Thoughts from someone who is definitely not a bishop

The Rev. Dr. Rachel Mash, Secretary, Anglican Communion Environmental Network in Canterbury Cathedral

Let’s put aside for a moment legitimate anxieties and cynical expectations of failure regarding the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops which meets over the next few days in Canterbury, England. As the Call on Human Dignity continues to stir both emotions and challenge convictions, I instead want to direct you, my faithful readers, to the Call for the Environment and Sustainable Development.

The Call (as opposed to a piece of legislation) is lengthy, so I will only include parts of the text below (in italics), leaving space to think about how these noble ambitions regarding environment can become real in the dioceses which the Lambeth bishops represent. This Call cries out for change — for change in space and time, for a change in attitude, for a change in practice, and for a change in spirit. The Call asks everyone to take bold and decisive action in spiritual and practical ways including achieving net-zero carbon emissions as soon as possible to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Such a goal honours the United Nations  Paris Agreement of 2015, which continues to be variously regarded and implemented. The Call seeks to inform and challenge administrations and economies to implement real change: change in the way we do business, change in the way we live together, change in how we live together. Most importantly, change in how we find and place ourselves within Creation itself.

Introducing the motivation for change and witness, the call notes that we have been gifted a world of breath-taking beauty . . . That world is now in crisis. Further, God calls us to respond as Easter people. Such a Holy response is more than a political idea or an evolutionary strategy. The Call speaks to a particular practice, rooted in, and inspired by the experience of Christian faith, an Easter faith, a resurrection faith. To change the way we live and the way we do business, to change the way we experience wealth or its opposite, we must in fact change the way we use or abuse power. If we find ourselves abused by power we must pray for resilience and in community resist the evil before us. Transformed people live transformed lives; such lives transform the communities in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Such is our Easter faith.

Such transformation is guided by the Five Marks of Mission, the fifth being: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth. This mark underlies the text of this particular call. The question for bishops, and for those with whom they collaborate in their dioceses back home, is how will this work be shaped, organized and supported? As previously mentioned, if change is required who will drive such change? It won’t happen by itself! A passive approach will yield no tangible results. Leaving this work undone in any way diminishes God’s will for the restoration of Creation.

The Call summarizes earth’s predicament as a triple environmental crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. (It) is an existential threat to millions of people and species of plants and animals across the globe. If all of the above seems familiar, it likely is. The secular community uses identical language; so the logical question is how might the global Anglican Communion through its distributed agency and presence worldwide offer a unique and influential voice? As a global, inter-connected body with a shared identity that transcends national borders, the Anglican Communion has a distinctive perspective. Member churches of the Anglican Communion are involved in every part of the environmental emergency.

We are the people facing devastation in disaster-stricken communities. We are all the polluters, especially in wealthy countries. We are people living in poverty and on the margins. We wield power and political influence. We are experiencing loss and damage of our land, homes and livelihoods. We are investors with financial capital. We are first-responders to disasters and those who accompany communities on the journey of recovery and resilience.

These observations and intentions are all well and good, but how will they devolve into transformative action once the bishops return home? Change requires resilient and determined leadership at all levels. Ecojustice requires urgent focused attention, especially now. Yet time and time again, such work is relegated to the bottom of the priority pile. What priority will bishops give to ecojustice, especially as they return home in carbon-intensive ways? (I pause for a moment to consider the carbon cost of this Conference.) Will the distress generated by endless conflicts around human sexuality remain utmost in the episcopal memory? Please do not let this happen.

For better or for worse, bishops in our tradition often function as CEOs. In their administrative capacities, will they recruit and hire specialist missioners to educate, advocate and inspire a just response to the climate crisis in their dioceses? It is arguable that the best work in these matters occurs at the local level. Will bishops be able to devise robust strategies to engage all stakeholders in the appropriate use of power? The struggles with principalities and powers have in my experience never been more strident. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians names the situation well: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12). As they say where I live, them’s fighting words!

The Call includes a list of priorities for action including commitments to tackle urgently the triple environmental crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. The call urges the halting (of) new gas and oil exploration. (It dodges the thorny issue of engagement vs. divestment.) Most importantly, it challenges wealthier nations and those with greatest responsibility for climate change to take the lead on climate action and just financing for other countries to reduce emissions. The Call draws our attention to two important realities as it urges us to:

Treasure God’s marvellous creation, recognising the profound interdependence of all life on earth and repenting of actions and theologies of domination, which have caused great harm to the earth and injustices to its people.

Recognise the wisdom within faith communities about the value and care of creation and the role that the faithful, and their faith leaders, can bring in influencing change in communities.

The invitation is real; God calls every one of us, clergy and laity together, in and through the person of Jesus, to pray and work for ecojustice in our time and in every place. I appreciate comments by Bishop Jeff Woodcroft (Diocese of Rupert’s Land, Province of Canada), who in a recent Facebook post concluded: We would be in a good place as bishops of the Anglican Communion were we to live the disciple’s call every day, and lead disciples from that very space into God’s beautiful world. You just can’t vote on this type of work, you really just need to do it!

Indeed, words and talk are cheap. As a Church we need to do things differently and encourage, even demand the same in the actions of others. Influence needs a specific context. As I close, possibly the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is worth a careful listen. One of the Five Mystical songs is “The Call.” Enjoy.

This Call will feature in Lambeth Conference planning this coming Wednesday and at other times.

Images of bishops entering Canterbury Cathedral by Sandra Fyfe, Bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Facebook

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