CHRISTIANS have a mandate to look after the earth, and should collectively work towards finding lasting solutions to the environmental crisis, a conference at Coventry Cathedral concluded on Saturday.
The two-day conference, “Reconciling a Wounded Planet”, was initiated by the cathedral. The 200 delegates from all over the UK included scientists, theologians, engineers, farmers, clergy, and representatives of leading Christian environmental charities.
Sir Ghillean Prance, a former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and leader of 20 botanical expeditions to Amazonia, urged the gathering in a keynote address to “be a voice at Paris”, a reference to the UN climate-change conference in December.
He brought stories of hope from around the world: from the Green Backyard Company, which uses abandoned land near Peterborough Cathedral to grow food for the homeless, to the Aymaran influence in Bolivia, where communities were instructed on what crop to plant, and were sustained by the community when the instruction was to let the land lie fallow.
Speaking of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ — “Not only is it spiritual, but it has good science and good information in it” — he said that the Church must take a lead. “Who better to do it? The Church even today is a large organisation. It has the spiritual, moral, and ethical element, and we will never crack climate change unless we touch the moral and ethical side of it,” he said.
“We’ve got to convince them that this is part of Christ. The creation was from him, and he was in creation; so we are commanded to take care of it. A lot of the writing I read and the sermons I hear stay in the Old Testament. We’ve got to be really New Testament and raise what Christ’s role was if we want to get moving on.”
The Revd Margot Hodson, an environmental theologian and a board member of both the John Ray Initiative (an educational charity seeking to combine scientific and Christian understandings) and the Christian conservation company A Rocha UK, drew on Colossians 5.15-20 for a homily that challenged delegates to consider Christians’ responsibility to tackle the environmental crisis.
“As Christ’s Church, we are called to follow Jesus, and that means loving his creation and having a real concern for its well-being,” she said.
There were discussion streams on community engagement, political engagement, health, education and well-being, natural resources, developing technologies, and enhancing biodiversity.
Paul Ede, from the Pentecostal Urban Eco-mission in Glasgow, spoke of the strong message of hope conveyed by the working of vacant and derelict land in one of Scotland’s poorest communities.
“Grace flows downhill to those most in need,” he said, quoting Ezekiel. The project operated across ecumenical divides in a city divided by sectarianism, and there had been spin-offs in the renewal of church life.
How to mobilise apathetic congregations, and how to motivate people to go out and demonstrate were just some of the concerns of those who wanted to engage politically with the issues.
“We need values to change so that policies will change,” Richard Gower, from Tearfund, said. He spoke of the importance of “having a resonant story, and using a moment of crisis to tell a new, powerful tale”. Martin Luther King had moved the civil-rights issue into a moral framework: the Church was “well placed to influence the socio-cultural system”.
Where education was concerned, schools at present did not “go much beyond gloomy engagement”, and, although the picture was by no means all gloom and doom, there was an acknowledged patchiness about how much was being taught, and where, about Christian environmental education, to ordinands and other adults.
There was reflection on where churches should focus when it came to technologies: should it be in putting solar panels on the roof, or helping to fund sanitation improvements in countries such as India?
How did the Body of Christ handle technology, they reflected. And enhancing biodiversity threw up new challenges, too — a need, someone suggested, with the latest estimates of fish stocks in mind, for a “Faith in the Seaside” initiative to match Faith in the Countryside.
The CEO of the Arthur Rank Centre, Jerry Marshall, called for “Kingdom-focused entrepreneurs and investors”.
“Expertise, spiritual depth, and enthusiasm have come together,” Professor Sam Berry concluded after the discussions, “but there’s a lack of co-ordination and synergy. We need a coming together, resourcing and acting together in groups that already exist.” Observing that creation care was almost universally regarded as “a good thing”, he said, “No: it is a mandate laid upon us at creation. God’s will for us includes creation care.”
Paramount at the conference was the emphasis that creation was a central biblical theme and not a peripheral one, something that called above all for new thinking. Professor Richard Bauckham, an Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews and a Senior Scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, spoke of Christ as the agent of creation and reconciliation.
The Darwinian picture of nature had been replaced by a bigger picture of interdependence and collaboration, he said. There had been a tendency to “restrict salvation to something between us and God; but that does not take into account the interdependence of creation, the reconciling of all things on earth. . . We can be fully reconciled to God and our fellow human beings while in a state of hostility to the rest of God’s creation.”
The author of the book Jesus and the Earth, Bishop James Jones, who has been involved for 20 years in urban regeneration and the environment, gave the closing address. He offered the conference “a rule of life for the earthing of heaven”, identifying the imperative to develop “a theology that is more than Paul and the first three chapters of Genesis.
“The only title Jesus takes on himself is Son of Man, which in Hebrew means ‘child of the earth’. The central petition of the Lord’s Prayer is for the earthing of heaven. . . Until we begin to root our environmental thinking and theology in the four Gospels themselves, we will not take the Church with us,” he said.
Praise was vital, too: “We come across so often as negative about the planet. We are always seen as the prophets of doom, and what scripture and the Psalms encourage us to do is praise God with the rest of creation. We have to recover a sense of joy.”
The première of Riding Lights’ Baked Alaska, a play about climate change jointly commissioned by the diocese of Lichfield, Christian Aid, and Operation Noah, and embarking on a national tour, was a highlight of the conference. A review will follow.