If you’ve ever thought taking action on the environmental crisis is a middle-class preoccupation with little relevance to low socio-economic communities in the UK – think again. This talk, given at the Eden Network and The Message Trust Proximity Conference tackles that misconception, looking at how environment and economic poverty in the UK are interrelated (too often along race and gender lines), and at how the Church can respond as we invite people to be part of the redemptive mission of God. I hope it’s helpful to you in your context.
The final episode of Perfect Planet should have us on our knees – in thankfulness for the amazing people who are so committed to bringing hope to our world, and in sadness at how we have messed it up so terribly.
We need to stop and acknowledge the feelings stirred up in us. Don’t push them away. Don’t allow them to be drowned out by other pressing demands going round our heads. We need to stop and look full-on at the horror that is happening to the wider natural world, to people living in poverty, and to the other creatures that share that world with us.
And we need to acknowledge that, collectively as a species, we have failed. Particularly in the economically developed parts of the world, we have failed and fallen dismally short of the role we should have been taking to look after and cherish other creatures and tread carefully on the earth.
We have failed for decades to listen to the increasingly clear messages coming from scientists working in so many different fields, but all noticing and saying the same thing. Instead of taking the action that needed to be taken ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago we ignored the warnings and continued recklessly on our path to disaster: governments focused on national self-interest and short-term popularity; businesses put their heads in the sand and focused on shareholder returns; and we as individuals have focused on our own selfish pursuits.
The Christian word for this is sin, but whatever word you want to use, the reality is clear: we have failed and it is time for us to humble ourselves and admit it.
The story of Jonah in the Hebrew Scriptures tells of a reluctant prophet who went to Ninevah to deliver the awful message that, because of their evil ways, God was going to bring destruction. The people and the king listened and responded. They covered themselves in sackcloth and got down on their knees, in the dust. Intriguingly, the animals did so too. And (much to Jonah’s annoyance) God saw their response and had mercy on them.
We need to act urgently, of course we do. As governments, businesses and in our own individual lives, we must make serious changes. I have written and spoken extensively about those actions and I urge us all to do that. But right now, we need collectively to get on our knees, acknowledge the part we have all played in the terrible scenes we have been watching, and pray that there will be mercy.
People are often surprised to hear that I don’t like the language of stewardship: ‘You’ve been calling people to look after the environment for years’, they say to me, ‘so surely you should be pleased that our role as stewards of creation is now so widely accepted in the church’?
They’re right in some respects – it really is encouraging that so many Christians now see taking care of the wider natural world as an important part of their faith and of what the good news (the gospel) of Jesus is about. And I fully recognise that the concept of stewardship has played a positive role in helping people grasp that we need to be looking after the whole creation, and not only the human part of that creation. So, I am respectful of that language and grateful for the part it has played.
But, it has some problems attached to it; problems that aren’t just nit-picking but that go to the heart of how we read the Bible and understand our relationship with the wider creation:
1. At a basic level, it’ s not biblical!
Nowhere does the Bible use the language of stewardship to describe our role in relation to the world. It goes back to the seventeenth century English lawyer, Matthew Hale, who used legal language to talk about us looking after the world like an estate manager, and it has got muddled up in our minds with the parables about stewardship in Luke 12 and 16. But it’s not a term that is found in the Bible, so I struggle to understand why we are so attached to using it.
2. We steward things that are inanimate, not living
When we think of stewardship (as in Jesus’ parables) we think of things that are inanimate: we steward money or wine or time. We don’t steward living things: I don’t steward my children or my friends; I look after them, nurture them, seek to protect them, honour and respect them.
Buried in the language of stewardship is the often-unconscious notion that ‘creation’ is a ‘thing’. Like ‘the environment’, it’s an object to be done-to. How far removed from the amazing world that God has created with all its diversity and brilliance; a world that is ‘teeming with life’ and full of interconnected relationships. How utterly disrespectful that this complex, throbbing, living, humming, vibrating reality is simply something that we steward!
3. Stewardship implies hierarchy
One of the key problems with the notion of stewardship is that there is an inherent separation from the steward and that which is stewarded: as stewards we are separate from ‘the creation’, and in a way that implies our superiority. When we look at the terrible problems facing the wider natural world, we know they have come about because we have failed to see ourselves as part of that world. We have believed ourselves to be separate and superior, with ‘the environment’ an inanimate object that exists only to serve us.
In one way, biblically speaking, we are separate, as the only species to have been made ‘in God’s image’, and there does seem to be a voice within Scripture that highlights that (Psalm 8 is the obvious referent). But overall, the Bible is clear that the human creature is exactly that – a creature; part of creation, interwoven into the natural processes of life, and one voice in the orchestra of creation that exists to worship Creator God. We are made in God’s image not to lord it over the wider creation but that we might have the qualities we need in order to care for the rest of the creation most effectively.
(Please note, there is nuancing needed here that I can’t give in a blog of this length, so please read chapter six of my Saying Yes to Life for a fuller reflection.)
4. Stewardship leaves no space for wilderness (thank you to Richard Bauckham for this point)
With its roots in estate management, the concept of stewardship has within it the idea of a country park, the entirety of which needs to be overseen and managed. It comes from the enlightenment view that nature needs to be tamed and controlled, and links with the above point about superiority: nature needs us. It leaves no space for the concept of wilderness; that there is something inherently precious about there being places and creatures that are untouched by humans.
So where do we go from here?
If we leave behind the language of stewardship, what can we replace it with? Other concepts have been proposed: guardianship, priesthood, earthkeeping… I don’t think any of them are adequate and I want to ask, why do we feel the need to find one word or concept that sums up our relationship with the wider creation? Scripture doesn’t, so I’m content not to either. Instead, I prefer to vary my language: caring for, looking after, respecting, protecting, joining… other creatures, the wider natural world, the whole creation, the environment, nature, God’s world…
Language is inadequate. We simply don’t have the words to describe this reality that God has created, nor the incredible wonder and privilege of being a part of it. But one thing we can say for certain: let’s cherish it together.
 R. Bauckham, ‘Being Human in the Community of Creation – a biblical perspective’, in, K. Jorgenson and A. Padgett (eds.), Ecotheology: A Christian conversation (Eerdmans, 2020).
And so, here we are, five years on from the momentous UN Climate Talks that resulted in the Paris agreement. This was the agreement that we all wanted: a worldwide consensus to limit global warming to as close to 1.5ºC as possible, reduce global emissions to net zero, and get all countries to submit national climate plans that state the actions that they will take.
The Church can play in helping to tackle the climate emergency. People of faith have a critical part to play, and I see, week in, week out, the tireless enthusiasm of climate activists the world over. During the past five years, I have seen the Eco Church movement grow to more than 3000 churches around the UK, and about 5500 churches and cathedrals have made the switch to renewable energy, partly through the Big Church Switch scheme that Tearfund helped to run.
Both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have made a formal commitment to reach net zero by 2030. This year, I had the privilege of writing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book, Saying Yes to Life, which focused on issues of global poverty and environmental care. The Church of England linked its Lent reflections to the book and estimated that, despite Covid-19, about a million actions for the environment were taken as a result.
As much as faith groups are a key part of the answer, however, if we are to avert the worst of the climate crisis we need political leadership that reflects the type of leadership and power that Jesus demonstrated. This compels me to act boldly and urgently on climate change, and I call on our political leaders to act similarly.
Regardless of your beliefs, we have much to learn from Jesus:
- Leading from a place of love. Being compelled by love enables us to play our part in tackling climate change and speaking out. This is a key part of what it means to love our neighbours and signpost the good news that Jesus proclaimed to the poor.
- Leading from conviction and speaking the truth. Jesus took on the powerful Pharisees, not shying away from speaking the truth on justice, fairness, and what God asks of us. Our leaders cannot shy away from the truth that we need to face and the actions needed on climate.
- Leading as a servant. Jesus ultimately paid with his life, so that we can have abundant life. Leadership is sacrificial, and Jesus put the least first. From Zacchaeus to Nicodemus to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus showed that he valued the least and the lost, and inspired people to make a difference with their lives.
We cannot limit warming to 1.5ºC without good political leadership and courageous action. The current pandemic has reminded us of the fragility of life, exposed the gap between rich and poor (all too often along race lines), and revealed the damage that we have done to the wider natural world. But it has also demonstrated our dependence on God, and the strength of community when we tackle challenges together — and it has given us the chance to reimagine what life could be like.
We are feeling the effects of climate change in the UK. But, as with Covid-19, it is the poorest communities across the world, which Tearfund serves, who have done the least to cause climate change and yet who are most harshly affected. As global temperatures rise, rains are becoming less reliable, and droughts, floods, and storms are becoming more frequent and extreme.
The progress during the past five years has been encouraging, but it is also devastatingly clear that it has not been enough. The predictions that I was reading about 20 years ago are coming to fruition, and it grieves me deeply that more people are going thirsty and hungry, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe, and communities are being displaced.
As we stand at a turning point in history, the decisions we make now will affect our economy, society, and climate for decades. Boris Johnson has delivered some inspiring words and taken some initial positive steps towards a green industrial revolution for the UK, including plans to reduce overall emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, and to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by the same date.
As the Prime Minister called on other countries to make their own ambitious commitments at the Climate Ambition Summit that the UK co-hosted on Saturday, 12 December, it was encouraging to see the announcement that the UK would become the first major economy to end public funding of fossil fuel projects overseas. This is something that Tearfund has been campaigning on for three years and is a crucial step forward in tackling the climate crisis, though we need to keep pushing that these new announcements lead to actual climate policies on the ground – something we will definitely be keeping the focus on throughout 2021.
As the UK prepares to host the UN climate talks in Glasgow next year, we should do all we can to ensure that it is a global leader. Every fraction of a degree of warming matters, and we do not have another five years to wait.
Tearfund is calling on Boris Johnson to use the post-Covid-19 recovery to close the gap between current policy and our climate targets, creating a healthier, greener, fairer future. The public can add their name to The Climate Coalition’s Declaration by visiting https://www.tearfund.org/campaigns/reboot-campaign.
This post is adapted from a piece first published in the Church Times on 11 December 2020.
In October I had the (slightly daunting) opportunity of sharing a speaking platform with Dr Rowan Williams. The discussion was on ‘Faith and Finance in a Time of Crisis – Church Action for Tax Justice’ and was hosted by Janie Oliver, Justin Thacker and Rosie Venner of The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility. My talk started at 34 minutes.
In September earlier this year I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at Duke Divinity School. The session was on ‘Naming the Unspeakable: Faithfulness for a Planet in Crisis’. It was a great panel and we had some very interesting conversations. Here’s the video recording of the session: