Over the weekend of September 18 and 19 I had the privilege of attending a conference at Coventry Cathedral entitled Reconciling a Wounded Planet. The idea was to bring together those concerned about our environmental crisis, to share stories of hope, and make positive partnerships for future action. And this it did – we had the opportunity to get together in groups, including by region and interest – and it has led to the organisation of an event at which Richard Bauckham will be speaking in Cambridge on 21 November.
For me, the location and theme of reconciliation were perhaps the most powerful. Coventry was heavily bombed in World War II, and the cathedral largely destroyed. The immediate response from the then bishop was that the ruins be left and a new cathedral built adjacent, and he started a ministry of reconciliation that continues to this day. The physical space, both from the presence of the old cathedral and some rather “brutal” aspects of the architecture in the new, emphasises that past evils are real, and cannot be erased from history, yet there is hope for better relationships in the future.
This idea is, I feel, a helpful one for talking about our planet. As Richard Bauckham showed us in his reflections on Colossians 1:15-20 (and has written about elsewhere) we should be living in a “community of creation”, each human, animal, plant and so on participating and fulfilling his, her or its own role. There is room for debate as to exactly what that role should be for humans, but it is clear that we have fallen short of it as a species, and need to seek peace with other humans the remainder of creation. But what we have already done cannot be washed away: for many decades if not centuries we will have to live with and live around the damaging legacy of our prior and contemporary environmental neglect.
Another powerful but related image, this time presented by Bishop James Jones, is the idea that we are on a cruise ship on the ocean, destination and timescale unknown. Those of us fortunate to live in the UK or a similar nation are in first class, benefiting from the fruits of the voyage. But our luxury is often based on the hard labour of others: the global south in this picture is on the lower decks. The revolution needed for greater equity between humans on the planet will be difficult and take time. And, what’s worse, the legacy of the suffering will last longer. Inter-human reconciliation will still be needed to resolve issues resulting from this lingering hurt: those who live in areas of the world damaged beyond repair by climate crisis feeling rightly aggrieved at the descendants of those who caused it. It is this kind of ministry where Coventry has much to teach us – interestingly it was noted that they had had an environmental conference as far ago as the early 1970s.
Turning to the more practical side, we had speakers and participants in all sorts of spheres, working in churches and communities, through to businesses, and one of the streams looked at the potential benefits of technologies. In all of these, the encouragement was that much is being done, but the worry is that it is too little and too late, and a constant refrain just under the surface was the question of how we get the mainstream of the church to take these issues seriously. This came out in the group I was participating in: health, education and welfare, which I’ll write up in more detail in another post. As noted in both my comments on Adrian Brown’s Grove booklet and the talk by James Hindsen, a school teacher engaged in trying to promote sustainability, there are plenty of excellent ideas out there for improving sustainability education, but a big gap between activists and the majority who seem unable to care. This is an issue that I fear we are failing to solve.
At the time of writing, we are waiting for the organisers to synthesise the various bits of feedback and ideas into some sort of joint statement – potentially quite a challenging process given the amount of material generated – but it has the potential to be a helpful and inspiring new manifesto for the church in the leadup to Paris. In the meantime, if I’m representative of those who went, there are plenty out there with new ideas, inspiration and contacts, continuing the work to reconcile human to human and human to planet.