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Called to live in the world, not on it

25 October 2021

For the sake of the climate, we need not just campaigning, but a change of heart, writes Stephen Cottrell

Alamy

THE UK Environment Agency asked 25 secular environmental leaders in 2009 what might “save the planet”. Second on the list of 50 items — behind only greater energy efficiency — was for world faiths to become engaged with the issue of environmental protection.

As nations prepare to gather for COP26, the most important climate summit since the signing of the Paris Agreement, and the biggest diplomatic event on British soil since the Second World War, I am pleased to see the global Church playing a more active part in creation care.

In 2015, there were Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (News, 19 June 2015) and the Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change. Only last month, we saw for the first time the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Communion warning jointly of the urgency of environmental sustainability and the impact of climate change on the poor (News, 10 September).

That impact was something that I witnessed three years ago when travelling in a part of Northern Kenya where it hadn’t rained for 18 months. Seeing children wave empty plastic bottles at us, begging for water, was one of the saddest things that I have experienced. Every day, the equivalent of 12 jumbo jets’ worth of people die because they lack access to fresh water. This horror will only worsen unless the injustice of the climate crisis is tackled.

 

FOR ME, as I said in the House of Lords (Quotes, 10 September; Letters, 24 September), the challenge of the environmental emergency is captured in the Lord’s Prayer. We pray “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” If you look in the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll notice that it says “in earth, as it is in heaven.”

We used to believe, and to know, that we lived in earth, that we were part of it, interdependent with it. And, if we had a relationship with the earth, it was to be its good stewards, living in it, and with it, and serving it.

From the idea that the earth is mine, and I can do with it what I will, disaster upon disaster has flowed. We have been blind to the consequences of our actions, and we now live in a time when we must take action.

The Lord’s Prayer also suggests a solution to our broken relationship with creation. It continues, “Give us today our daily bread.” Give me enough for today, save me from wanting more than my share. So, no, I don’t want strawberries on Christmas Day flown in from the other side of the world. I need to live differently; I need to inhabit the planet in a different, more sustainable way.

It’s right that we advocate and campaign for better legislation for the environment, and that we look for progress at meetings like COP26. We have political power to use our voice for these things. But we also need a change of heart, where we recognise that we live in the earth, where we start to learn to know what enough looks like.

 

I WELCOME the interventions from church leaders, and the words of the Lambeth Declaration. But we must also remember that the Church manifesting a more sustainable relationship with creation is happening in individual churches and homes across the country. There is A Rocha’s Eco Church scheme, which has meant that thousands of churches have been awarded gold, silver, and bronze awards for taking steps to ensure that their church acts as better stewards of creation (Online Feature, 18 October).

The Church of England has made the commitment to being net carbon-zero by 2030 — in just nine years’ time (News, 14 February; Comment, 21 February). I am proud of this bold decision, which is aligned with the most ambitious and forward-thinking institutions and in advance of most others. If we want to speak prophetically into this debate, it is important that we act prophetically, too.

It is going to be a big challenge, but a huge amount is happening. Churches are switching to renewable electricity providers; we are reducing our energy waste, fitting solar panels, and ground-source heaters. It may be a cliché, but, yes, there is an argument for changing to LED light bulbs, too. Some of our buildings already have a very small carbon footprint; others are bigger.

It is a huge, ambitious, and pretty terrifying programme. And I don’t know whether we will get there by 2030. But, if we get a long way towards it, it will be a significant achievement. The first step for anyone wanting to help join us is to do a simple audit of their church’s energy using a C of E app: churchofengland.org/energy-footprinting-tool.

Over the next few weeks, we will be watching and praying in hope for a positive outcome at COP26 in which the world will take a huge step forward in bringing climate justice to those in need of it. But, whatever the outcome in Glasgow, there will be a need for a movement of people with changed hearts who live in the earth and not just on it, who cherish the gift of “enough”, and who try to model a way of living which works in harmony with God’s creation, not against it.


The Most Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Archbishop of York.

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