by Revd Ruth Newton, parish priest of St John’s Sharow, tutor at St Hild college, and member of General Synod and the Environmental Working Group. Ruth is undertaking a doctorate into the theological motivations of environmental activists
There is no longer any question that anthropogenic climate change is happening, with an overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate is warming at an alarming rate due to human activity. In 2021, the UN Secretary-General suggested that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings were nothing less than “a code red for humanity”, that “the alarm bells are deafening”, and that the evidence is irrefutable. The record-breaking temperatures experienced this summer have hammered home to those of us in this country a message that our brothers and sisters in the global South have been telling us for some time: that climate change is a present reality, not a future threat.
Consensus for action has been growing within the Church too. Striving “to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” has been recognised as a mark of Anglican Mission for over 30 years. It’s the aspiration of General Synod that the Church be “Carbon Net Zero” by 2030, and this has placed environmental actions firmly on the agenda of PCCs and Diocesan Synods.
In a Church which is divided, not least on human sexuality, environmental mission has the potential to provide the common ground around which we can coalesce and where the Church could give unequivocal moral leadership. The recent “Lambeth Calls” on the environment and sustainable development attracted less publicity than the more controversial one on human dignity, precisely because, as one bishop reportedly said, they were a “no brainer”.
Nevertheless, in a Church recovering from the impact of the Covid lockdowns and facing the immediate challenge of the cost-of-living crisis, I wonder if “the environment” is seen as just another issue to be ticked off an ever-growing to-do list. For too many, environmental mission is still seen as a distraction from the “core business” of being Church – the evangelism, youth and children’s work, pastoral care, social advocacy, and the myriad of other things we need to attend to.
However, “the environment” is not one issue amongst many, or even the issue of our times. I would argue it is not “an issue” at all; it is bigger than that. It is not a distraction from “core business”, but rather the backdrop to it, the horizon against which all our theology, mission and ministry are undertaken. Our apologetics and evangelism will prove ineffective if we present a version of the Gospel which fails to address the pressing questions the ecological crisis is raising. Those engaged in pastoral care will find themselves faced with people who are, with some justification, suffering eco-anxiety. Those who advocate with and for the poor will discover, as so many relief and development agencies have done, that climate change and ecological degradation intersect with and amplify poverty to the extent that one cannot be dealt with without addressing the other. All our theology, mission and ministry will need to be recalibrated to meet the challenges of “the environment”.
Doing this will not be easy, as even finding the appropriate language is a struggle. I wrestle with the idea of stewardship. I find little scriptural warrant for it, apart from a contested interpretation of Genesis 1:28, and, given our track record to date, I have little confidence in the abilities of humans to proactively manage the natural world. I wonder if we might do better to think in terms of human restraint in using natural resources.
Thinking in terms of creation-care is preferable, but only if we recall that we too are created beings, dependent upon both God and the non-human creation. We need the rest of creation more than they need us. Since we have tended to think of ourselves as separate from the rest of creation, the language of creation-care does not always sufficiently emphasise the degree to which the ecological crisis is also a humanitarian one, affecting people, and affecting them right now.
Climate change disproportionately affects the global poor, black and brown people, women, and children. Those who, historically, have been least culpable are also the ones who are bearing the most cost. Those who are already marginalised will be marginalised further. We have a responsibility to future generations who bear the consequences of our actions and inaction. So I prefer to think in terms of justice. Whilst I am unsure whether God has given Christians a mandate to “steward” creation, I am confident he has given us one to do justice and love mercy, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
This month, as we celebrate creation-tide, we may well rejoice in the beauty of the natural world and the splendour of all that God has made. We may even consider our culpability in the world’s problems and may commit to live differently. But let us not shy away from addressing the human cost of the ecological emergency, and our prophetic role in addressing that.
A Christian response to “the environment” cannot be left to those environmental enthusiasts and nature lovers who have heroically advocated for decades. Nor can the theology be delegated to the specialism of eco-theologians. It will involve the whole Body of Christ, in all its diversity, uniting, as the Church takes up its calling to announce and signify the Kingdom of God. I am probably slightly too fond of saying “in the face of global heating, we cannot be lukewarm”. But really, as those who seek to follow Christ, we can’t afford to be anything other than “all in”.
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