“The Earth is the Lord’s”
Modern Church Annual Conference 15-18 July 2013
a report by Chris Benson
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Modern Church (formerly Modern Churchpeople’s Union) is an organisation dedicated to fostering liberal Christianity -open-minded, reflective and enquiring – principally (though not exclusively) within the Church of England. I have been a member for a number of years but this was my first MC conference. Being (relatively) newly-retired enabled me to attend but the theme this year – “The Earth is the Lord’s” – tied in so strongly with the initiatives on environment and sustainability getting under way at St John’s that I would have tried hard to attend even if still working.
It was pretty obvious as I got off the train at Broxbourne who was heading for High Leigh Conference Centre at Hoddesden in Hertfordshire – somehow there is an unmistakeable ‘look’ to MC members! There was not enough room in the minibus provide for all, so with the bags going in the bus, three of us volunteered to undertake the pleasant walk along the river Lea and through the parkland at the back of the conference centre. Given the theme it seemed appropriate to arrive on foot.
Jonathan Clatworthy, General Secretary of MC, began the conference, with the temperature pushing 30°, by welcoming us to “the High Leigh climate change experience,” and introducing our chair, Margaret Barker, who had assembled the speakers, most of whom had, like her, been associated with the ‘floating symposia’ on science, religion and the environment organised by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the eastern Orthodox Church, whose name cropped up frequently and about whom we were to hear very much more the following evening.
Margaret Barker delivered a formidably scholarly though entertaining talk entitled The Eternal Covenant. Drawing heavily on her enormous knowledge of ancient languages and her specialism of the Jerusalem Temple and the rituals and theology surrounding it, she pointed out that there are several covenants in Bible (with Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.) but over-arching them all is the Eternal Covenant with all creation spoken of by Isaiah (24:4-6). She said that a covenant is not “a deal”, rather a system of bonds, capable of being broken by human sin. She used the analogy of a spider’s web: the web can retain its stability if a few supporting threads are broken, but if too many are broken it will suffer a catastrophic collapse. This is the situation we are in in relation to creation – and scripture spells out the nightmare consequences of this collapse. This sin is brought about through the abuse of knowledge – knowledge without wisdom. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge and not the Tree of Life, Adam rejected God’s life-sustaining wisdom. Knowledge without wisdom brings about the fall of the Tower of Babel and the Flood. The Jerusalem Temple was designed to be a model of creation and sin in the community as seen as polluting not just the Temple but creation itself (in Hebrew, Margaret told us, the words ‘polluted’ and ‘Godless’ sound the same). The Temple rituals were seen as restoring the broken threads of creation (the concept of atonement).
David Shreeve, Environment Consultant to the Archbishops’ Council, spoke on “Nurturing in his Name”, noting some of the hopeful signs that the churches are at last beginning to engage with environmental issues. The Bishop of London has equated care for the environment with love of neighbour. Both Pope Francis and his predecessor have called on Christians to protect the environment. In the USA, the situation is less happy. Evangelical Christians, especially in the south, continue to deny that climate change is happening, but even there attitudes are very slowly changing, mainly due to pressure from younger people.
The next day brought us the really scary stuff. Hylton Murray Philipson first saw trees being destroyed in the Amazon rainforest at the age of 17, and spoke emotionally of the impact it made on him. He reminded us of what was to be one of the main themes of the conference: the interconnectedness of all things. The Amazon rainforest, as well as sequestering a colossal amount of carbon, and being a miraculously abundant natural habitat, also acts as a missive water pump, drawing water from the soil and discharging it as vapour into the atmosphere, benefitting weather around the globe. But this vast natural resource is under constant attack from development. The area of four Hyde Parks is lost every hour. 20% of the entire rainforest, which is – or was – about the size of Europe, and 93% of the forest adjoining the coast, has already been lost to the bulldozers of the unscrupulous and the chainsaws of the plain desperate, who continue to defy environmental legislation to grow soya which ends up being fed to cattle. The unsuitable soil quickly becomes barren and is then abandoned as the growers move on. The indigenous people and activists who stand in their way sometimes pay with their lives, like the American nun Sister Dorothy Stang, murdered in 2005. Meanwhile, carbon levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, passing 400ppm last month. We probably have only two years to stabilise carbon levels, otherwise events are likely to spiral out of control. Hylton showed film illustrating the scale, beauty and biodiversity of the rainforest and also heart-breaking images of its destruction.
There was more bad news from the next speaker, Professor Tom Spencer, a former Tory MEP, though very out of sympathy with some of the policies of the present government. Returning to Margaret Barker’s theme of the bonds of the Eternal Covenant, he foresaw a “civilizational crisis” if these broken bonds are not very quickly restored. By the end of this century, he predicted, three billion [sic] people may die as a result of famine, disease, natural disaster and war attributable to the effects of climate change – and some think the figure may be considerably higher. We are so used to rhetoric of progress that we find it almost impossible to say to our children and grandchildren that this is what lies ahead of them. Standing in the way of action is, firstly, fear – the enormity of the problem so paralyses people that they are unable even to listen to the message, let alone react to it. Secondly, there are the enormous resources being dedicated by commercial interests to obstructing effective action. Meanwhile, political parties, weakened by falling, and therefore less broadly-based, more ideological membership, are less able to rise to the challenge of finding solutions and providing the leadership to carry them through. In these circumstances the churches’ role as storyteller and as bringer of hope is vital.
After an afternoon dedicated to the Modern Church AGM and a celebration of the Eucharist, the evening session was devoted to DVDs portraying Patriarch Bartholomew. He is a remarkable man. The Turkish authorities put considerable difficulties in his way as he ministers to his small Christian flock, mainly in Istanbul, closing his tranquil island seminary, and he faces intimidation and threats from Islamists. But it is his work on the environment which is unique in its scope and vision. He has gathered together 50 scientists and 50 theologians (from all major world faiths) on ships loaned by Greek owners to visit areas of environmental stress, meet those affected, discuss the challenges and seek ways in which the centuries-old rift between science and religion might be healed in the cause of protecting our planet. Sites visited have included a heavily-polluted abandoned chemical plant in Albania, melting glaciers in Greenland, a sewage plant in the Baltic and deforestation in Amazonia. In the Amazon jungle the Patriarch met representatives of indigenous people, who live in harmony with their forest, taking only what they need. For them, any form of pollution such as throwing rubbish into the river is taboo. (Unrecyclable waste is unknown in nature.) “We need each other,” the Patriarch says. “They need our science, we need their traditions.” One of the most moving scenes showed Bartholomew and his fellow faith leaders, heads bowed, being blessed by an Amazonian shaman, and in another we saw representatives of twelve world religions standing together in prayer among the Arctic ice: “May God grant us the wisdom to act in time.”
Next morning began (after worship and breakfast) with a Roman Catholic contribution. The conference chaplain, Fr. Domenic White, described his spiritual experience of nature (a thunderstorm at the age of three) and of music, especially the organ music of Olivier Messiaen and Jehan Alain. He sees the arts as bridging the gap between sacred and secular, and church musicians in particular as having a responsibility to act as a channel between heaven and earth. All this background informs his own composition “Cosmos”, a multi-media work bringing together organ music, African drumming, Gregorian chant, dance, sculpture and projected images in nine dances with titles such as “The Sea Dance,” the Mystery of Time,” “Regeneration” and “The Fire Dance” under the headings “Origins”, “The Rites of Spring” and “Ecstasy,” in celebration of the natural world and its cycles. Fr. Domenic spoke of the monumental task of bringing this work, 12 years in the making, to performance. A film of one of the dances, “Angels” was shown, and deeply impressed all present.
Next up, Dr Alex Evans, senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University gave a notable talk entitled the “The Psychology of atonement and environmental restoration.” He spoke first of his “loss of faith”, in the course of his work with the UN Global panel on Sustainability. He believed he had been seeing world leaders at last moving towards effective global action on the environment, reining in human activity approaching the limits of what the planet can absorb, and sharing carbon emissions more fairly between the developed and underdeveloped worlds. Instead, he saw no leader prepared to look beyond national interest, or even acknowledge that limits to human activity are needed. So, if rational argument and clear evidence don’t persuade people, what will? New forms of governance are needed but it is not yet clear what form they might take. Meanwhile, if the battle is to be won, it is more like to be won in individuals rather than governments. People have to be persuaded not to escape into what he described as “a consumer society suffering from attention deficit disorder.”
Dr Evans returned to the Eternal Covenant, as a means of maintaining peace and harmony in creation, through Wisdom, the feminine aspect of God. The Christian vision of justice and peace for all is way ahead of any current political thinking. The vision may be mystical, but it is “utterly concerned with the here and now.” Jesus came as the great High Priest to restore the broken Covenant bonds, but that role now belongs to us all.
He concluded by predicting that a “crisis moment,” such as those spoken of symbolically in the apocalyptic texts in the Bible, is approaching, bringing opportunities for atonement and renewal. At such a moment, our Judaeo-Christian roots, symbols and stories have an important resonance for a society struggling to find myths to carry it through what are likely to be very turbulent times. The Church needs to stop obsessing about women bishops and gay priests and return to preaching the Eternal Covenant thorough the myths, stories and rituals surrounding it.
Rabbi Jeffrey Newman’s session had the somewhat prolix title “The Earth Charter: A holistic approach to 'restoring the covenant' -a case study on Friern Barnet Community Library,” but was really more of a workshop to digest and feedback conference’s response thus far. The Earth Charter is a “declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century… centrally concerned with the transition to sustainable ways of living and sustainable human development.” It has been put together by politicians, theologians, indigenous peoples, lawyers and scientists from around the world. Though not a religious document as such, it speaks of the humility, sacredness and interconnectedness, and draws heavily on faith traditions.
The evening brought some relaxation as conference members entertained each other with a variety of “party pieces” – songs, poems and humour.
The opening session of the final morning comprised a talk by the Revd Helen Hutchinson, Diocesan Environmental Officer for the St Albans Diocese, with the provocative title “Melting ice caps, disappearing mangrove swamps and vanishing bees: how do these events play in Stocking Pelham?”
The problem, she said, is that although people are generally quite well-informed about environmental problems they do not connect them with their own individual lifestyle. Change must come from below, and churches need to be a prophetic voice in their own communities. “Think global, act local” is the message. In St Albans Diocese a mission programme aims to bring this about by transforming communities. An award scheme, “Living Lightly,” enables parishes to engage with sustainability through practical action such as buying green energy, insulating churches and halls, managing churchyards to be wildlife-friendly, and supporting local farmers. Initiatives include a “Walk to Church Sunday,” retreat days in the “forest cathedral” at Whipsnade, and special liturgies for festivals such as Lammas tide and Apple Day. Here, Celtic and Eastern Orthodox spirituality is proving valuable. Some ideas may seem “New-Agey,” but, as Helen pointed out, “New Age is our brand.”
As a case study, Helen talked about the setting up of an apiary in the churchyard at Leighton Buzzard (appropriately!), the hives being duly blessed. The project has developed friendships and fellowship, and is now branching out into schools. Part of the grant will be used to buy bee suits for young people. The need to reconnect young people with nature and enable them to discover the sacred and numinous in the natural world is urgent.
The final session gave us all a chance to reflect on what we had heard throughout the conference through an exercise (in groups) to summarise a characteristically Biblical view of creation and translate that into ideas for a harvest festival service. These included showing a Youtubeclip of the rainforest accompanied by the Vivaldi Gloria shown to us earlier by Hylton Murray Philipson, asking every member of the congregation to bring a fruit or vegetable to hold in church (to overcome the effect of tinned offerings of distancing us from the source of our food), and, most radically, “decorating” the church with black bin bags of unrecyclable rubbish, to be brought up to the altar as an act of penitence! The value of the Benedicite canticle was underlined by several groups.
So the conference ended, and I departed, grateful for the excellent hospitality of High Leigh, the walks in the fields and woods behind it in the cool of the early morning, and much stimulating and enjoyable company. My final thoughts? Firstly, a negative one: apprehension. It does seem very possible that we will fail (indeed we may already have failed) to take enough action in time to prevent our world suffering catastrophic climate change. That may not impact much on people like myself born in the 1950s, but it is likely to impact on my children and almost certainly my
grandchildren. What sort of a world they might inherit can be a terrifying thought. But there is hope, provided principally by the extraordinary people still doing all they can to prevent the worst happening. And there is hope too in the churches, providing the communities, the places, the stories and the rituals which will be essential if human beings are to face the crisis and come out the other side with their humanity intact.
The conference themes of the Eternal Covenant, the interconnectedness of all things, “think global, act local” all provided much encouragement and inspiration as I headed for home (by public transport, of course).