Posted by on March 1, 2020

Sermon by Kenneth Padley 1st March 2020

Lent as is a time for giving things up. The season has come down to us from a tradition of fasting which developed in the early Church. Usually we think of fasting as individual acts of sacrifice for a limited period and for an anticipated spiritual benefit. As a result, Lent is often perceived as a journey into our own interior, with a pattern and benefits that are personal to each participant. 

I don’t deny the truth of this interior Lent but, today I want us to think about fasting in a different way. I want us to shift our horizon and lift our ambitions. This is because while it is very worthwhile to give up chocolate or booze or picking our nose in the car for forty days, there is an elephant in the room. We know there is one thing which we must all give up, that we must give it up in greater quantities than ever before, that we must give it up permanently – and that the long-term survival of our race depends on us doing this. Friends, what we really need to give up is climate-changing fossil fuels.

The rationale for carbon abstinence is obvious. In the last few months alone, we have seen horrific bush fires in Australia, and heard about record-breaking temperatures in the Southern Ocean – it was +20 degrees in Antarctica the other week. Here in Britain the effects of a balmy winter are all around us. Each year I ponder whether St David will enjoy daffodils on March 1st – but there was to be no doubt this year – the daffs were out by the end of January. Moreover, we know that rising global temperatures run the risk of positive feedback loops – that melting tundra will release more Carbon Dioxide, and so on.

2020 is a big year for climate change. The international summit in Glasgow next autumn must turn words into action. Climate change is an issue to which even the Church has been waking up. The Anglican Communion talks about Five Marks of Mission, five ways in which we as Christians, individually and collectively, are summoned to cooperate with what God is doing in his world. The Fifth of Mark of mission states that we must “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and to sustain and renew the life of the earth”. This is a high and vital part of our calling of faith, to cooperate with God in the tasks of creating and sustaining.

Despite these principles, at least two Christian approaches have got in the way of positive action on the environment. Let’s name them and shame them.

  • The first we might crudely call Extreme Calvinism. This is the argument which says that human choices won’t make a difference because everything that happens on earth is willed by God. Friends, this is an abdication of responsibility: the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are caused by human emissions not by divine ones. Authentic Calvinism asserts that God has oversight – but that humans bear moral culpability.

An even worse version of extreme Calvinism pretends that global warming might in fact be a Good Thing if it hastens the end of the world and the return of Jesus. This is the sort of nonsense theology which consciously or sub-consciously supports the foolish decision of Mr Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and his attempt to reinvigorate the American coal industry. I say to you – as someone who is proud to call himself a Calvinist – that these abusive misinterpretations of God’s providence will not do. Our calling as occupants and stewards of God’s planet is to align our actions with God’s providential will and to act for the long term.

  • The second fallacious approach to climate change is an outlook of complacency, an argument which would dismiss climate change because the planet ‘will see me out’, to say ‘I don’t need to act on climate change because I won’t be around when things get really tough’. This is exactly the same attitude which you find in churches that are in terminal decline: the people hope to die before their church does. I thank God that St Michael’s does not treat evangelism with such negativity – and so I hope that our approach to the climate future is positive as well. This planet may well see me out, but our current trajectory will not see out our children, grandchildren and their descendants.

So what are we going to do?

When I go on my annual stint in Ely as a selector of potential clergy, one of the areas I am charged to probe is about mission and evangelism. To which of those five marks of mission do candidates feel most drawn? And which do they find most difficult? Usually, candidates state that the fifth mark, that environmental task of safeguarding the integrity of creation, is the hardest of the five because it is the largest: what possible difference can we as individuals make? Most if not all of us can identify with that: we’re not going to solve the climate problem on our own and certainly not during the forty days of Lent. So the first hurdle that we need to surmount is the defeatism of inertia – to claim that the problem is just too big to make a start. Think of the difference which that most unlikely of rabble rousers, Greta Thunberg has made. The title of her book embodies our starting principle. She called her book No one is too small to make a difference. In a similar vein, St David on his deathbed urged his followers to ‘gwnewch y pethau bychain’, ‘do the little things that you have seen in me’. David was not an eco-warrior but the principle is the same. Everyone can make a difference.

So having dismissed inertia, let’s answer the question, what are we going to do about fossil fuels?

We have individual choices to make. As Peter Lindeman puts it, these are often about inconvenience: we keep taking the same climate-impacting actions because they are the least costly on our time and wallets. It’s a bit cold, therefore I’ll drive to the shops. Mea culpa: I do it all the time. 

As individuals we need to be more informed to make better choices. That is why Peter is organising his third eco-evening this Thursday in the Parish Centre – do come along from 7.30pm – details on your notice sheet. Similarly, ‘Hope in Action’ is a local network of Christians from different churches working to promote environmental change. Also check out ‘Love for God’s Creation’ – the Church of England’s national campaign this Lent. And ditto St Albans Cathedral’s Easter Monday pilgrimage entitled ‘Tread lightly upon the earth’.

Of course, individual choices must be scaled up by communities – including churches. As a parish we have done a lot already: our gas consumption has been slashed due to better boilers, double-glazing and pipe insulation. We need to celebrate this – but also to admit that we are still burning gas. So the steps we have taken are only a beginning, and there is little low-hanging fruit left. For the future, may I encourage more use of the bike rack and more car sharing to get to church? And may I predict the arrival of photo-voltaic cells on the lovely south-facing roof of the Memorial Hall, and that the next boilers in all four of our public buildings will be hydrogen-ready, ripe for conversion in the 2030s to the environmentally-safe fuel of the future.

And then community choices must be scaled up by governments. Once upon a time I naively hoped that the market would solve the problem of climate change. However, by the time that the price of fossil fuels rises to a prohibitive level we will have burned too much and done irreversible damage.

So we need a global response to our global addiction. There are several blueprints from the 1980s which point to what can be achieved – think of the effectiveness of the ban on whale hunting and on our use of CFCs. Of course, with fossil fuels the scale is much bigger and our addiction all the greater, but we also know that massive culture shifts can be achieved: think of the abolition of smoking in public places. I never thought it would happen but once the will was there the transformation was almost instantaneous.

Giving up climate-changing fossil fuels will be the single-biggest act of fasting ever asked of the human race. However, there may be an even greater underlying challenge and culture shift that needs to take place. Our politics and economics are grounded in the principle of ever-increasing Gross Domestic Product. This requires more and more consumption and more and more consumers. Maybe the ultimate Lent is to give up on GDP growth, and the burgeoning population which underpins it. Might it not be better to concentrate on other indices of welfare such as levels of happiness, faith and contentment? And, if so, might not Jesus have been banishing our own temptations (as well as his own) when he told the devil that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God?

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons