Last night I went to a dinner debate at the Reform Club in Pall Mall (I think that's where Phileas Fogg made a bet with his pals about going round the world in 80 days). the main speaker was Bishop James Jones of Liverpool and the other guests were a mixture of water engineers, environmental scientists and a few religious leaders/representatives.
James Jones is a thoughtful and sensitive man who has a lot to say about our spiritual relationship with nature, which he has been thinking about seriously since 2000. He said his turning point came when he visited many schools in his deanery and realised that the vast majority of children were really worried about the future of the earth and felt we ought to be doing something about it - and that was 9 years ago. It was a wake up call to find out how a Christian leader could respond - and a book called Jesus and the Earth was the result.
The following discussion was not so much a debate as a chance for a varied group of people to have their say - and it struck me very clearly that everyone does have something to say about the environmental situation, but we are all told too much and not listened to enough.
One of the main points was - where is the vision we need to strive for to encourage us to have a change of heart? Who is helping us to see the future? Who is the inspirational leader pointing to another way? As I wrote in the Guardian article last month - we are truly lacking a vision of something good that is worth making sacrifices for - doom and gloom won't do it. People also wanted to know how scientists and environmentalists can help. Bishop James's answer rang true for me - he urged them to use better language, more accessible, inspirational, poetic even. Again it echoed the saying that my colleagues and I at ARC (Alliance of Religions and Conservation) often talk about - if the word you want to use isn't in a poem - don't use it, because no one loves it enough!
Others asked how we will get those of us who live in plenty to accept less? What role does the religious understanding of love play? Is this deep down a matter of justice, not climate change or biodiversity? Are religious leaders just too timid?
James Jones urged all religious leaders to act together, to stand up and proclaim what they believe.
I put my oar in and said I thought much of the time religious leaders were acting at the wrong level. I firmly believe that most people who are trained in theology are not necessarily good at telling people about science. But all of them without exception are experts about what it is to be human. The environmental crisis like any other breakdown is the result of a broken relationship that we have allowed to disintegrate under our noses. It is not deliberate very often, but it is all -pervasive. Religious leaders need to get us back to the basis - what is a human being? How do we fit into the web of life that we know so much about now? What is science telling us about what we are? We are physically the same as the rest of the known universe, the same matter, chemicals, elements. We don't float about as semi-angels, we are mammals and have an ecology. So what is it to be human? How should we behave towards others, including the natural world?
Anyone who has been to one of my talks knows I define a human being by 4 relationships - our relationship to God, ourselves, each other and the earth. So far religious leaders have been very good at the first 3 and only recently starting to talk about the 4th. But all have to be in balance to be a flourishing person. This is the level at which religion enters the environmental arena, it sets the ground rules.
I'm looking forward to the big Windsor Conference coming up in November, it is a great pity we won't have James Jones there - he would add a great deal.
He finished the evening with an extract form a poem, God's Grandeur, by Gerard Manley-Hopkins:
Photo by Chris Sperring