Becoming an eco-congregation – a personal perspective

In response to the “climate crisis”, Christ Church with St Mary’s (Immanuel URC too, I believe) aspires to become an “eco-congregation”.  On 4 January, Christ Church’s Men’s Breakfast group discussed what this might mean and its implications for churches and individuals.

The breakfast group was established by a former curate, Robert Sanday, in February 1994.  For 26 years, it has met on almost every first Saturday of the month for worship (optional Morning Prayer at 07.30), followed from 08.00 by a full cooked breakfast (lighter options available), fellowship and discussion, sometimes led by a speaker, on other occasions (more) informally amongst ourselves.  Although breakfast is prepared by men from Christ Church, all are warmly welcome to help consume it, irrespective of gender or denomination.  Please do join us.  (Contact Mike Palmer for further information.)

The following piece draws on the group’s recent discussion, but reflects my individual (perhaps naively simplistic) views, not necessarily those of the wider group or Christ Church as a whole.

Eco-Congregation is an ecumenical programme in several countries that links environmental issues with the Christian faith, helping churches and individuals to respond with practical actions in their own and others’ lives.  In England and Wales, it is administered as Eco Church by the charity A Rocha UK, which operates an accreditation and award scheme for churches that want to demonstrate the good news of the gospel for God’s Earth.

Important though the environmental impacts of premises and operations are, if a church aspires to be an eco-congregation (of people), as distinct from an eco-church (building), it’s primarily about individual attitudes and actions as an aspect of discipleship.  That implies a long-term commitment to meaningful changes in behaviour, not short-term box-ticking to get the “Blue Peter badge” (a danger of any accreditation scheme).

God gave people dominion over the Earth and nature:  “fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth” (Genesis 1.28).  But dominion implies privilege and responsibility – for our careful stewardship and enjoyment of God’s creation for the time being – not its exploitation and degradation by domination, at the expense of future generations:  “The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24.1, Christ Church’s Bible verse for 2020).  That is explicit in the Anglican’s Communion’s fifth Mark of Mission “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth [surely the Earth?; it’s about the planet, not just the soil, and nobody refers to “mars” or “venus”!]”.

But what should individuals be doing as members of an eco-congregation?  In a complex system, actions don’t occur in isolation.  Climate change is just one of a set of inter-related issues that have consequences for others.  They include population growth; production and consumption of food (too much of it by many, insufficient by others), water and energy; infectious, and lifestyle-related chronic diseases; pollution and degradation of soil, water and air; loss of biodiversity and the “ecosystem services” it provides, and depletion of other finite resources and “natural capital”.  In current scientific and policy thinking, those relationships are being drawn together in an emerging concept of “planetary health” – of the Earth and its people.

Changes to one element of a system affect others.  “Trade-offs” are inevitable, and there is a danger of unintended consequences.  Measures intended to address one problem might cause another elsewhere, and impacts might be shifted from where we see them to other places (and people) where we don’t.  The introduction of a 5p charge for single-use plastic bags, for example, increased the total quantity of plastic distributed by supermarkets as they were substituted by a smaller number of, individually much heavier, so-called (in principle but not in practice) “bags for life”.  Other examples were identified in a report published by the Green Alliance on 9 January 2020.

But environmental sustainability and living sustainably are surely imperatives of the second great commandment?  There’s been endless debate about what sustainability means, but a widely used definition (including by the UK government) comes from Our Common Future, the 1987 report of a commission chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway:  “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Isn’t that just another way of saying “love your neighbour as yourself”, recognising that we have neighbours who are remote from us in time as well as space?

Evangelical Christians traditionally placed much more emphasis on saving souls than sustaining the Earthly wellbeing of people and the planet.  (An interview in the latest Tearfund magazine, with one of the charity’s founders, mentions significant opposition 50 years ago to using for the relief of poverty money that might otherwise have been spent on “Billy Graham-style” evangelism.)  But Jesus was concerned with not only life hereafter, whenever that might come, but also here and now, however long it might last:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10).

There are no easy answers to – (in the jargon of “think tanks” and “policy wonks”) – a “wicked” problem.  And narrow, all-or-nothing responses, such as suggestions that everyone should follow a strict vegan diet and/or eat only organic food, are simplistic, and border on fundamentalism.

But everyone could do their bit, with sound guidance on sensible and practicable lifestyle changes that would enable them to make useful contributions – as Immanuel is providing, I understand, in its weekly news-sheet.

The following prayer that I came across in Exeter is apposite (from Devon Churches Green Action’s liturgy for its “Season of Creation”):

Lord, you gave us the gift of insight to understand the meaning of your creation and our responsibility to care for it.

You gave us eyes to see the beauty of the world, and the gift of empathy to understand others and their needs.

Lord, forgive us for not caring for your creation.

Forgive us that we seek to become masters of your work;

forgive us our inner blindness and deafness to the needs of our neighbour.

Attitudes and actions are more important than accreditation and awards.

Brian Harris

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