Tribute to Dr Edward P Echlin, a friend of the Earth

  • Ellen Teague

Dr Edward P Echlin

Dr Edward P Echlin

Dr Edward P Echlin, eco-theologian and organic gardener, died just before Christmas at the age of 89 years. We in the UK churches have lost a great advocate of "ecological conversion". The natural world has lost a dedicated friend.

I have known Edward and his wife Barbara since Christian Ecology Link (or CEL, now Green Christian) was founded in the early 1980s.

He spoke at conferences of the National Justice and Peace Network in the 1990s, and his firm promise that despite getting invitations to speak from around the world he would never fly was the first time I realised how serious the response to environmental crises needed to be.

In 2012, he ran a workshop at CEL's 30th anniversary conference in Bristol, arguing that small scale, biodiverse, organic food production not only preserves soil and stabilises climate but is also the most productive form of agriculture. That same year he helped Sisters of St Joseph of Peace and associates - gathered in London from the United States, Haiti, El Salvador and Britain - to explore their mission of Peace and Care for Creation.

He urged a move away from an oil-based lifestyle, undertaking gardening, and supporting local environmental initiatives such as farmers' markets. He presented a Hubbard squash plant from the Echlin's organic garden to the sisters. He was always generous in drawing attention to the unsung heroes who have put climate change on the agenda of the Christian churches in Britain, and paid warm tribute to Barbara, a great networker in building up the Green Christian movement.

Edward was critical of the obsession so many Christians have with 'inner journey' spiritualities and debates about church structures. He suggested that the Churches should focus much more on, and indeed have "a priceless contribution" to offer to, the Earth community in its struggle to mitigate climate change. We sometimes forget that we are the "prophetic presence of the living and risen Jesus Christ". He was a 'hands-on' kind of theologian. He wandered around allotments to discover the "precious wisdom" of allotment holders, and, indeed, to learn from the wisdom inherent in the whole soil community of plants and animals. He had enormous respect for the world's small growers and farmers, highlighting that their efforts feed millions throughout the world. It was rare to turn up to a meeting with Edward and Barbara and not be treated to tasty tomatoes or pears from their garden.

He was born on 15 January 1930 in Detroit, Michigan, USA. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1948 and remained a Jesuit for 25 years. In the early 1970s he lectured in England - at Ushaw College, Durham, and as Catholic Lecturer at the Anglican theological college at Lincoln. He was laicised and married Barbara in December 1974. Always interested in the environment, from the eighties onwards he focused all his efforts on relating Jesus Christ and the Earth. He saw rebuilding a mutually supportive relationship of humans with the Earth community, as the defining issue of the twenty-first century. He wrote three books: Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre (1999/2002), The Cosmic Circle, Jesus and Ecology (2004), and Climate and Christ, A Prophetic Alternative (2010). He also wrote numerous articles in both academic and popular journals and magazines, and had a chapter in the 2017 book Reclaiming the Common Good - How Christians can help rebuild our broken world.

Earth Spirituality: Jesus at the Centre traced Edward's own life journey - from the starting point of his childhood experiences in the Great Lakes of North America, through years with the Jesuits, to his life in Southern England as an ecological theologian and organic gardener. He presented wonderful images of a childhood in Michigan which greatly influenced his concern for the natural world. As a boy, he remembered seeing the stumps of trees everywhere. Some were as tall as a boy because lumberjacks, working on snowshoes and wielding two-man saws, worked despite the thick snow which carpeted the State between November and March. "As I grew up, homes for car workers were replacing the cleared farms which had replaced the woods," he said, and he was alerted to other environmental issues too. The passenger pigeon was extinct by 1914 but there were elderly people around during his boyhood who "remembered them whistling through the sky in their millions." He says that, "we wondered as boys if it could happen to other birds, to animals, to us too".

His "Jesuit years" reinforced the embracing of a spirituality which encompassed God's Earth. "Ignatius tells us to thank other creatures, the angels, saints, heavenly bodies, and all soil creatures, including those that move in the waters, that, despite our sin, they support us, remain in relationships with us, and do not destroy us." He was a great admirer of theologian Teilhard de Chardin and took the view that good is in all things and all things in God. Edward lived in England with Barbara from the 1970s, first in Ripon and then in East Sussex. In East Sussex he insulated the walls and the roof to save energy, installing solar tubes which heat water about half the year, and purchased bicycles.

He talked of the desirability of liberating theology from academic confinement and condemned the failure of Church leaders and theologians "to provide a theologically compelling Earth spirituality or to bite the sharp bullet of sustainable living". He drew attention to the cosmological dimensions in the birth and death of Jesus - the star, the earthquake and the descent of unusual darkness on the earth. Echlin painted a picture of the environment that Jesus lived in and linked references to the natural world in the everyday life and parables of Jesus. He felt Jesus offers a reconciliation which encompasses a wounded planet, saying, "Reconciliation in Jesus of Nazareth, risen and glorified, includes all families and all creatures, the entire earth community, past, present and future".

Edward felt the sensitivity of Jesus to nature is particularly vivid in his parables, which are "derived from living close to the natural world and from familiarity with the Jewish scriptures and their metaphors of cosmic order, drawn from predictably changing seasons, reliable skies and winds, seas which did not transgress the limits of the strand, birds which migrated seasonally in Autumn and on the Spring thermals". He felt keenly the loss of Sunday - the Sabbath - as a special day of prayer and community in a society where people are more likely to spend the day working and shopping. As for sacraments, he felt Baptism reminds us of the sacredness of water and we must respect and heal seas, beaches and all local aquifers with their teeming life. Preparation for Confirmation could include a commitment to consume sustainably and locally, to share transport, to restore ruined local habitats. We should use local organic bread and wine at our Eucharists - "bread which Earth has given and human hands have made" and "fruit of the vine and work of human hands." Penitential prayers should include personal and structural ecological sin. Liturgies should be Earth-inclusive. He had a passion for fruit trees and in the past year inspired the planting of 24 apple and pear trees, in church grounds, schools and individual gardens. In his view, "this beautiful practice symbolises that Christians are water and tree people, an Earth-renewing presence wherever they live and worship".

I picture Edward in the Holy Land's Garden of Gethsemane, which he visited several times before giving up air travel, where he "was moved by the biodiversity and the sheep grazing peacefully there with birds resting on their back."

Dr Edward P Echlin was Chair Emeritus of Catholic Concern for Animals, Honorary Research Fellow in Theology, University College of Trinity & All Saints, Leeds and Visiting Scholar at Sarum College, Salisbury. He was a member of Green Christian, Garden Organic, Soil Association and other environmental NGOs. He died on 23 December. His funeral is at 12.30pm on Wednesday 15 January - which would have been his 90th birthday. The funeral Mass is at his local church, St Martha's RC Church, Cooden Sea Road, Bexhill. He will be buried in Bexhill Cemetery, and his grave will be located in a beautiful part of the cemetery with countryside around, and the South Downs and Beachy Head visible in the distance.

Tags: Edward Echlin, Dr Edward P Echlin, Catholic Concern for Animals

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