The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973



Greening the Church

It was inevitable that sooner or later the Church of England would claim the green cause as its own, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, did in his sermon in Canterbury yesterday. Cynics will say that this merely proves that the Church has forgotten its own message, and will climb on any bandwagon that seems to be going somewhere. Enemies will say that the Judaeo-Christian tradition, with its ethos of subduing the Earth and claiming mastery over every other species, is one of the main reasons the planet got itself into its present ecological mess in the first place.

There is none the less room for a constructive contribution from the Church, and that was the case Dr Runcie argued yesterday. He could have put it even more strongly, for environmentalism is looking for an underlying rationale more noble than enlightened self-interest. There are spiritual as well as scientific resonances to be sounded. Mankind's pursuit of domination of the planet was, as he told it, an inevitable earlier stage in the relationship between homo sapiens and Planet Earth; but the time had come to move on to a caring sense of stewardship. Environmentalism, that is to say, has always been implicit in Christian theology, waiting its time to surface.

His sermon had as a prelude an attempt by the increasingly strident fundamentalist element in the Church of England to knock the use of Canterbury Cathedral for a "Festival of Faith and the Environment", of which yesterday's service was the concluding act. They felt that the use of church property by members of other faiths compromised the uniqueness of Christianity; strictly speaking, therefore, their protests had no connection with environmental issues. This was surprisingly short-sighted of them. There was a good point waiting to be made in precisely this context - namely, the threat to Christianity of greeness itself, as it takes on more and more of the characteristics of a religious faith.

The English love of nature can be traced to the 19th century romantics, whose poetry, music and art is shot through with a pantheistic worship of the natural world. That still strong romantic spirit, and in particular the English love of animals and of landscape, provides fertile soil for an alliance with scientific environmentalism. There is already a distinctly mystical fringe to the green movement.

The worship of nature, however, and the worship of the one God who created nature, are two different and essentially incompatible religions, and Dr Runcie would be wise to make sure the Church of England is clear about the distinction. He is right, however, to recognize the spiritual potency of these matters. Mere selfish materialism and the attitude of "profit at any cost" are now proving as harmful to the natural world as they have already proved to religious faith. The Church and the Green movement have a common enemy, and can accordingly make common cause.

In the long run, the Church's espousal of these concerns can contribute powerfully to the material salvation of the planet from mankind's greed and indifference. It is, however, the Church's main business to point out that those same forces also threaten the spiritual salvation of man. That is the more ancient struggle. The Church has to remember that in terms of its own title deeds it remains the more important.


The Times, Monday September 18, 1989.

See: Church and Greenery

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