Monday, 29 December 2014

Room-based Christianity

It dawned on me the other day that western Christianity can all be lived out in buildings.  There is no need to leave a room to be a Christian in the UK, or indeed anywhere.  You can administer to the poor, treat the sick, protect the vulnerable, pray and sing all inside.  Services are inside, sermons are written inside and delivered inside.  People don't even need to look out of a window.  Outside a room, -  that is the concern of the secular world.  And anyway too much interest in falling fish stocks, declining birds and reptiles, polluted rivers, acidifying oceans and so on could be considered pagan. Leave it to Greenpeace and the RSPB.

This is so wrong-headed I despair, but it seems to be the way things are.

Over the last few months we've had some shocking statistics, not least the WWF/Zoological Society report that showed the earth has lost 50% of its wildlife over the last 40 years.  We are thought to be in the middle of the 6th mass extinction event known on Planet Earth.  George Monbiot is right to call for an end to the war on nature.  In terms of weather and climate - 2014 is the warmest year on record and we have no end of extreme weather events from droughts, temperatures, floods and storms  recorded from every continent.  Surely there is no one out there that disagrees that the earth is destabilising and thinning out to an alarming degree, and we are to blame.  (Oh hang on - Cardinal George Pell and many evangelical Christians don't - but apart from them).

As E O wilson says, we saw the end of the Age of the Reptile (bye bye dinosaurs) are coming to the end the Age of the Mammals and entering the Age of Loneliness.  He calls it the Eremocene, a time when humanity will be accompanied by scavengers and generalists like cockroaches, corvids and mice/rats.  The vision is awful, a world of people and a thin sprinkling of those species that can take advantage of our wasted earth.  Many places on earth will be uninhabitable because of temperature and sea level rise. People will be squashed into temperate zones and fighting over fresh water, food and living space.  Gone for ever is most of life on earth, especially the specialist creatures, the beautiful, diverse splendour that makes this amazing planet unique and full of wonder.  But many think we will have gone the way of the Dodo before that happens, unable to thrive in a depleted and polluted world. Its all very depressing and demoralising.

Good news then Pope Francis is to write an encyclical on the environment, give an address to the UN General Assembly and call major faith leaders together to discuss religion and climate change (see recent Guardian article).  In October he said that climate change and loss of biodiversity were already bringing about cataclysmic change to the earth, causing poverty and distress to many, especially the poorer nations.  When the world's leaders meet in Paris in 2015 to finalise their commitments to reduce carbon emissions the Pope will be expected to make a major contribution. That is such good news, long overdue and very welcome.  1.2 billion people are supposedly Catholic, although I suspect far fewer actually do live and breathe the faith in a pure way.  It is undeniable however that Pope Francis is a moral compass in a lost world and is perhaps the only religious leader to be listened to in high places and able to draw crowds of thousands wherever he goes.  He is a religious superstar, a magnet for those looking for another voice that is far away from money power and fear.

What will he say I wonder? I hope he hits the right note and speaks to the heart of those who have the functioning of the Catholic Church in their hands, inspiring them to speak out with passion.  But I suspect in the UK (and most of the West) that won't happen. In many rich countries Catholic leaders are ageing, often worn out and over stretched.  Their problems are many and varied ranging from lack of vocations to falling numbers in pews to child abuse. The "environment" is an annoying addition to a very heavy workload.  Most (not all) clergy are theologians and historians by training and know little about nature/science.  As the Bible has little to say about humanity's relationship with the natural world that is easy to translate then it is not at all obvious what to do.  SO the best solution is to take an easy way out and equate "environment" with "climate change" - and as that will affect poorer nations first - just give the job to Cafod. Job done.  That is what has happened in England.

Cafod do a very good job in raising awareness of what a warming world will mean for poorer nations. In the US The Catholic Climate Covenant also does well, along with others.  None of them however have a position on biodiversity and habitat loss, so half of the equation is gone already.  Giving the job of the "environment" to Cafod in England is one good step, there are many, many more. But those steps require vision, interest and understanding. They require bishops to make clear, informed statements that relate faith to nature and that inspire others to act.  It requires a knowledge of what is happening to the oceans, to the soils, to the forests, to cities and plains and fields.  It requires religious leaders to look at the earth and ask big, far-reaching questions. It requires asking people to make changes to their lives  - what we eat and how we live day to day - and that might not be popular.  In short it requires a lot of energy and time and I don't think that is possible.

Sitting down to write this is hard because of years of indifference. There was a flurry of interest after Sound of Many Waters in Bristol in 2008 where I organised an event a month in Clifton Cathedral based on different environmental themes.  It was successful and well received.  An environmental group was set up to discuss environmental issues and advise the bishops, but was disbanded after a couple of years.  Since then there is only Cafod.  No bishop for the environment, no advisory group, no interest - no opinion.

Room-based Christianity has to come to an end, for all of our sakes.  I hope Francis urges 1.2 billion people to love the earth and wonder at it.  Marvel, be horrified, feel fear, be challenged, experience transporting joy and experience the reality of death.  Out there is as much the face of God as in a room, no matter how beautiful. Until we re-kindle those feelings and join all the dots then the "environment" will mean little, no matter how many dire warnings, awful stats and no matter how many fine words.

As an example of how far  English Catholicism has travelled from the reality of the world I remind you of a edict by the bishops of England and Wales in 2011.  They urged Catholics to re-connect with their Catholic identity and revert to eating fish on Friday's - to show the world who Catholics are. How depressing, ignorant and tunnel visioned is that? The oceans are in dire trouble.  Didn't they think about this?  Or perhaps it doesn't seem important? Don't they believe the stats or perhaps they are simply unaware?  Wouldn't it have been far, far better to ask Catholics to be vegetarian for at least one day a week - even better vegan. Now that would have been a thoughtful, contemporary response.

So will Pope Francis make a difference?  I hope so, but it is a hopeful light that doesn't feel too strong right now. Not a beacon shining out to show the way, more a tiny flicker in the gloom.  I Hope Francis has a good long look at my favourite verse from the Bible: John 10:10 "A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came so that you may have life - life in all its fulness."  Life in all its fulness  - that phrase alone is worth meditating on for a very long time.

I hope Francis brings back the passion, the care, the compassion, the sense of justice, the love of life and for all its living things.  I hope he states a refusal to accept greed and money as the drivers that are devastating our world. I hope he urges every person of faith to bang tables, shout for change, demand an end to this madness and cruelty and destruction - demand that we all live in a kinder, more caring world and have a vision of abundance not desolation.

If all religious leaders stood up to be counted and said "not in my name does this continue" then perhaps we could see change.  Perhaps.

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