An Environmental Journey
Brian Kellock reflects
My love for the natural world goes back to my boyhood days spent wandering the lanes and woods around the Kent village where my grandparents lived. In those days I gave no thought to this being God’s world. That came later, in my teens when I became a Christian.
That this world was under threat from climate change or exploitation came to me much later still; September 2004 to be precise. This was at a sustainability conference at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells organised by Somerset Churches Together. One speaker had a big impact on me: Claire Foster, who was at that time a lay canon at St Paul’s Cathedral, and author of the report Sharing God’s Planet.
Commissioned by the Church of England ‘s Mission and Public Affairs Council, this has since proved a powerful tool for study, discussion and action. During the conference Claire quoted Hildegard of Bingen:
“God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else.”
She used the spider’s web, each strand of which is essential to sustain the structure, as an illustration: break one strand and it begins to become unstable until in the end the web breaks down. It was an apt analogy for what is happening in our world, except that the spider seems to have the skill and patience to mend its web in good time.
In my diary for that day I wrote: “Came home feeling that for the first time my Christian faith and my interest in nature had come together in a way that made the whole greater than the sum of the parts.”
As a result of this conference I became a member of the newly formed Somerset Churches Together Sustainability Group. I recall the first meeting I attended where everyone was talking of scientific predictions that we had just ten years to fix the climate change challenge if it were not to become irreversible.
That meeting took place more than ten years ago.
As a result of belonging to this group I had the privilege subsequently of being invited to be part of a small working party being set up, under the chairmanship of Revd David Osborne, to draft an environmental policy for the diocese. The resultant policy was accepted by diocesan synod in March 2007 and today is accessible on the diocesan website.
For my journey this proved a major stage, not only in being part of an important project. It also brought me into contact with some major environmental projects in the diocese; the Carymoor Environmental Centre at Castle Cary and Chew Magna’s Go Zero project to name two. There was one other valuable discovery I made I’ll come to later.
I learnt the importance of having support from the top, in this case the Bishop’s Council. This came home to me again when I got to interesting my own church, Christ Church in Weston super Mare, in environmental issues. Only with the support of the vicar and the PCC at that time (2007) were we able to take the big steps needed to achieve eco-congregation status.
When I began my environmental journey, climate change was not the agenda of many Christians. In most church communities it was considered as a fringe interest. Few saw the connection between it and the future security of the human race. That at least has changed. Doubters have diminished, overwhelmed by the scientific evidence.
[If you still doubt go to the Nasa website (www.climate.nasa.gov/evidence) where it states that 97 per cent of climate scientists agree that climate warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. It also gives a long list of reports from other organisations that agree with it.]
Over the past ten years there have been many international reports and events. A major one was the Stern Report in 2006 which pointed out that 40 per cent of the world’s species would face extinction of global temperatures rose by 2 degrees C; that it would cause four billion to suffer from water shortage; that 200 million people were at risk of being driven from their homes by flood or drought by 2050.
The report had a major but short lived impact on the political scene. Then came the disastrous 2009 UN Copenhagen Summit to which many environmentalists, including Christians, travelled – some at great inconvenience – and who came away thoroughly disillusioned.
Now all hope is pinned on the 2015 UN Summit in Paris next month (30 November – 11December).
We have also had a series of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, each with their ‘final warning’ notice. They have come thick and fast and gone with minimal impact on world leaders.
In all this, like many other Christians, I have grown weary of the doom and gloom. I suspect this general feeling could be one reason why in recent months there has been a significant change of emphasis. Encouragingly that has been away from doom and gloom towards Creation Care, and with it a greater emphasis among lay Christians on the theology of creation.
This brings me back to that other reason why being involved in drafting the diocesan environment policy was such an important part of my journey. It was then that I began to understand something of the theology of creation as laid out in the bible. Today I am finding that other lay people are making that discovery too. I say lay because theologians have been expounding it for a long time.
It is essentially to do with how God works out the future of his creation and it goes against the common view that we all go to heaven when we die. Instead heaven and earth will be integrated into a new physical reality. As I look at the world of nature around me I cannot but believe that God still delights in it, seeing it as essentially ‘good’ even in its present state. How would he want to destroy what he has so lovingly and cleverly made? And how could we?
Among all my reading I found the words of the Revd Dave Bookless founder of A Rocha UK in his book Planetwise very helpful in expressing this.
“I believed that this world would be completely destroyed when Jesus returned at the end of time to judge sin and evil. I was convinced that this was what the Bible taught. Today I think rather differently.”
He goes on in his book to explain that difference.
And in his much to be recommended Grove series booklet, New Heavens, New Earth, New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop Tom Wright argues that “the weight of biblical theology as a whole actually falls on the renewal of heaven and earth.” He also writes that the “new world will be more real, more physically solid, than the present one.”
So it seems that while creation’s immediate future may be uncertain, its long term is safe in God’s keeping.
Of course to be valid such arguments have to be grounded in biblical scripture; but there is no shortage of that in either Old or New Testaments. If we want one that takes us succinctly and swiftly to the heart of the matter it has to be Romans 8:18-28, and in that context particularly verse 21:
“… that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
So Jesus came to redeem not just you and me, but the whole of creation.
As I took all this on board I found it mind-blowing and life changing. It just had to influence my behaviour towards the environment, taking me from anxiety and pessimism to a positive desire to care for creation in whatever way I could, knowing that God has the big plans. I actually found it re-invigorating my enthusiasm for the natural world around me.
Others of course have been able to express it more elegantly.
For example Chris Wright, speaking at Keswick in 2008 (as published in the Keswick Yearbook for that year) said:
“If God’s planet Earth is destined for redemption and recreation, then we should be caring for it in the present.”
I am still discovering others who say the same. Writing in the Summer 2015 issue of A Rocha UK’s Root and Branch magazine, the organisation’s conservation director Andy Lester put it this way:
“For Christians, hope is only possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and his promise to renew all creation [Revelation 21:1-5]. Inspired by that hope, we have a clear role in building on and maintaining the harmony in relationships on the planet as the Creator originally designed them to be.”
How big a challenge is that?