Last Friday evening Catholic writer and journalist Ellen Teague addressed an ecumenical audience in Cheltenham on the theme of 'Christian ecology?' An imperative for our times! Speaking in The Old Priory, adjacent to St Gregory’s Church, she laid out her credentials with the aid of slides she had taken whilst teaching in Nigeria, working for CAFOD during the period of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, and in more recent times advocating on the climate change issue with the Columban Missionaries.
During her 30 or so years’ involvement in campaigns on behalf of church organisations, Ellen had witnessed a growing awareness that development and the environment were connected. But it was not just those living now on the margins, with whom Christians should be showing solidarity: the problem was that so many are only getting through today by compromising tomorrow in terms of the environment. Showing a slide of Nepalese women carrying wood for fuel, she asked, “what happens to those dependent on firewood when all the trees have been cut down?” The poor are often forced to destroy their environment in order to survive and then bear the brunt of trying to get by in a degraded environment.
And yet how little do we hear in our media about modern environmental martyrs, such as Chico Mendez and Sister Dorothy Stang, murdered in Brazil for trying to promote sustainable rainforest development! Or the priests and people of Mindanao in the Philippines, mounting pickets to halt large-scale mining; risking their lives to celebrate mass together on the route heavy vehicles were using to open up new mines.
Columban Father Sean McDonagh has described the Eucharist as the sacrament of ecology: how can Christians preach the good news of life in abundance, without being concerned for the disappearance of the glaciers in the Andes, the melt water of which is vital for the water supply of the citizens of Lima? Or for the reduction of food security because of corporations taking control of food production away from the world’s farmers.
As a Catholic, Ellen had long wondered why her church was so slow to embrace initiatives which were fully in accord with Catholic Social Teaching, such as Creation Time – in recent years celebrated by other Christians throughout Europe each Autumn. One reason was the church’s anthropocentric vision. Humans are effectively edging other species off the planet, but we seem to lack any moral code to cope with biocide or ecocide. It’s as if there’s a failure of communication between religion and science.
And in a clergy-centred church, what matters greatly is the lead priests give within their parishes and dioceses. She regretted that seminaries appear to give little attention to creation theology and issues such as Climate Change are hardly mentioned. “The environment is not something you can dip into,” Ellen told us. What we have to develop is a sustained focus upon the meaning of God’s covenant with creation, outlined in the Book of Genesis. Quoting theologian Mary Grey, she urged us to become “a prophetic community working for our own transformation.”
As people of faith, we need to step up. She ended with two quotes from eco-theologian Thomas Berry:
“The context of contemporary existence has been altered by environmental breakdown.”
“Our fulfilment is not in isolated human grandeur, but in our intimacy with the larger Earth community”.
Her words were, the audience agreed during the plenary session that followed Ellen’s talk, quite a challenge. We were able to reflect upon this at Compline, with which the evening ended. Deacon Robin had most helpfully selected as our reading a passage from the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, concluding: “God has called you and he will not fail you.”
Martin Davis is the convener of Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link.