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Why the world needs Lent

01 March 2019

The season offers an opportunity to restore a balance in life and to the world, says Richard Chartres

Brain light/Alamy

Environmental distress

Environmental distress

THE whole world needs Lent. While millions go hungry, others are living a perpetual carnival without any ensuing Lent. The result is that we are wasting and damaging the world.

As an ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature, I have just seen some footage of the new series presented by Sir David Attenborough, Our Planet, to be launched in April as Lent reaches its culmination. The series has the marvellous photography that we associate with its predecessors; but it is also more explicit about the damage being done to the planet by human activity.

Its message is that we are the first generation to be given incontrovertible evidence of the devastating impact that we are having on our common planetary home. We are also probably the last generation with the possibility of taking action that will mitigate the effects of environmental degradation.

The message is not a hopeless one, but it does demand urgent action and a change of heart that puts mitigating climate change, pollution, and species loss at the top of our personal and political agendas.

AS LENT approaches, the Government and the civil service are focused on the Brexit process, but the distress of the earth is daily becoming more obvious. There are warnings of an ecological tsunami which could make our current preoccupations seem trivial.

The report presented last October to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Incheon, South Korea, was based on the contributions of 91 authors from 40 countries. They agreed that we are already seeing the consequences of a 1ºC rise in temperatures over pre-industrial levels, with more frequent extreme-weather events, diminishing Arctic sea ice, and rising sea levels.

Working within the terms of the 2016 Paris Agreement, the IPCC authors argue that the most extreme impacts on the environment could be avoided by limiting the rise to 1.5ºC rather than 2ºC. Jim Skea, Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College and chairman of the Scottish government’s “Just Transition” Commission, says that limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of physics and chemistry, “but doing so would require unprecedented changes”.

JUST as politicians have paid only fitful attention to climate change and other environmental challenges, such as pollution and species loss, the graph of the Church’s involvement with the subject reveals peaks and troughs of concern and activity.

Partly as a result of the prophetic ministry of the late Hugh Montefiore, the Lambeth Conference of 1978 addressed an appeal to leaders and governments on environmental issues. The Lambeth Fathers declared that “time is running short”. That was the signal for putting the topic on the back-burner for more than 20 years, until the Lambeth Conference of 1998.

There were reasons for the relative lack of church activity in this area in the last quarter of the 20th century. It was partly introversion, but there was also a belief that the “environment” was in some way a distraction from social justice and fairtrade issues. It is now clear that, since the consequences of global warming will fall first, and disproportionately, on the poor in our interconnected world, care for creation is an unignorable dimension of love for one’s neighbour. The Lambeth Conference of 2020 must do better than its predecessors.

THE Incheon conference and the follow-up meeting in Poland at the end of last year demonstrate the near-unanimity of the scientific consensus, but the question is whether the weight of evidence alone is enough to generate the “unprecedented changes” in the way we live now which Professor Skea says are necessary.

While there will, no doubt, be useful technological developments, politicians will be given the room for manoeuvre only if public attitudes are transformed. There is a difficulty in translating the information contained in a flood of publications into the energy that transforms not only individual lives but also the political landscape.

Our way of being in the world and our level of awareness need to change. We are, in reality, creatures of the dust — stardust, as both Genesis and Darwin affirm. We are called to be viceroys in the creation, but we are, at the same time, participants in an animated universe. Forgetting our origins makes us aliens in the world, with a habit of viewing everything as an object — a commodity to be exploited to satisfy our desires. Our alienation scars the face of the earth.

ASH WEDNESDAY, next week, begins a period of prayer, meditation, and fasting in preparation for Easter. It is an opportunity to enter into a more genuinely biblical awareness of our place in the world, and deepen our capacity to act, at a time when the folly of trying to live a perpetual carnival has been exposed.

The ash with which we are anointed on the first day of Lent is a powerful symbol of the way in which so much of the world has been converted into rubbish. But, rather than the prelude to an orgy of self-loathing, Ash Wednesday should be the beginning of the sad but beautiful springtime of the Church’s year. It can inspire us to rediscover the rhythms that are integral to a spiritually attuned life, and make us fitter to play our part, as responsible citizens, in opening up our suffering world to the new life of Easter.

Ash Wednesday invites us to resist the pressure of the passing moment, to acknowledge those parts of our life which have become stale, and to open ourselves to the gift that Christ longs to impart: newness of life, the gift of the resurrection life.

IF WE live as solitary individuals, bent on acquiring happiness by a hectic whirl of activity, consuming more and more things and possessing more and more people, we end up leading a dead life.

The vision of death in life — the realisation that, if we do not live in the self-giving love of God then we are counted as dead before him — is the spur for a renewed passion for life in all its fullness.

Awareness is diminished by over-stimulation. Our Lenten fasting should not be some token abstinence from sweets, but a conscious effort to reduce stimulation and over-consumption to enable us to stoop to clarify and connect. We should cut both the carbohydrate and the carbon.

If we wish to emancipate ourselves from the hectic hype and pressure of the passing moment, it may be more important to refrain from switching on the Today programme first thing in the morning than to renounce chocolate. But what we eat and drink does have a bearing on our awareness. We often over-indulge because we are unhappy, and we need to confront that unhappiness.

Death-in-life is living as an individual who tries to acquire happiness by possessing more and more things and people. We can even possess a loveless religion. We stoop and fast to open ourselves up to the feast of life to which God invites those who know their need of him.

Our deepest and truest nature as human beings is as persons who are unique and precious, but who have been created for unpossessive love, and for whom fullness of life comes when we go beyond ourselves to accept the searing and transforming love of God as we see him in Jesus Christ.

Those who enter into this state of Christlike consciousness are made fit to be active participants in the repair of creation and the renewal of the face of the earth.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres was Bishop of London from 1995 to 2017.

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