paris, and with the continuing programme beyond. Through our various traditions we bring our prayers for the success of the negotiations.

We call with humility, with a determination enlivened by our faith and with awareness of the need for courage, justice and hope. We are faced with a huge challenge. But we are hopeful that the necessary changes can be made – for the sake of all who share this world today – and those who will share it tomorrow.

The signatories included the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Methodist, United Reformed and Lutheran Churches in Britain and the leaders of the Anglican Churches in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and also leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian faith communities in Britain.

The Church of England has had an Environmental Working Group since 2005 which has provided tools for local churches to carry out energy audits and advice on how to lower the carbon footprint of individual churches. There has been encouragement for Churches to dedicate part of the year to raising awareness of the acute challenge facing the environment.  This usually centres around the traditional Harvest Festival time, but has been given the title “Creationtide’ to help broaden thinking and action.

To bring things even more local the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the Diocese of Bath and Wells, (the overarching Church of England organisation for Somerset) have formed a partnership to ‘re-wild’ churchyards.  This is one response to the Diocese declaring its recognition of the climate and ecological emergency in 2020. The Wildlife Trust recognised that churchyards had often been protected from habitat loss seen elsewhere.  As a spokesperson for the Trust said this isn’t about “letting a churchyard overgrow, it’s about making a space for nature and helping nature. Some Churchyards have really fantastic flora that’s been lost from elsewhere in the countryside. They’re almost a little snapshot of how the countryside used to look. It can be things like allowing plants to flower over summer, so they can put on a glorious display. They can be mown later.” 

All this has to be done in consultation with the local community as there are obviously sensitive issues around churchyards.  But if it is done well it is another way that attention is drawn to the nature of the crisis that faces everyone.  So far there are 120 churches signed up to the first phase of the partnership.

All the above are rather random examples of ways that Churches and faith groups have been responding to the climate crisis.  Whilst pointing out the willing cooperation of faith groups to sign up to the Lambeth Declaration I don’t have direct knowledge of initiatives that they have undertaken separately, but I do know that they exist and that means that awareness of the very serious nature of the problem is being widely raised.

There is another sub area where faith groups can contribute.  I remember being at a conference of Chaplains to the forces three years ago.  These were people who had seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan and been alongside service people in the most harrowing circumstances.  One chaplain was very moving in the way he talked about the appalling destruction of war. It obviously first and foremost blights human lives in bereavement and appalling injuries. It displaces people and is a major contributor to forced migration.  But it is also an environmental disaster in the pollution it causes.  There are obvious examples of this from the past with the ultimate horror of nuclear explosion, but also the use of chemicals in warfare from Agent Orange to Novichok.  But so called “conventional weapons” also have huge environmental consequences never mind the vast amounts of fuel needed to drive armoured vehicles, military aircraft and warships. 

Of course, war erupts from the breakdown of politics and diplomacy.  It can be initiated by aggression and ideology, insecurity and paranoia, empire building and power seeking.  Whenever it does break out all the efforts to combat climate change go out of the window.  The inability to reach globally agreed initiatives to prevent any further rise in world temperatures, is driven by the mistrust of nations.

The churches and faiths cannot change all that tragedy by themselves, but they can continue to speak of the urgent necessity to find a better way for humanity adding their voices to the many, many other groups who are doing the same.

Which brings me to some concluding thoughts.  I have tried to show some ways in which the churches and other faith groups are not only aware, but trying to do something about the climate crisis, and also raise awareness.

But I know that this is not a complete picture, and that a lot of what is done is imperfect and not enough.  I also know that for some Christian groups this is simply not a priority or even an issue.  There are plenty of examples around the world of apocalyptic thinking which almost says, “bring on the end of the world we are the good guys who will survive the wrath to come.”  All I am saying is that in the mainstream denominations the issue of Climate Change and Ecological Crisis are major issues.

What I would hope, is that those who have no time for religion or churches, would nevertheless be willing to support, partner and encourage those who are striving to keep the whole ecological issue uppermost in the minds of adherents and everyone else.  Yes, at times the critical friend approach might be necessary – I am sure there is still too much complacency over the use of the land that is owned by churches in England, but changes have been made and more change can happen with encouragement rather than mudslinging.

Above all I would hope that where churches dream of what is possible, and don’t give in to despair and cynicism then others will feel that they can support that hope.

Pope Francis writing in his book ‘Let us Dream’ dreamt of what the world could be post Covid:

“By making the integration of the poor and the care for our environment central to society’s goals, we can generate work while humanizing our surroundings. By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way. By adopting more intensive permaculture methods for growing food we can regenerate the natural world, create work and biodiversity, and live better.

All this means having common-good goals for human development rather than the false assumption of the infamous trickle-down theory that a growing economy will make us all richer. By focusing on land, lodging and labour we can regain a healthy relationship with the world and grow by serving others.

In this way, we transcend the narrow individualistic framework of the liberal paradigm without falling into the trap of populism.  Democracy is then reinvigorated by the concerns and wisdom of the people who are involved in it.  Politics can once again be an expression of love through service.  By making the restoration of our peoples’ dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions.  To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.”

I am sure many will say that is just hopelessly idealistic or disagree with some of the assumptions.  But it does make clear that the climate crisis is in part to do with the attitudes of human beings to one another. 

Faith is the hope that things can be different and can be better.

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