Wednesday, 18 November 2009

'Many Heavens, One Earth' - written by Helen Rowlands

I'm delighted to publish another guest post this week. Helen Rowlands is Head of Education at Woodbrooke. She was Clerk to Britain Yearly Meeting 1998-2001 and served as Assistant Clerk to the newly formed Yearly Meeting Trustees 2006-2009. She was nominated by Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) to represent Friends at the 'Many Heavens, One Earth' conference at Windsor, 2-4 November, 2009.

Helen writes:

From 2-4 November Alison Prout of QPSW and I represented Friends at the ‘Many Heavens, One Earth’  conference in Windsor. It was a gathering of 100 or so faith leaders from around the world, and about as many representatives of NGOs and campaigning organisations. The event was jointly sponsored by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Its intent was to celebrate commitments being made by faith bodies to action on climate change, to encourage further such developments, and to bring the influence of faith communities to bear on political decision-makers prior to the Copenhagen summit.

Alison Prout receives certificate from Ban Ki-Moon.

Helen Rowlands receives certificate from Prince Philip.

Some two years ago, the UNDP launched an appeal to faith communities to express long-term commitment to environmental change in the form of seven-year plans:
‘For many, the environmental crisis has created fear and anxiety about the future. It is a time when the major religions of the world must take a lead - sharing their wisdom, their insights and their hopes, and working through their faithful to address these issues in a holistic and comprehensive way.’
Quakers in Britain came to this a little late, but meetings around the country responded rapidly and it was possible for Meeting for Sufferings to adopt the Statement on Climate Change. This statement was endorsed by the Europe and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation, as well as by several yearly meetings in Canada and the USA which met during the course of the summer. Alison Prout prepared a summary of action already taken or planned by local meetings, by Britain Yearly Meeting and by our major institutions such as Friends House and Woodbrooke. Together, these documents were accepted by ARC as representing a Quaker Long Term Plan.

ARC’s suggested framework for such plans includes seven areas. In each category, I give just one vivid example of one faith group’s commitment. You can explore the web links given to find many more – they will lift your heart!

1. Assets: The religions of the world have astonishing assets - as well as their outreach to 85% or more of the world's 8 billion people, they also own some 5% of forests, are connected to more than half of all schools, own and manage most of the world's tourist destinations, organise some of the most active tourism enterprises (in terms of pilgrimage) and control some 7% of all financial investments. How can positive use be made of these assets?
The US-based Regeneration Project works through its ‘Interfaith Power and Light’ campaign to use the joint purchasing power of over 10,000 congregations to campaign for renewable energy and energy conservation.

2. Education and young people: this includes looking at school curricula, the impact and use of school buildings, youth organisations and camps, and the all-age educational potential of activities such as eco-twinning of communities. How are faith leaders making the most of the potential of teaching and preaching to influence congregations?
In 2006 some quarter of a million Baha’is participated in study circles, devotional meetings and school classes on the environment. Such courses, and the acts of service associated with them, are seen to ‘represent a significant transformative process for Baha’i communities worldwide.’ The environment is the focus for the next five years of all such Baha’i education initiatives.

3. Theology, wisdom and guidance: how can faith communities draw upon their traditions to change minds and hearts in a way that is consistent with their teachings? We are encouraged to explore traditions of simple living; the training of teachers and leaders; theological understandings of the nature of crisis and adaptation; the importance of sacred places; liturgy, prayer and the foundational stories of faiths.
In Mongolia, Buddhists have worked with ARC, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Bank to rediscover ancient sutras, or texts, which had been lost or hidden during the Soviet/Communist period. These texts told people about the sacredness of the landscape around them - and prescribed which mountains and forests were particularly sacred and should not be logged or hunted "lest the goddess flood your village." By retranslating this old wisdom, ancient ecological knowledge has been preserved and acted upon.

4. Lifestyles: have we undertaken full audits of all our practices as faith communities? Are we supporting and encouraging simple living? Are we making the most of practices such as fasting or pilgrimage as opportunities to bring about lasting change in individual lives?
One of the most successful countries in voluntary curbing of population growth is Iran – and it was brought about as much through religious teaching as through economics and legal structures. Islamic leaders quoted the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) saying that a man should have only as many children as the earth can support, while issuing fatwas (or ‘permissions’) encouraging contraception. From 1986 to 2001 the rate of population growth decreased from 3.2% to 1.2%.

5. Media and advocacy: how are faith-based communications media using their enormous power to be opinion-formers, both among the faithful and among political leaders?
The Muslims plan to work towards printing all 15 million Qur’ans produced every year, on paper from sustainable wood supplies.

6. Partnerships, eco-twinning and creating environment departments: faiths are asked to think about their resourcing of people working on environmental concerns, their engagement of lay people, and development of wide-ranging partnerships which enable people to achieve more together than they could separately.
The New Psalmist Baptist Church, Baltimore, USA, has partnered with one mega church in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya with a network of 2,000 churches in Africa, and another of 70 or more mega churches in the US. This combined network has fostered water and sanitation projects in Africa. Overall both congregations support 17 schools, and have created partnerships with environmental entrepreneurs, providing solar-powered water purifiers and sanitation equipment to the Kenyan slums.

7. Celebration: festivals and celebrations play an important part in building commitment and changing hearts as well as minds.
In Judaism, the festival of Tu B’Shabat  – the New Year of Trees – has become a major environmental festival with education kits, new prayers and projects helping to mobilise Judaism every year. Meanwhile the day of mourning – Tisha B’Av – marked every summer to commemorate the destruction of the two ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem, has been extended in some Jewish traditions as a lament for the destruction of the earth. The Jewish Seven Year Plan involves recovering the ecological value of Shabbat as a day to step back from the processes of creation: manufacturing, flying and technological manipulation.

Jewish delegates in procession at Windsor Castle.

Further information on the seven areas and lots more examples of actions and commitments, including a summary of Quaker activity, can be found here.

Examples of existing plans can be found here.

Sikhs in procession.

Delegates in the Waterloo Room at Windsor.

Next week, Helen will write about her reflections on the messages this event has, both for herself and for Quakers more widely.

Photo credits: ARC/Richard Stonehouse.

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Thanks to Helen for this article.

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