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Climate change: This grief is not private

04 December 2020

The Theology Slam winner Hannah Malcolm’s new book brings together voices from around the world to lament the climate crisis. Report by Ed Thornton


“HOW are we to rightly mourn the loss of human life, perhaps on a scale not seen since the Second World War?” Hannah Malcolm asked in her winning Theology Slam talk last year, (News, Comment 15 March 2019). “Or mourn the loss of our fellow creatures, and the stability and beauty of the home we share?”

Ms Malcolm, who is now an ordinand and Ph.D. candidate at Cranmer Hall, Durham, says that the phenomenon of climate grief is scarcely talked about in churches. The conversation, she says, “is oriented towards what we should be doing differently”: making changes to personal energy consumption, for example, or campaigning for structural reform. And, while this is all well and good, “it doesn’t erase the things that have been lost. When we don’t talk about them, that loss doesn’t go anywhere.”

Ms Malcolm hopes that a new book that she has edited, Words for a Dying World: Stories of grief and courage from the global Church, will spark conversations about what such losses, and what climate grief means for Christian faith.

She commissioned more than 30 writers from around the world — from the Pacific Islands to farming communities in Nambia, as well as activists in the UK — all of whom have had different experiences of climate grief.


DO CLIMATE activists in the West, who perhaps lean towards protest and direct action, have something to learn from those in other cultures, where story, song, and poetry is more important?

STEFANO CAGNONIHannah Malcolm speaks at the Theology Slam competition last year

“I don’t see protest and story as alternatives to each other,” Ms Malcolm says. “I think in the West, as well as in other places in the world, protest and direct action tend to be accompanied by particular narratives we tell about ourselves. And certainly protest songs are not exclusive to one part of the world.

“But I suppose one thing we could say is that we are maybe less comfortable in our churches with talking about how our emotional responses to what’s happening in the world shapes our faith, shapes our practices of that faith, and that will vary by denomination and by tradition. But to see those stories or those histories as formative for the life of the Church is perhaps something that could be better incorporated into our tradition.”

Since the book is about the global Church, it was important to seek out voices from the majority world, she says. “That’s where most Christians are, and so, if we are going to be honest about the experience of Christians thinking theologically about climate change, then it needs to begin where those majority voices are found.

“And that’s where leadership on this issue is going to have to ultimately come from, because that’s where the worst impact is, and also where the least culpability lies.”

Ms Malcolm refers to research, published recently by Christian Aid, that suggested that approximately 30 per cent of British adults thought that white people around the world were the ethnic group most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. “So there’s real work to be done in our psyche in this country around how we imagine the impact of climate change and how we talk about it.”


THE purpose of the book is not to overwhelm readers with the scale of the climate crisis, but to focus on the local, wherever that may be.

“When we talk about a dying world — a whole biosphere diminishing in its stability and diversity — we are not describing a homogeneous death event,” Ms Malcolm writes in the introduction to the book. “Our sites of loss are particular — creatures, seasons and rhythms, futures, forests that we know.”
In the interview, she elaborates: “We don’t come from the same places; so we have a great deal to learn from the grief of people who have different experiences to us, and dialogue with those different experiences can make our understanding of this kind of grief richer.”

To confront one’s grief, however, is not to succumb to despair, she says. To grieve means “being honest about the nature of death and what has been lost”. Despair, meanwhile, “is not necessarily rooted in the real. It assumes that there’s nothing that can be done, so it assumes a knowledge of the future that humans don’t have.”

Despairing language has become increasingly prominent in the climate movement in the West, Ms Malcolm says, but this can represent “a kind of hubris”.

“We’ve . . . placed ourselves in this role of the great problem-solver, and now we feel guilt about that. But we still assume that salvation, or even just improvement, must come out of our context, because that’s where we’re accustomed to it coming from.
“And so then, when we fail, which we have done — climate breakdown is a very clear testament to our failure — I think it’s not surprising that we then find it very difficult to imagine that solutions might come from elsewhere, and so despair is very tempting.”

While despair leads to paralysis, the contributors to the book seek to demonstrate that grief can be transformative.

Peter Fox and Miles Giljam, who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, write: “Grief, if managed well, is a profoundly transformative emotion. If we are able to grieve properly the process challenges and changes our identity. We become someone different. Healthy grieving may be the tool by which we refashion the priorities and rhythms of our society to deal with our new reality of environmental collapse.”

THE importance of lament is a recurring theme in the book. As María Alejandra Andrade Vinueza, an Ecuadorian sociologist and theologian, writes: “A spirit of lament is where we must begin if we are to step towards healing. It is moving from the impersonal ‘they’ to the responsible ‘I’. It is about looking at ‘my’ own thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, and life choices that have — and still are — contributed to kill the ‘Common House’ we live in.”

The Church is well placed to provide a context for people’s lament, Ms Malcolm says, pointing to the “very rich history of lament”. But, she says, “lament is . . . not just something we’re called to do when we feel really sad. . . [It is] a discipline that belongs to everyone in the Church, and is something that I believe is a vocation of the Church, regardless of whether you’ve had a good year or not.” Nor is lament reserved for “people who are very emotive and can cry in public, which will exclude most of the Church of England”.

She continues: “So, if we can try and talk about lament in ways that treat it as part of our tradition, part of our ritual, part of what we expect to do as we gather, then that will help us. And the Psalms are a great model for that. The Psalms provide songs of lament which were communal songs of lament, which people participated in not necessarily because they felt a certain way.”

“Privatised grief can be particularly dangerous,” she says. “If we only grieve on our own, if we treat something like climate or ecological grief as a grief that we have to bear individually without sharing with others, it can give us a very warped sense of what it is we’re grieving; so it can mean that we can, for example, imagine that we are the only ones who feel a certain way.”

FOR Christians, mourning for loved ones also comes with the promise of resurrection hope. What does climate grief mean in light of the resurrection?
“What I don’t want to say is that belief in resurrection provides some kind of balm or lessening of the experience of climate grief,” Ms Malcolm says. “But I think what it does do is provide an understanding of climate grief which might be distinct from how those who don’t believe in resurrection experience it.”

When Christians grieve, “we believe that, because that’s a work of love . . . our works of love participate in transforming the world; they participate in bringing about a transformed world. . . When we grieve, when we participate in sharing our grief, that work of love will not be wasted. Our works of love belong in a renewed world, they belong to a renewed creation.”

This way of thinking about grief, she says, “emphasises that it’s not misplaced affection for temporary shelter. We don’t grieve the earth because we’ve got our attention all wrong and we should really not feel that way because our attention should be on God. We grieve the earth because this is the home that belongs to us and that God has given us, and it’s the place that we believe that we’ll be resurrected, where our affection is rightly placed — and climate grief is an expression of that.”

The doctrine of the ascension has influenced Ms Malcolm’s thinking on this. “God not only comes to earth to redeem it and not only is raised on this earth, but also takes part of that earth with him to the heart of the divine,” she says. “So when we grieve, we are rightly expressing a very profound, and I believe eternal, relationship that we have been gifted with.

“But, also, we participate in transforming that world that we’ve been gifted with. We participate in something that will be raised, will be resurrected.”


Words for a Dying World is published on Monday by SCM Press at £15.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99). Read extracts from the book here and here.

Listen to an extended version of this interview on the Church Times Podcast.

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