Michael Bayley is a retired Anglican priest and long time member of St Mark's Broomhill. He was formerly a Lecturer in social work and social policy at Sheffield University. He co-founded Hope for the Future and is still a trustee.
I was deeply challenged and profoundly moved by Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019 (see link below). She does not mince her words. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy-tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” She points out that we have less than 8 ½ years to get to net zero emissions to have a 67% chance of staying below the critical 1.5 centigrade global temperature rise. She carried on: “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell us it like it is.” She was right. The results of the summit were pathetic. It is a formidable challenge and, if we add to that, acute anxiety about what is going to happen about Brexit and the mayhem surrounding that, I often feel I want to bury my head in the sand and cry, especially when such radical changes are needed, and needed so quickly. But our Christian faith does not encourage such escapism. That is not what Jesus did. But it does offer resources for facing up to such situations.
The great science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin said in 2014: “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We‘ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality… We live in capitalism, its powers seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” (Quoted in Naomi Klein, On Fire, page 270 see link below). I think that is a good brief for us Christians now.
But how? People of faith have constantly faced dire situations. Look at Habakkuk’s lament: “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted (Habakkuk 1:3–4). I find myself forced back to basics. Today’s collect may seem very urbane but what it says is fundamental: “O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that we may both perceive and know what things we ought to do and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them through Jesus Christ your son our Lord.” Perhaps our faith is only, as today’s gospel says, ‘a grain of mustard seed’ but that can be enough’.
So two questions: – How do we respond to Greta Thunberg’s challenge?. How do we tap that ‘grace and power’ of which the collect speaks?
To respond to the challenge I suggest the 3P’s, Prayer, Practice, Politics. I believe that prayer really must come first but I am going to deal with them in reverse order, finishing with prayer and how we tap that grace and power.
Politics. I want to do no more than to reiterate that I believe our engagement in politics on behalf of this precious earth of ours is vital. This is no place to discuss the detail of particular policies, but I think there is cause for real encouragement in some of the policies that are being suggested. In particular that great idol of our time, the myth of the need for perpetual growth of the world’s economy, is being challenged and soundly based, humane policies are being put forward that respect the planet and recognize the absolute necessity of humankind living in harmony with the rest of creation.
Practice. What we do ourselves matters. It is not only important for our integrity: it is also important because when it comes to consumption, globally the top 10% of consumers are responsible for almost 50% of emissions of greenhouse gases and the top 20% for 70%. We are in that top 20% . We know what we have to do – travel, housing, heating and food are key. The crunch is doing it. Helping and encouraging one another is important but it also has be grounded in the last P.
Prayer. ‘Grounded in prayer’ can sound like a rather tired religious truism so let me put it another way. Where do we find the motivation and the staying power to face up to these overwhelming challenges?
I think increasingly that the more we realise that we have to be active and involved and taking initiatives, the more we have to learn and, at times, to do the exact opposite and to do absolutely nothing, to be passive, to be receptive, to simply open ourselves to our God who loves us and loves this planet, to be open to the sheer wonder of creation as well as it its pain. I believe we have to keep learning and relearning how we receive God’s grace and power. We do not have to do it in our own strength. That is why we are here and shortly we will be receiving, accepting the bread and wine, accepting the grace and power, accepting the strength of our Lord himself. I have two suggestions. The first is to use the excellent Prayer Points produced by “Pray and Fast for the Climate”. It is excellent, informative, realistic and, of course, available on the web. My second suggestion is to use the Lord’s Prayer. The whole of it is relevant but recently I have found myself concentrating especially on two phrases. The first is ‘your will be done on earth, as in heaven’. I just let it sink in slowly, especially the word ’earth’, and the wonder and the pain of the earth. I take my time over that. The other is, ‘Lead us not into temptation’ but that is not what I say or pray. I have always found that phrase difficult despite the many explanations I have read. Instead I pray, ‘Let us not fall into temptation.’ This is not my idea. It is Pope Francis who has suggested this but I have added a bit. ‘Let us not fall into despair or temptation.’ I think despair is one of our great enemies from which we need to be delivered, so the next phrase ‘but deliver us from evil’ seems highly appropriate. Despite any help we are given, the likelihood is that we will still frequently fall flat on our faces and then we, and certainly I, need to be delivered from evil.
The task is formidable but Christ offers us ‘the grace and power faithfully to fulfill it.’
But please, please listen to what Greta Thunberg said at the United Nations. You may well forget what I have said but you will not forget what she says.
See the links below for some encouraging books.