Has anyone seen a butterfly yet? – by Peter Owen Jones

Talk given by Peter Owen Jones at CEL’s ‘End of the Age of Thorns, Surviving Consumerism’ Conference, St John’s Church, Waterloo, London, Saturday 5 March, 2011.

download transcript in word format: Has anyone seen a butterfly yet?

Peter Owen Jones

photo by Martin Davis

I saw a Red Admiral drifting over some crocuses in my garden on February 16.

Pure existence.

Pure presence, out on the hunt for nectar, a familiar pastime that we have all engaged in.

And I thought there it was free, much freer than I in so many ways.

Do butterflies worry about repaying their mortgage, do they worry at all?

Do butterflies have to drive to the supermarket?

Do butterflies have to contend with the glories of teenage children?

Do butterflies have to write sermons, wash up, buy new socks?

Butterflies never fall out with Bishops, or have to take a bus when there are engineering works on the line.

Butterflies don’t have to fill in tax returns or endure sea sickness.

I know, as Darwin knew, that butterflies have other trials and tribulations, but they are no greater or lesser than ours they are just different.

Strange that we are not a natural predator of the butterfly, yet as with so many of our brothers and sisters in the natural world, it is our behaviour that has been responsible for the decimation of their kind.

I think now, more than ever, we understand why what is happening is happening. And we have more knowledge of that than we have ever had since the nineteen seventies.

The rise in awareness in environmental consciousness has been wonderful to behold but it has also been so very flawed.

Once I had been accepted for training to become a priest I left the advertising industry and joined an NGO called Media Natura . The job of Media Natura was to give strategic communications advice to other NGO’s in how to get their message across. In that time I was privileged to get to know many people working at Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others.

It was a pivotal time.

Greenpeace in particular was slowly moving away from incredible acts of creative protest and was more and more inclined to take the scientific route to allow science to speak its knowledge into the debates over global warming, whaling, deforestation.

The pivotal point really in this was the hole that appeared in the ozone layer.

Here first was proof that, as Chris Rose, the director of Greenpeace at the time, said ‘ that it was human behaviour that had broken the plumbing’ and to achieve a change in the manufacturing processes of CFC’s, Greenpeace and others needed to prove that it was the human industrial process that had caused this and it was that proof that meant new legislation could be put in place to reduce CFC’s.

Can you imagine what we were spraying into our homes and under our armpits? So there began the blueprint for providing proof, scientific proof and presenting that proof to the House of Commons, to the political establishment, to encourage them to legislate for changes in manufacturing processes that were proven to be damaging.

So campaigning moved from the emotional to the empirical because it was there that results could be measured.

You can measure damage, you can measure change, you can measure success, you can measure the acidity of rain, the amount of hectares of rainforest, the number of butterflies, the number of whales.

This change in moving towards science based campaigning also gave some of the environmental groups a new credibility.

No longer were they just the hairy mob jumping onto submarines and oil rig platforms.

They had facts and figures, they began employing lobbyists to move really into the corridors of power to affect the change we all need.

And we all owe them a great deal. The environmental movement is, I think, one of the brightest stars of the twentieth century.

But the flaw in this new found faith in the empirical, in science, is that the scientists now present themselves within the arena of environmental debate as being the potential saviours of the environment. And the reality that is so often presented to us is the idea that science can save us but really it is proving to be part of the peril that we and all life face.

The idea that science can save us is as flawed as the idea that theology can save us.

The idea that science can save us is inherent within genetic modification, electric cars and what we have now is gallons of green wash where the business community can tinker with the edges and we can all carry on living the way we are living because business is going green when in fact you just have to look at the facts which are among other things that our brothers and sisters in the natural world face elimination, extinction on the greatest scale since the arrival of modern humans.

And science it would seem cannot save us from that even flying the banner of cloning.

There is also another dreadful truth and it is that Christianity has up until now been responsible for the character of the propulsion of progress if you can call it that, that has led us to where we are now.

Firstly there is precious little in the New Testament that relates to our treatment of the natural world.

Secondly Christianity, as it has been practised, is ruthlessly anthropocentric; by that I mean human centred.

It deals with my relationship with God, my propensity for sin, my salvation which is almost completely separated from the salvation of the natural world.
Christ died to save my soul from sin. Dominion has become domination and there has been barely an audible whisper against it.

Science as saviour is further evidence of human centred thinking, human centred being, and as long as Christianity is offering the salvation of self, humanity in the west will remain ruthlessly and dangerously self centred.

Look where we are here in London, was any consideration given to the natural world when this metropolis was being built? Is any consideration being given now? Where, I ask, here in this place, is the space for herons, the food for red admiral butterflies, the habitat the homes for stoats, for badgers, for swallows?

We humans move in and everything else either moves out or is eradicated.

This has been the way our chapels and our churches are part of that existing, have been part of that process Christianity exists within that format.
One of the most dangerous current forms of thinking is that as Christians we are stewards of the natural world. Once again this is evidence, if it was needed, of us placing ourselves above creation.

Would you say God is a steward of humanity? that Christ was a steward of his disciples? It is a madness because it is so, so dry and completely without love. This idea of stewardship has been so damaging and is further evidence, if we needed it, of how far from communion we are with our brothers and sisters in the natural world. It is in communion with the natural world that we will realise our most dazzling future. Also, as many of the scholars of early Christianity will tell you, that it took route to begin with in the urban enclaves.

And it would appear not a lot has changed in nineteen hundred years. If I think of the ordination vows I took as a priest. Could you hear a Robin within them? God, could you hear the sound of the waves, the wind in the trees, the sparrows? No.

It is not that we do not care. It is more that we simply don’t know where to put it. Here is part of a statement from the World Council of Churches in 1988.
‘ The drive to have mastery over creation has resulted in the senseless exploitation of natural resources, the alienation of the land from the people and the destruction of indigenous cultures….Creation came into being by the will and love of the Triune God and as such possess an inner cohesion and goodness. Though human eyes may not always discern it every creature and the whole creation in chorus bear witness to the glorious unity and harmony with which creation is endowed. And when our human eyes are opened and our tongues unloosened we too learn to praise and participate in the life, love, power and freedom that is God’s continuing gift and grace’

Meeting again in 1990 the council goes onto to say

‘ The integrity of creation has a social aspect which we recognise as peace with justice and an ecological aspect which we recognise in the self renewing, sustainable character of natural eco systems. We will resist the claim that anything in creation is merely a resource for human exploitation. We will resist species extinction for human benefit; consumerism and harmful mass production; pollution of land, air, waters; all human activities that are probably leading to rapid climate change and the policies and plans which contribute to the disintegration of creation.’

Our care for the environment has the wonderful potential to bring out what is best in us.

Our nurturing our compassion and our love but some how, and it will happen, we need to jump the fence we have built between ourselves and the natural world, we need a new language for this new world.

We need new festivals that do not separate us, take us out of the natural world but include the environment as the sacred source the sacred back drop to everything.

We can go back to the past if we like.

And the tendency within the Christianity is to trawl the past for verification for substantiation

And whilst the example of Saint Francis is nothing other than staggering and the examples of pre Catholic Christianity as practiced within these islands holds out its hand to us we must all of us understand that, whilst the past is there to inform us, we are dealing with a completely different set of circumstances.

We cannot have a new world by seeking security in the old one. So what may this new world this new love look like and feel like? Here are some words from Philip Carr Gomm who is an author and one of the leading druids of Southern England.

‘Rather than returning to the past to seek refuge there in a more tightly defined version of our spiritual roots, I am suggesting what might be called Naked Spirituality – in which we let go of the worn out garments of definition that we have outgrown  and that we turn, not to books and scriptures, but to Nature herself and combining that with our knowledge of religion, psychology, folklore, and indigenous traditions discover the well springs of inspiration that will inform this new spirituality.’

One of his many suggestions is that we all of us start ‘observing festivals to synchronise our lives with the life of the planet’.

Over the last fifty years there has been a marked decline in the resonance of most of the Christian festivals.

There has been good reason for this it just gets harder and harder to celebrate the life of a particular saint on hand whilst ignoring the plight of the planet on the other.

It just becomes increasingly surreal. And really and very sadly, in the mass surrender to the mass market, a festival such as Lent, which begins next Wednesday, has had the juice squeezed out of it by a system that demands that we continue to spend for its and our survival.

So abstinence stands firmly against consumerism.

On a personal note I would argue that Lent is probably one of the most important and counter cultural festivals we have.

But we also cannot have a Christian Church that has become so defined by its need for money that that has mortally compromised its assertions for abstinence. Philip Car Gomm goes on to say

‘ What form might our spirituality take?

It’s still too early to tell: we are living through times of great change and are still in the crucible of transformation, but I think we can get a glimpse of what it might look like.

Over the last year or so some of the inhabitants of Firle, along with others from further afield, walk up to Firle beacon above their village to celebrate the eight of the seasonal festivals throughout the year.

When I have been there I have had a powerful sensation that I am participating in an activity that stands at the leading edge of a new global spirituality – at once rooted in locality and tradition, in this case of the pagan and Christian heritage of Sussex but at the same time global and universal with elements familiar to every spiritual tradition from around the planet.

With Christianity being so human possessed over the last thousand years the church – my church – has been fantastically silent when it comes to our relationship with the environment.

It simply does not have the heritage to draw on or the language to speak and we need to be honest about that.

What we have had over the last thirty years is some incredible theology but this has not reached the pews. The light of it has not entered the House of Bishops.

And if we are to have a new environmental model of being Christian, if Christianity is to stand with the planet, the character of the church, the culture of the church, the damaging and outmoded model of authority within the church will have to change.

You cannot put new wine in old wine skins and need to be much braver and much more confident about that we need to dream and imagine a new culture a new character and a new church.

This church must begin in community and in communion with the natural world.

I have been at all the gatherings on Firle beacon over the last three years and they are getting bigger and bigger and I encourage you all to come really what is taking place is a theology of generosity of openness.

I mentioned earlier that we needed to look at festivals at ritual and how that relates to where we are and what we feel.

I’ve been in the church for nearly twenty years now and I know it moves slowly and that’s fine but really I can’t say that I have seen any substantial opening yet when it comes to the manner in which the church expresses itself in relation to the natural world.

And I have a feeling that despite all the fabulous efforts to shine the light of compassion for all life into the house of Bishops it hasn’t reached there yet and this organisation this wonderful organisation has dropped a pill into the establishment water but it does not appear to have dissolved.


Over the last twenty years there has been some wonderful theology and you don’t need me to tell you what it is and where to find it, but theology is rich food and the truth is that none of it has reached ground level.

Go into any new age bookshop or look on the shelves of the spirituality sections in the main chains of book sellers and there you will find a lot of Tibetan Buddhism and indigenous wisdom but almost no Christianity.
The Arbory Trust, a Christian woodland burial site, was started ten years ago.

There was a conference inviting all the diocese of the Church of England to attend and to consider starting their own sites.

To date none of them have done so.

The time is with us now to move beyond words and into action. We have had so many wonderful words but perhaps the job of the next ten years is to challenge,
We are so polite, so sweet so kind. But lets think bigger.

Maybe the time has come for a community that bears witness to the deep ecology present within the theology, the deep ecology that is resonant in this room – what is it like to live out the Christian ecological perspective.

Come on, imagine for a moment what that might mean.

Because if we do that we move from the mind to the hands, something physical begins to take shape.

Here is a central physical embodiment of the spiritual paradigm and when that happens the whole thing moves into reality.

People can visit, touch it, sense it.

The closest thing I have seen is the Abbey Well Gardens in Glastonbury.

A place of healing for human beings and the natural world. A place where ordinands can come to and do as well as learn.

Yes Iona is nearly there maybe and in Lindisfarne there is a sense of it when the tide comes in.

And I have seen glimpses of it in Tinkers Bubble, a community in Dorset, and very real beginnings of it in the natural bread movement. We have been a seed and it is now time to start to grow, to bear fruit. We need to be much bolder now because the ground has been laid. We now all of us need to start living on it. All life in one life, one life in all life.

Let’s say the aim is to open those ordination vows because at the moment that is the hub of the problem, how do we affect that change because it really needs to happen doesn’t it?

Well maybe we write some new ones and send them to every ordinand in the country every bishop explaining they are necessary.

Maybe we protest at all the ordinations at Petertide so loudly we get thrown out.

Or do we just sit down in the Cathedral porches and pray? – something needs to happen.

We are not making it an issue. It is already the greatest issue of our age.

All life in one life, one life in all life.

Do we start to develop new rituals?

I would say that is one of the most important things we could do:

Start with ten churches – that’s all we need.

Nine churches. You can count the ones I serve – with a new calendar do we do that?

It has always been the case that great changes have started with very small groups of people who had very big ideas.

At the moment we have a mental embodiment of Christian Ecology. We need now to move towards physical embodiments of what that dream is.

There will be one starting in Southern England this year, a cairn, come and lay your stone and come and pray. It’s a beginning and over the next ten years there need to be many more we can do it.

Peter Owen Jones


Author: | Date: 16 November, 2011 | Category: Talks | Comments: 0

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