Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Respect due: Archbishop Rowan Williams

Last week (13 October) Rowan Williams gave a lecture at Southwark Cathedral, sponsored by Operation Noah, with the title 'The Climate Crisis: Fashioning a Christian Response' (if you go to this page, you'll find a summary of the lecture first, followed by the full text). Interestingly, the Guardian saw fit both to report the lecture and to print an extract from it.

The lecture links climate change with other aspects of the current malaise of Western society, and looks at the resources in the Jewish and Christian traditions that may help us to think about, and respond to, the crisis we find ourselves in. In passing, Rowan reminds us that the narrative in Genesis is not an invitation to dominate and exploit the earth. The economic patterns of our material consumption habits are linked into the climate change issue, in a way that chimes in with the discussions around the recent Zero Growth Economics Conference (see earlier posts below); and Rowan also refers at some length (and approvingly) to Alastair McIntosh's book
Hell and High Water: climate, hope and the human condition.

Rowan asks, in the third section of the lecture,
'When we find ourselves facing massive insecurity of this sort and when we sense that we have somehow sacrificed our happiness along the way, what is it that we have lost? And how can we work to restore it?'
He continues,
'the role of religion here is not to provide an ultimate authority that can threaten and coerce us into better behaviour; it is to hold up a vision of human life lived constructively, peacefully, joyfully, in optimal relation with creation and creator, so as to point up the tragedy of the shrunken and harried humanity we have shaped for ourselves by our obsession with growth and consumption.'
There are lots of quotable passages - but read the whole for yourself to get a sense of the argument as Rowan puts it together.

This is by no means the first time Rowan has lectured, or preached, on this vital subject. One previous occasion was 25 March this year, the 2009 Ebor Lecture given at York Minster under the title,
'Renewing the Face of the Earth: Human Responsibility and the Environment' - this is a more demanding text, both intellectually and theologically, but well worth the time to read it. (There's a link on the Arhbishop's website to listen to the recording of the lecture, but it will require you to download a Microsoft application which will then try to take control of all your computer's audio! Better to listen to it from the link on this page, which works like iPlayer, and will play direct from the webpage. It's recorded in the Minster, so it echoes a bit and is quite hard to listen to - but you do also get the questions at the end.) In this lecture, Rowan is absolutely clear about the magnitude and urgency of the crisis, makes it clear that faith is no 'get out of jail free card', but sees the times we are in as a call to spiritual transformation. Among the questioners is a non-comformist minister who says that when he raises these issues with his congregation, he is accused of 'not preaching the Gospel of Christ' - this makes clear that the challenge to faith groups is one of 'inreach' as well as 'outreach'. Quakers are not immune to this - I was told recently of Friends who questioned the work Woodbrooke is doing in this area as mere 'jumping on a bandwagon'.

During this lecture, Rowan refers to some other resources from the Church of England. One is their website devoted to this whole issue, combining practical advice and theological and spiritual reflection, under the title,
'Shrinking the Footprint'. It's a good site, and I recommend browsing around it. There is some practical advice about church buildings which could also be of use to Quaker Meeting Houses, as well as much else that is good. There's also a pamphlet called, 'How Many Light Bulbs Does it Take to Change a Christian?', which is an excellent and to-the-point title, even it you never get beyond the front cover!

Reading these two lectures of Rowan's has prompted me to think about the usefulness of having a figurehead who can speak with authority, facing both inwards towards the faith group, and outwards towards 'the world'. It reminds me of the recent dilemma that the UK
Green Party had - whether to have a national leader who could speak for the party, and be a point of reference for the rest of the political world. It's not straightforward, of course - because the Archbishop is saying things that I agree with, and things that I think need saying, and saying with authority, I of course think it's good that he's saying them. If he were saying things that I deeply disagreed with, I might feel that he was misusing his position! But his position does mean that his words can reach out beyond his own 'parish'. As Friends we have a different issue to face if we want our views to be more widely known - we were widely reported over the same-sex marriage issue this summer, but for less controversial issues it's not clear how our voice gets heard, either nationally or locally.

The other salutary lesson, it seems to me, from exploring the 'Shrinking the Footprint' website, is that other church groups are, thankfully, forging ahead on these matters. As Quakers we sometimes fall into the habit of assuming that we are 'ahead of the curve' on key social issues - in this instance we most certainly are not. When Woodbrooke sent out the free 'Good Lives' introductory study pack, to about 250 local meetings, we built into it a feedback mechanism that also acted as a research tool. With about 50 sets of feedback returned to us, one thing has become very clear: in places where there is a lot of activity around these issues (such as a Transition Town
group, or similar), Friends are also active, knowledgable and involved; where the local community has no such action happening, Friends are also inactive. In other words, Friends are not, in general, being leaders in our local communities in this matter (although some individual scertainly are) - we are, in general, just like the communities in which we live.

For interest, here is where the
Methodist Church has got to with sustainability. There is a book which shows, in detail, how sustainability is mandated in the Qur'an, 199 Ways to Please God; the author blogs at http://www.greencreation.info/. And in Birmingham we have have an interesting project called Faith and Climate Change based in the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Office.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Pam for mentioning my book '199 ways to please God', sub-title: 'How to (re-)align your daily life with your duty of care for Creation'. I would welcome any feedback/ constructive comments/ questions. BTW: I'm also honoured to be involved with Faith & Climate Change (F&CC) project: we just won The Guardian's Community Hero Award and an honourable mention in the Birmingham Council's Local Hearts awards. On a day-to-day basis the F&CC project is run by lovely Quaker Maud Grainger. In peace, Rianne