IT WAS a programme for Radio Bristol to support its Big Green
Week. I was answering questions about the Christian contribution to
ecological issues. Then, suddenly, the interviewer said something
like: "Is the environment a new venture for the Church? Mostly what
the Church is interested in is gay marriage and women bishops."
It was not the media "obsession" which got to me that time, but
the thought that concern for the environment could be considered
In the second century, St Irenaeus of Lyons saw the world as a
creative unity of all things held together by God's providence. St
Augustine of Hippo's wide-ranging thought included a strong strand
of what we would now call eco-theology. St Thomas Aquinas has much
to say about "nature". Calvin described creation as "the theatre of
God's glory". John Ray, in the 17th century, wrote The Wisdom
of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. In the 19th
century, Lux Mundi included a chapter that celebrated
evolution as re-emphasising the immanence of God in creation.
William Temple's Nature, Man and God (1934); Charles
Raven's Gifford Lectures in 1951; the Evangelical Francis
Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man in the 1960s;
the work of the C of E Board for Social Responsibility; the more
recent work of Alister McGrath on nature; the establishment of
Christian groups such as A Rocha, Christian Ecology Link, Operation
Noah, Shrinking the Footprint, and so on and on. It is hardly a new
THE Church is at the forefront in promoting care for the
environment; for "the earth is the Lord's." Or at least, it should
be. But on the ground, the writings of theologians and scientists -
even reports from the General Synod - do not always seem to make
much difference at PCC meetings, in Sunday worship, and Christian
If my experience in Norfolk is anything to go by, church schools
are better at creation care than many parish churches. So what has
got in the way of Christians' fully realising that faith in God the
Father, creator of heaven and earth, is foundational for - and just
as important as - faith in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit? It
is foundational, in fact, for the gospel.
I think it is something deeper than simply that George Osborne's
agenda has affected or infected everything, and that church people,
like everyone else, find the economy and the pressure for limitless
economic growth being pushed to the head of the priorities
It is partly that the Christian faith is still blamed by some
people as the cause of our ecological crisis. A famous paper by a
professor of medieval history, Lynn Townsend White, in 1967, argued
that Christianity was the most anthropocentric of all the faiths.
The misuse of texts about human "dominion", too often understood as
domination rather than "royal service", has certainly not
There is indeed much for the Church to repent of. But it is
partly also that the split between spirit and matter, soul and
body, sacred and secular is so deep-seated in many people's faith
that they give priority to the spiritual in a way that suggests
that the material and the bodily do not matter.
"This environmental enthusiasm is all very well," I have been
told, "but shouldn't we be preaching the gospel?"
Then there is the difficult theology that believes that the
world is going to end soon, as 2 Peter is often quoted as saying,
so there is little point in bothering. What 2 Peter 3.10f. actually
says is that there is every point in bothering, because the fire of
God's judgement is going to disclose all that is to be kept for the
new heavens and the new earth through resurrection in the coming
day of God. "So", the text goes on, "what sort of people should we
PERHAPS there is a further dimension to this, to which Professor
Richard Dawkins and his atheist friends have contributed: a view of
science that is essentially materialistic, instrumental, and
mechanistic, and that understands the scope of science to include
To be sure, at the time of the inauguration of the Royal
Society, Christian faith and the developing sciences walked
together and contributed to each other. But there were other
developments that, over time, have tended to push religion more out
of public discourse and towards becoming a private hobby. Such
changes increasingly discount those parts of life that science
could not measure or put in a bottle: love, friendship, loyalty,
fellowship, creativity, communion.
Thankfully, there have been thinkers, such as the chemist and
philosopher Michael Polanyi, whose view of the world is of many
levels of reality, each with its own science and interpretative
mode. The higher levels - such as personal values - are dependent
on, but not reducible to, the lower levels, such as physics and
As Thomas Torrance suggested, we can think of the incarnation of
the Word made flesh as the intersecting vertical co-ordinate,
hold-ing this multi-levelled reality together.
I think that that is something of what St Paul means when he
says that "in Christ all things hold together" (Colossians 1.15).
That same paragraph speaks of Christ as the one "through whom all
things were made", and the one in whom God reconciles all things to
himself, "making peace through the blood of his cross".
I believe that we need more of this theme in our liturgy, our
preaching, and our mission. In many places, the eucharist reminds
us of creation ("Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation: through
your goodness we have this bread . . ."; "Holy, holy, holy, Lord;
heaven and earth are full of your glory"). The website
operationnoah.org/creationtime has a eucharistic prayer for
Creation Time, which, although not authorised for liturgical use in
the C of E, may be suggestive in promoting fresh ideas about the
worship and service of God, our creator and redeemer.
As Paul shows, the cross of Christ has a cosmic dimension ("all
things . . ."). Creation and redemption belong together, just as
Father, Son, and Spirit belong together in the work of the
reconciliation of all things, until that day when God is all and in
all, and - as the Psalmist puts it - God's glory will dwell in our
Dr David Atkinson is a former Bishop of Thetford, and is on
the board of Operation Noah.