Climate Sunday

Today’s readings are Psalm 8Open Link in New Window & Matthew 5:13-16Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Deborah.

It’s such a privilege to be speaking to you all on Climate Sunday. As Co-Chair of the national environmental organisation Green Christian, I do quite a lot of speaking at Christian events and churches, but rarely to my own church family.

Two years ago, St Matthews was one of the first Anglican churches in the UK to declare a climate emergency. Along with Cotham and St Pauls, we took this to Deanery and then Diocesan Synod. In November 2019 Bristol was the first Diocese to declare a climate emergency, and at the next General Synod the whole Church of England did the same. It’s nice to know that we were there right at the beginning of this process. Care of Creation is an integral part of Christian mission and ministry, right up there with loving our neighbour. Today we are holding our Climate Sunday, along with many other churches in the UK, throughout this year.

Until the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, the sacredness of Creation was understood, not because it was holy in its own right, but because God made it and loved it. But as people moved away from accepting the authority of the Bible and the Church, they also began to question the very existence of God. And if you no longer believe in God, then it’s a short step to believing that Nature is a commodity to exploit in any way that seems good to you. And we can think of forests, fisheries, farm animals, to name just a few.

The Enlightenment was the beginning of a huge revolution in ways of engaging with the world, in thought, industry, science, technology, and politics—and like many revolutions, it brought both good and ill. It led to the Industrial Revolution. Much of what that brought us is brilliant, and we wouldn’t want to be without it. Electricity, for example, or modern medicine.

Despite this seismic change in society, as Christians we still know that God is our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, and that everything God has made is very good.

Psalm 8Open Link in New Window underlines this, and speaks of the wonder that human beings—sinners, people who get things wrong and fail and fall short—we are only a little lower than the angels, we are God’s co-workers in caring for Creation. “You made man ruler over the works of your hands; You put everything under his feet.”

But Psalm 8Open Link in New Window could be, and probably has been, misinterpreted. It’s easy to take verses out of context. This psalm could be misunderstood as saying humans are in absolute charge, forgetting that it begins and ends with the declaration of God’s majesty, the implicit understanding that God is Lord of the universe, and that it opens with the acknowledgment of God’s creative work and authority.

The psalm tells us about our responsibility under God, that we are not kings of all we survey, but are accountable to God for what we do, and how we care for God’s Creation. And that applies to every human on the planet. There’s no get-out clause for people of other religions or no religion.

And it’s easy to speak words, to declare a climate emergency, to declare God’s sovereignty as Psalm 8Open Link in New Window does, but words need to be followed up by action.

We are beginning to understand how far we humans have fallen short in this task of caring for creation. Science tells us that our world is hurtling towards climate chaos—our atmosphere contains nearly 417 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide, and it’s increasing very rapidly. Only 60 years ago it was 317 ppm. These are seemingly tiny amounts, parts per million, but carbon dioxide is an extremely powerful gas. It’s one of the greenhouse gases, which act like a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere. Another is methane, which is even more powerful, and degrades to carbon dioxide. A double whammy.

The last time the world had this much carbon in the atmosphere was 3 million years ago, when beech trees grew near the South Pole, there were no ice sheets, and sea levels were 50 or 60 feet higher than today.

The difference between then and now, is that it’s humans who’ve driven this rapid increase in carbon, rather than it being part of the natural cycle of planetary heating and cooling which takes place over millions of years. Increased atmospheric carbon leads to increases in air and water temperature, which in turn lead to chaotic weather events. Heat is energy, and all that energy has to go somewhere, into storms for example. More extreme weather events have long been predicted, and are already happening. This summer temperatures in Canada reached nearly 50 degrees C; there was terrible flooding in Europe, and of course Hurricane Ida.

As an aside, last week I had a conversation with someone who described this year as apocalyptic. But last year was just as bad, and the year before, but in different parts of the world—Asia, Africa, Latin America, as well as fires in California and Australia. We just don’t always hear about it when it’s not the west.

In terms of the Earth’s natural cycles of heating and cooling, we should now be heading towards an ice age.

With regard to biodiversity, the range of different species on Earth, we’ve reached a similar crisis point. Since 1970, humans have wiped out nearly 70% of the world’s animals. In the last 10 years 160 species have become extinct. The most common bird on the planet is the chicken, which in the West means the most common bird is locked up in battery cages.

Biodiversity is important, not only because God loves all that he made and it is very good, but because the more species there are, the more stable an ecosystem is—the fewer species, the more likely an ecosystem is to collapse. We are already seeing this type of collapse.

And you won’t be surprised to hear that climate change and ecosystem collapse are linked in many complicated ways.

So why has the world been so slow to act on climate change?

One important reason, but not the only one, is that the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars over the last 60 years in persuading people that the science about climate isn’t fixed, that there’s uncertainty about the connection between burning oil, coal and gas, the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and the planet heating up. Well, leaving aside the fact that science is never fixed—it’s an ongoing process of enquiry, building on knowledge, and working out ideas—this is a bit like the sugar industry telling us that the science about tooth decay isn’t fixed, that sugar probably has nothing to do with it, and that dentists are simply alarmists!

In fact the first scientist to work out the heating effect of burning coal on the Earth’s atmosphere did so in 1896, and the fossil fuel industry has known the truth about fossil fuel and climate for many decades. Another truth is that the devastating effects of global heating that we see today are the results of fuels burnt in the 1980s. There’s 30–40 years of heating built in.

Another, perhaps more important, reason for being slow to act is our innate selfishness, or sinfulness. It’s the human condition—none of us really wants to change the way we think or act. Any kind of confusion about anything important, such as climate change, appeals to our natural human impulse to ignore difficult truths, to live in our own understanding, to turn away from God. The Bible calls this sin. We are all sinners—we all like to do things our own way.

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth…”

So Psalm 8Open Link in New Window speaks of our wonderful privilege of looking after creation—and in Matthew 5Open Link in New Window, Jesus, talking to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, said:

“You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world…”

That’s us. We are Jesus’ followers. We are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.

Let’s not lose our saltiness, purpose for being. Let’s not hide our light, but use that light to lead in the work of caring for Creation.

You may find people telling you their prime concern is racism, or anti-Semitism, or the NHS, equality, human rights, education, the post-pandemic world, or famines, or wars, or refugees, or any number of really important things, and of course we shouldn’t neglect them. But the truth is that climate change and ecological devastation will make everything worse.

The Church is still listened to. Christians are still listened to. We still are expected to hold some kind of moral authority. People are disappointed when the Church is silent on important matters. It’s crucial to speak out and to act, to be salt and light in the world. So let’s take courage, go forward in renewed confidence, assured of our place as God’s co-workers in caring for God’s creation, and remembering that we are the salt and light of the world.

Just briefly, before I finish, in the last year St Matt’s has gained the A Rocha Silver EcoChurch Award, a really good achievement. And there’s so much more we can be doing, as a church and as individuals—we want to go for Gold! Please do look at the EcoChurch webpage to see what it’s about—it’s not simply about our church building or the garden, but just as much about how we engage with the world, our ministry, and our individual lifestyles. I know from conversations that many of us are deeply concerned about nature, climate change, and pollution—we can build on this. The Nine Ways leaflet gives ideas of where to start, and the other flyer points towards Why Faith Matters, a new attractive visual presentation, which is being sent to all MPs, bishops, diocesan environmental officers, our two archbishops, and many others. Do please have a look at Why Faith Matters, and send it out to your friends. It was published last Monday.

In a few weeks’ time the 26th Conference of Parties, or COP26, takes place in Glasgow. The world will be watching. This year is crucial, the last chance, many believe, to really make a difference, to slow down climate change, to reduce the chance of environmental catastrophe, and in peace and justice to make the world a better place for all, both human and more-than-human.

The odds are not great, to be honest—there are many conflicting demands and other very loud dissenting voices.

Alok Sharma, the UK president of the conference, and all countries of the world, need our prayers; our government, our MPs, the leaders of the companies we buy from – they need our letters and emails, to show that we care and we expect them to act. The whole of nature, as well as future generations, needs our personal actions.

As people of faith, as people of the Book, as followers of Jesus, we have work to do.

Amen.

There will be a video version of the service.

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