9th November 2019
St Andrew’s Church, Short Street, London
by John Payne
Faith, extinction and what we can do about it
With the Religion and Extinction Project
Paul Bodenham introduced the first session on Faith and Extinction. The urgency of action on climate change, he said, and the awareness of the need for change, had increased rapidly over the last few years. A lot of time for action has been lost, Paul said. There had been the projections of the IPCC, last year, and the UN report on the extinction of species. There was a sense of danger and threat being closer to home and a greater sense of jeopardy. What does it mean to be a person of faith in a time like this?, Paul asked. What should a person of faith feel in a time of extinction? Paul then introduced the work of Stefan Skrimshire (Associate Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds) and Jeremy Kidwell (Senior Lecturer in theological ethics at the University of Birmingham) who had been thinking about, and conducting research into issues around Faith, Climate Change and Extinction. Paul said they were going to raise some questions which many of us might rather not talk about – some tough subjects are included in what they had to say.
Stefan and Jeremy then spoke about their work and their development of resources to engage publics with question of religious/spiritual faith and the extinction crisis. They were interested in how faith interacts with public policy on extinction and climate change, and how extinction both troubles, and can find clarity in relation to, religious faith.
Their work had many facets, they said:
- The concept of earth as our common home
- The colonial legacy of Christianity
- The ‘goodness’ of creation, and what that meant
- Humans as co-creators/saviours of species
- Unknown/unloved species /forms of life
They were interested in Creative Conversations concerning these issues and had held a one-day workshop in Bristol with people of different faiths and activism backgrounds. The group in Bristol was asked:
– how is mass extinction affecting your faith?
– How does your faith shape your response to mass extinction?
Jeremy and Stefan said they were interested in how we talk about hope, in this context – the disconnect some feel with their own parishes, and how they search for reconnection; also, the importance of personal stories and journeys. They were looking at emotional responses to extinction – do people feel sadness / grief and mourning – how do we feel? What is the focus of our grief? And what kind of grief is this – it seems rather abstract, in a sense – after all, hardly any of us have held now-extinct animals. Are we also mourning for lost privilege, or potential lost privilege, in a context where many parts of the Global South are already experiencing things we feel we are mourning? If Christianity speaks for the voiceless, then we need to listen to those people on the front line. They aren’t mourning, Jeremy and Stefan said – they are coming up with innovative solutions!
Jeremy and Stefan, further, were asking – what happens when lament goes public? How are faith groups shaping the public nature of protest? There is, they said:
- A new visibility of religious protest – for instance the use of traditional liturgies/services/ceremonies within a protest
- A spirituality inherent in Extinction Rebellion (XR) which goes beyond religious groups – e.g. the use of vigils, meditations
- A new context: seeking political change and at the same time facilitating loss and grief
- A new prominence of clergy/faith leaders in protest
- The fact that many people have identified XR as a spiritual group
- The fact that identifiable faith groups are taking action in groups like XR (as was the case in the past with CND)
Is the Church becoming counter-cultural? Is the Church anti-capitalist? Stefan and Jeremy asked.
In all this activity of protest, Jeremy and Stefan said, there is a need to ask more questions:
- What is the purpose of what we are doing?
- What is happening – are we sharing solidarity? Who is represented and who is not represented?
- Are the poor here in this issue? Does the Church have the poor at its heart?
Having heard Stefan and Jeremy’s questions and comments the members were invited to divide into two groups for half an hour to discuss two topics:
Group 1: How can churches help people to work through their feelings about climate breakdown and so find the power to act? Including an Introduction to Borrowed Time
Feedback: the group discussed the space for conversation and public lament. What might that look like at a congregational level. Recommendations were:
- ECOCELL project needs to be tweaked to engage with the lamentation aspect/Borrowed Time and personal change
- Acknowledging and expressing our feeling is crucial before we move to activism
On the latter point, it was recognised that people don’t want necessarily to express feelings in church. Could this be done outside church? The religious often don’t get it, someone said. It may be necessary for a few to take the initiative. Were churches places to deny these feelings? It was, the group felt, a long journey with many church people. Should GC be supporting institutions or individuals, it was asked? Churches are not emotionally connected to XR.
We need, the group felt, to face the reality of our sin and responsibility for extinction.
The group felt that connecting with children on this issue would be important.
Group 2: What do registered charities like Green Christian gain from movements which undertake civil disobedience such as Extinction Rebellion – and what can we offer. Including reflections on XR action in October and the role of NGOs
Feedback: the group talked about holy resistance – they traced some of the people who have resisted – e.g. Paul and Silas /Daniel / Martin Luther King. They talked about attributes holy resistance has – compassion, empathy, mercy, hearing the voiceless, courage, speaking truth to power, sense of justice, hope, love, non-violence.
As opposed to the political and the party political, the group felt we needed to talk about principled and prophetic action. They stressed the importance of being a presence so that secular people can talk about the deep issues – it’s almost a mission opportunity, they felt.
There was a question about the recent Church of England (CofE) call for action on climate change, to be voted on in Synod 2020. The CofE documentation mentions net zero emissions by 2050. Why should CofE be following Government policy? Shouldn’t it be more challenging, they asked?
The group felt that we need to engage with the Government’s Environment Bill in the context of the upcoming election – George mentioned that Green Christian, at the Board meeting that morning, had agreed that questions will shortly be produced about the Bill to be asked on this at any hustings event, and these questions will also be issued through our E-News.
Some points made in plenary discussion
- the disjuncture between concerned individuals and sheer indifference of institutional church is very marked. Yet a small group can make a big difference. Christian Climate Action-type events should be targeted by Green Christian on the Church itself
- Green Christian is not an observer at CofE General Synod – should it be? We need to use personal links to lobby any General Synod member we think might be sympathetic to push forward our agenda, people felt
- The importance of Ecology being included in Colleges and Seminaries’ curricula training religious leaders
- The importance of engaging isolated Christians in secular institutions dealing with climate change and green issues; the Board looked at this issue in the morning, the group was told, and will be taking action
- The importance of looking at the balancing of the Apocalyptic and the Second Coming in our thinking – the end of the world and new life
- Justin Welby is keen to promote green issues
Paul Bodenham thanked Jeremy and Stefan for a very informative and helpful session