St Margaret’s and St George’s Eco Week began on Sunday 29 September, which a service at which Bishop David of Manchester was preacher. You can read his sermon again here:
One of the most challenging questions Christians have to face is why, if God reigns in heaven, the Lord of all, is everything such a mess down here on Earth? Why is there evil, and suffering? Why do our best efforts often fail? Why do bad things happen at all, when God ought to have both the power and the desire to prevent them? Why, at the start of our ECO week, is it necessary to worry about the climate of our planet? Shouldn’t God be adjusting the thermostat on global warming, and calming the winds and waves?
St John’s answer, in our New Testament reading from the Book of Revelation, is that for the time being, the devil has been cast down from heaven and is now causing mischief here below, until that day comes when God will finally vanquish evil forever. The Book of Revelation reassures Christians that neither God’s power nor his ultimate victory are in doubt. The crucial battle has been won, but, like in the final phase of many wars, some mopping up operations are still to be concluded.
There’s a whole series of sermons in that. I’m not going to attempt them today. The key issue is what our role as Christ’s Church is in this period of combat. Are we simply the unfortunate civilian population on whose land rival armies are waging war? Should our task be to hide ourselves away from the fighting, as though huddled in our home made bomb shelters at the bottom of the garden, waiting for the sound of the “all clear”? Or are we called in some way to be combatants?
The Five Marks of Mission of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to which our Church of England is signed up, suggest it’s very much the latter. We are commissioned by God to care for the needy, to look after the integrity of creation and to campaign for the defeat of injustice. Don’t come to church looking for a quiet life. Come to church looking for a meaning, a purpose and a direction in life. When we sing Onward Christian Soldiers we really mean it. And at the heart of the campaign we are involved in for this present generation lies the struggle to keep climate change within the bounds agreed by the vast majority of the world’s governments, and supported by most non government agencies, in Paris. The question is not whether we are in a fight. The question is about our particular battle orders.
Armies are made up of lots of different units, from whole regiments, through divisions and platoons, all the way to the individual private soldier. Every level is engaged in the combat. I was privileged, a year or so back, to be able to sign up to Manchester becoming an ECO diocese. At diocesan level we’ve already begun to make changes. The food we eat forms a significant proportion of our carbon footprint, so we’ve switched to offering vegetarian refreshments when we provide hospitality at our meetings. We’re not telling people they must never eat meat or fish. I eat fish myself. We’re not telling people what they can bring to work in their lunchbox. But we are saying that the food we provide and pay for will be gentler on the Earth. That brings the diocesan office into line with what has always been our practice at Bishopscourt, where I’m fortunate to have the services of a very good resident catering manager, when she’s not being curate of St Margaret’s and St George’s. We are also cutting down on paper by using electronic documents and reducing some of the committees that we have, or the number of people who serve on them, which cuts down on travel as well. Having offices in the city centre means that more people can travel to them by buses, trams and trains. These are all small things in themselves, but they add up. And they also help keep us mindful of what other things we might be doing too.
We are each of us called to be ECO Christians. I like the weekly ECO tips that are printed on our notice sheets here. They always make me think about whether there is something I could be doing better as an individual. I know that people sometimes argue that it makes very little difference what one individual does, among a world with over 7 billion souls. But individuals add up. And not only do our personal changes to how we tread on this Earth aggregate to something very significant, it’s also the case that governments are more likely to take climate change more seriously if they see ordinary citizens making a real effort. And even the biggest of companies will change their products and services if they can see that their customers are insisting on it. The American motor industry is shaped less by the climate deniers, who gather round (and often finance) political leaders, it’s much more exercised by the need to sell into a global market that demands greener cars. One challenge I read of recently seeks to respond to the enormous carbon footprint of the clothing industry world wide. Many items of clothing have become so cheap, especially when they are made in the Far East by poorly paid workers, that it has become common to wear a garment only a handful of times before throwing it away, or putting it in the recycling. Could we commit to not discarding anything until its been worn at least 30 times? Could those of us who have wardrobes fully of hardly worn clothes, see if we could manage to commit to a year without buying a single new garment?
I’ve talked about the big level of the diocese and the small level of each person. But ECO Church is also about what we do as a parish. As many of you know, we have three levels of award: bronze, silver and gold. Each of them comes with a checklist of things to be done or achieved. This parish is now working towards its silver level. To get to silver we have to show how we are not only making a difference in our church, but playing our full part in taking our care for the planet out into the wider community. One of the things that will be going on here next week will be visits by groups of school children. That needs a good number of willing volunteers to make it happen. Fortunately, we have that bit of our army. Beyond that, we need to join up with other groups in Prestwich, or beyond, as we did when we helped our Catholic friends with their ECO-bricks a few months ago. And the great thing about a church that is working in partnership with other community organisations, is that it becomes both a more visible church to those who are not yet our members, and also a more attractive church for people to join.
Our Christian life is, as the Book of Revelation reminded us, a battle. And a battle is not fought without cost. The easy bits of being a more ECO church and more ECO individuals are the ones where everybody wins. What’s not to like about lower wattage light bulbs, especially when they need changing less often? What’s difficult about recycling paper or stopping using plastic bags for our shopping? But we must, as the bible tells us elsewhere, be ready to count the cost of our actions – both the cost we bear ourselves and the cost we pass on to others. Wearing our clothes longer will cost jobs all the way down the supply chain, from Malaysia to Marks and Spencers. Eating less meat will only make it harder for farmers to keep going with their traditional herds and flocks. Using public transport more often, instead of our cars, means some journeys will take longer and be less convenient. And if enough of us do it, there will be jobs lost in the car industry. A huge debate is going on in Australia as we speak, where the coal industry is fighting back against a series of rejections of planning permission for new mines. Its argument is a very simple “jobs first”. Thirty years ago I was a vicar in Yorkshire, and chaplain to a colliery. I was fighting against the closure of pits, because when the pit went the community lost almost all its source of income. The question is whether climate change has now become such an emergency, and is causing so much damage across the world already, as well as the dangers being stored up for the future, that those less visible victims outweigh the hurt our change of lifestyle will cause to some more obvious groups in society. It’s never an easy call to make, especially for those of us not personally at risk, but I think we have reached that tipping point.
I’m delighted that across Britain and beyond, many Christians and their churches are taking a leading role in the climate emergency. The good news is that we are not alone. Greater Manchester has committed to being carbon neutral by 2038. It’s not the most ambitious target I have come across; Tampere in Finland’s, where I was for a church conference in mid September, has committed to 2030. But ours is a realistic, if demanding target. And we have allies among the wider faith communities of our conurbation. A week on Saturday I will be on the platform for an event called “Faith and the Environment” which is being hosted by the Muslim Heritage Centre in the city. With my colleagues in the Church Commissioners, we have just taken on additional staff to help us put pressure on the companies we invest in. A global partnership we set up three years ago has now got investors with over $15 trillion of assets under management, most of them nothing to do with the church. Those resources are the equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds for every adult in Britain. We’re too big to ignore.
And here we are, at St Margaret’s and St George’s, a church made up of Christian individuals, in one parish, in one diocese, in one country. It’s easy to feel quite small and powerless. But, as St John wrote in his Book of Revelation, we are part of a mighty army