TALK FOR ST MICHAEL’S WANDSWORTH COMMON SUNDAY 15TH MAY 2022
Many thanks to Reverend Tif for the very kind invitation to come to preach, and thanks to you all for yourwarm welcome. My wife Lucy is here too, and we bring greetings from our church, Christ Church West Wimbledon. Lucy leads our Eco-Church group there.
I’m here in my role as one of the environmental advisors to the Diocese, and to encourage and give help to churches who are taking the climate crisis and the nature crisis seriously and want to become accredited in the Eco-Church initiative. And you might want to know what my credentials are for that. Well, I’m a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Surrey in Guildford. And if you lived in Surrey between 2003 and 2006, I was the county council director in charge of your waste bins, and also of environmental policy for Surrey.
Given that background, I am often asked to preach in Creation-tide, in September and October, when thefocus is on Harvest and on care for God’s Creation. But as I always say, Creation-tide is every day. And that is a basic point in our faith, I think - not just a way to get myself invited to give talks during the rest of the year...
It is a pleasure to be here and to try to add something to the reflections I know you have had during Lent,thinking about the Marks of Mission, and in this case the 5th Mark - “ To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”
Sometimes people say to me that they can’t see how being a Christian fits with concern and action aboutclimate change and environmental protection. They often feel that to be ‘Green’ is to have a set of priorities that are external to Christianity and the life of the church. I think it is vital to challenge that idea.
My main point in what I will say today is that in being an environmentally concerned Christian I am notadding something secular and non-Christian to my faith. In fact those concerns reflect fundamental aspectsof our faith in Christ and our witness to Him in the times we live in.
I became an environmentalist before I became a Christian. I cared about the damage we collectively have done to the natural world, and thus to ourselves, but I could not always express clearly why it mattered so much to me. But when I became a Christian in the 1990s, I came to see that the Bible and the story of Jesus made sense of all my concerns about our impacts on the Earth - and on the prospects for our children,grand-children and the poor of the world.
That realisation came to me through reading and reflecting on Genesis and the Gospels. In Genesis the creation story tells us of the making of the Earth and all its creatures, and all that comes before the making of us human beings. And all of it - not just our arrival on the scene - all of it is good in God’s sight. God doesnot just make us, he makes the Good Earth. And it is made clear that we are entirely dependent on Him and on the Earth. What does that tell us? That in disrespecting and trashing the Earth, we are insulting God and showing contempt for his Gift of life and life-giving land and waters.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells us that he has come not to condemn the world, but to save it; and in John, thatGod so loved the world, that he sent his only Son. I don’t read that use of ‘world’ as meaning just ‘people’, but as indicating the world entire, including all the creatures who join in praise of God, as we read in Psalm 148. God doesn’t come to us as Christ out of love just for people, or for communities. He comes out of love for the whole world - the common home we have with other creatures, a tiny part of the whole of God’s Creation. God loves His world, not just human beings as creatures in that world. That world is a gift to us. What have we done with it?
We also know from Jesus’s teaching that we are called on to love our neighbour as ourselves. When I reflected on that, as a new Christian, it spoke powerfully to me about our damaging impacts on people andcreatures - our neighbours on the Earth who can be helped - or harmed - by the actions we take or fail to take.
Pollution, climate disruption, the ruin of habitats - all are assaults on our neighbours, people and creatures -and we can do something about these harms, through changing our consumption and changing ourpolicies. I think the Gospel of love of neighbour, and the Biblical message of respect for God’s Good Earth, give us the best reasons to do those things.
So that is where I start from. And in the time remaining I’ll try to weave together the Lectionary readings today from John, Revelation and the Psalms with the recent 6th Assessment Report of the IntergovernmentalPanel on Climate Change, of which I hope you’ve not been trying to read the full report, all 3675 pages of it.
In John 13, we can reflect on what Christ calls us to do - love one another, and love God - in the context of the sheer earthiness of the story in the passages preceding our reading today. There is food, there is a towel, there is washing of feet.
And the disciples are not summoned at once to follow Him into heaven - they are like just the rest of us, Earthbound and mortal. They are required by Jesus to stay here in the world, given the task of prefiguring the Kingdom of Heaven here, loving one another and their neighbours in the earthiness of the planet.
Psalm 148 gives us an idea of the way in which our relationship with God is bound up with our life on Earth, and how that bond with God is actually shared with all other creatures.
The Psalmist brings all creatures on Earth into a song of praise for God - it’s not reserved to us human beings to know and praise Him.
So Love of God is expressed through and with the rest of Creation - and that Creation is meant to endure,as the Psalm says. It is also meant to be renewed by God - as the Book of Revelation tells us: we will see anew Earth as well as a new Heaven. We are called to take care of God’s Good Earth and of our neighbours on it.
And going back to the Gospel of John - Jesus’s followers are given an earthly Commission to imitate Christhere and now, not to focus our sights solely on the heaven to which Jesus ascends in his transfiguration. What we do here on Earth in this life is vital preparation for life on a new Earth to come. It is all part of the breaking-in of Christ’s risen Life to our mortal life - something the former Bishop of Durham and theologian Tom Wright in particular has always emphasised with great force in his writings.
I can tell you’re waiting impatiently to get to the climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That too gives us a demanding task, and we might find it as daunting as the ’great commission’given by Christ to the apostles. It is for us - above all, those of us living in the affluent world - to change our consumption of the world’s resources so that we sustain God’s good Earth for everyone, and for all thecreatures with whom we share the planet.
The overwhelming body of evidence from climate science and broader environmental science tells us thatour industrial production and consumption patterns have overloaded and depleted the life support systemswe and other creatures all depend on. We have to change the way we consume resources.
The climate system is being disrupted by greenhouse gas emissions from burning of fossil fuels. Habitats, species and genetic diversity are being lost forever, risking not only large- scale extinctions but also the dangerous degradation of habitats, soils, freshwater and the oceans. If we carry on undermining our lifesupport systems, our common home - our only home - will become horribly inhospitable for billions of people by the end of the century, and stay that way.
The people most at risk are the ones who have done least to cause the dangers - our children and grand-children, and their descendants, and in the present, the poorest people of the world. But we too are at risk, here and now in the rich world, as the bushfires in Australia and California, and the growing threat of floods and extreme storms, make clear to us all.
We have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and get to a more or less zero-carbon economy by 2050. We have to conserve wildlife and habitats on a massive scale over the next generation. These tasks together represent the biggest collective challenge we humans have ever faced. As mentionedbefore, the major responsibility falls on the affluent - whose lifestyles are the most wasteful and energy-intensive. And that means me.
Here, to underline all that and to complement our Bible readings, is another text. It’s a reading from the book of David :
“Our planet is home to a seemingly infinite variety of species. From ocean giants to the tiniest insects. Wecall this abundance of life - biodiversity. But today, it's vanishing at rates never seen before in human history.
It is worse than expected. This is happening much faster than we've ever seen before. Today, we are ... causing many, many species to go extinct...
The evidence is that unless immediate action is taken, this crisis has grave impacts for us all.
We're not just losing nice things to look at. We're losing critical parts of Earth's system.
The decisions made as we rebuild our economies are critical. Get it wrong and we will be in deeply dangerous territory.
Get it right and we still have the ability to pull back and rein in the collapse of biodiversity. We have a moment when we can change our world and make it better. This is that moment.”
That comes, of course, from the book of Sir David Attenborough - not yet St David, although I sometimes think he might as well be!
Those words are taken from his recent BBC programme on Extinction: the facts - a follow- up to his equally urgent and chastening programme on the climate crisis. If you have not watched those programmes, I urge you to do so. The science is very well communicated and is accurate.
Like the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg - with whom Sir David evidently gets on very well - he’sspeaking the language of the Biblical prophets. Amos and Jeremiah would see them as kindred spirits. We could easily translate Sir David’s lament and call to action
- and those from Greta - into Christian terms.
And indeed that’s being done - by our archbishops and bishops, by the Pope, by the many Christian and inter-faith environmental campaigns in this country and around the world.
Through our eco-church projects we are linked to the international green Christian charity A Rocha. What ARocha, Christian charities such as Tearfund and Christian Aid, and many others, are calling for is urgent action by governments, by business - and by us as individuals working together in our congregations and communities.
We need action to respect, restore and sustain god’s creation - our common home, the good earth, which is God’s irreplaceable gift to us.
People often feel very daunted by all these environmental challenges. On our own we can do so little, it seems - although Greta Thunberg started on her own, of course. And what needs to change are enormous economic and technical systems - that all seems too big. We can get stuck on the smallness of individualaction in our homes, and the hugeness of what needs to happen. As things stand, huge damage is being done to our climate and to the natural world by the consumption of the affluent world - and as I said earlier, that means ME. Left unchecked that growing damage will ruin us all, and first and worst it is harming the poor and vulnerable who’ve done next to nothing to cause the problems of climate disruption.
Next it will harm our children, then even more so our grandchildren. And the rest of God’s creation. Not totake this seriously as a call to repentance and to action is to disdain God’s gift of Creation - to turn our back on Christ’s commission to us all. So, to take the climate crisis and the nature crisis to heart does not mean adding something secular or un- Christian to our life as members of church - it is precisely to answer our calling as Christians in the times in which we are living.
You’re probably feeling daunted and maybe depressed to hear all this. I know I do, almost every day. Things are serious. But there are many reasons to be hopeful, and we as people of faith should be people of hope.
I have been working on environmental policymaking in different ways for 35 years. It’s been a depressingworld to work in for much of that time. But I am now more hopeful than I have been in all those years.
Why? Well, starting in late 2018 we reached a kind of ‘tipping point’. The pile-up of scientific evidence andterrible personal experience concerning climate disruption and the degradation of nature became unignorable to many decision-makers in governments and
business. And a lot of credit for that must go to David Attenborough and to Greta Thunberg. The schoolstrike movement that Greta initiated played a huge role in raising public concern, which was already growing.
Since then governments and businesses worldwide have made commitments to ending the use of fossil fuels and taking carbon emissions out of our economy by 2050. In 2020 the awful pandemic arrived andmany felt that this would slow down environmental action and concern. But that has not happened. What the Covid-19 crisis has done is in some ways deeply instructive for us all. What has it been showing us?
In a way the pandemic has been a revelation of how we could live better, and how we could make the worldbetter. In the first lockdown, during a beautiful spring, many of us were lucky to have access to our local commons and parks.
All over the world, people have found consolation and restoration by immersing themselves in nature. Whatwe heard was birdsong, clear and vibrant as we’d never heard it before. what we saw was a cleaner world - and a more flourishing living world, recovering from the pressures placed on it by our economies and lifestyles.
Some of you might remember the late playwright Dennis Potter. When he was near the end of his life he gave a tv interview. in it he described the tree in blossom he could see from his window. his senses heightened by the closeness of death and the feeling of the preciousness of life, he said that the tree washolding the ‘blossomest blossom’ he’d ever seen. Perhaps many of us have felt something similar in the experience of nature during the lockdown spring last year and ever since.
There is other good news. We know must make deep changes to our economy, our lifestyles and our valuesto enable the earth to sustain us and God’s larger creation. we need to do this in a fair and just way that lifts up the poor and vulnerable people of the world. It is a huge task and it is easy to feel daunted.
But - all our science, technology and know-how tell us it can be done. Collectively we can afford it - what we can’t afford is not to do it! We have the knowledge and most of the technologies we need. We in the rich world, who have contributed so much to the problems we face worldwide, have so far lacked the willpower.
We Christians, people of faith, confident in God’s love, have a great role to play in providing that willpoweracross our communities, and through our eco-church activities.
What, practically, does that mean? We need to do is to press on with hope and determination with initiativessuch as Eco-Church - which, when all is said and done, really just means ‘doing and being Church’. And it means focusing on living lightly on God’s Good Earth, praising Him for His Gift and respecting it, as our common home with the rest of His Creation.
The Eco-Church initiative has all the resources we need to get us going and keep us going
- and there are many others walking the same path. We at CCWW have managed to get a Eco-church SilverAward, and it is wonderful to see how the process has reinvigorated many aspects of church life for us all, linking the generations and inspiring the young members of church in particular.
How have we done this? By weaving our environmental activities into our Junior Church; into our reflectionson Harvest and Creation-tide; by having a Green Prayer every week in the service sheet; by hosting community meetings on our environmental challenges and responsibilities; by taking Fair Trade seriously; by doing surveys of bird life and bug life in the church garden; by making our buildings as energy-efficientas we can; and by making it clear at all times that Eco-Church is fundamental to all of our church life together.
Over several years, it’s come to pass that everyone is finding it natural to bring ‘eco’ themes into whatever church activity they’re engaged in. Really, we don’t do ‘Eco-church’ any more - we’re simply doing and beingChurch - with love of Creation and care for God’s Good Earth woven into all we do. We’ve still got a lot to do,but the journey and effort have been wonderfully worthwhile.
We will be more than happy to share ideas and practical tips with you here at St Michael’s about following the Eco-Church path. Good luck, and God bless you all.