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Why climate change is a confessional question

This article by The Rt Revd David Atkinson, convenor of Operation Noah's theology think tank, was published in Church Times on 17 February 2012 and is reproduced with permission. 

For some people mention of ‘climate change’ produces a shrug, or a yawn. Either it seems too trivial or too irrelevant to my life, or it is too big to handle - what difference can I make? Is it not presumptuous in any case to think my actions can affect the world’s climate? Then there are the many who think it is important, but not for now: the costs to our economy to make the needed changes are just too much. For other people, however, the threat of runaway climate change is the most significant moral question facing us today. It is seen as a threat to the lives and livelihood of huge numbers of people and to the well-being of all creatures on God’s earth. Operation Noah is an ecumenical Christian charity which takes this view. It rejects the shrug-culture. More than that: it believes that responsible care for God’s creation is foundational to the Gospel and central to the church’s mission. As human beings we will be held accountable for the way we have treated God’s gift.

For too long, Christian people have not had sufficient urgency about the questions posed by climate change. Yet they reach to the heart of the faith: our relationship to God’s earth and to each other; the place of technology; questions about sin and selfishness, altruism and neighbour love; what to do with our fears and vulnerabilities; how to work for justice especially for the most disadvantaged parts of the world, and for future generations. 

In Why we disagree about climate change (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Professor Mike Hulme argued that one of the reasons there is disagreement is that “we believe different things about our duty to others, to Nature, and to our deities.” We ascribe value differently to our activities, our assets, our resources. We think differently about the relationship between economics and human flourishing. Climate change, in other words, is not mostly about science. It is about something deeper - how we see ourselves in relation to God, to others, to the whole of creation. Alongside the scientific consensus that human induced climate change is significantly adversely affecting the climate, mostly through burning fossil fuels, there is a deeper dimension of morality, of theology, of spirituality. What does God expect of us now in our relationship to the earth, which is the Lord’s?

At times of urgency during its history Christian people have sometimes issued a Confession of Faith to call the church back to its biblical and theological foundations. As Professor Tim Gorringe recently argued, a Confession was a way of responding to a particular threat or uncertainty by recalling biblical themes which addressed the situation. The Barmen Declaration did this for the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. Various confessions of faith addressed apartheid in South Africa a generation later. Operation Noah believes that this is a time of urgency for the church in relation to climate change. This is a confessional issue for our day. 

With the public support of senior leaders in several denominations:

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury,

  • Cardinal Keith O’Brien,

  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu,

  • The Bishop of London,

  • The Moderator of the General Assemby of the Church of Scotland,

  • The Moderator of the United Reformed Church,

  • The President of the Methodist Conference,

  • The Chair of the National Catholic Justice and Peace Environment Group,

  • The International Director of Micah Challenge,

  • Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia,

  • The Archbishop of Wales,

  • The General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain,  

Operation Noah has issued a Confession of Faith.  It is an Ash Wednesday Declaration entitled "Climate Change and the purposes of God  -  a Call to the Church.'    It asks what our relationship should be with God as both the origin and end of all things.  It points up the balance of our energy and material consumption with the needs of the poorest communities,  and of future generations and other species.  The Declaration speaks of hope in  the midst of fear and denial,  and of a challenge to unsustainable economic systems. More personally, it issues a call to radical Christian discipleship.   It is these fundamental questions which prompt this urgent 'call to the Church.

The Declaration is framed around seven biblical themes. It celebrates ‘joy in creation’: everything we have comes to us as gift. It urges us to listen to the ‘prophetic voice’ of climate scientists warning us of danger. ‘Repentance’ means finding creative, constructive ways – enabled by God’s Spirit – of changing direction. The Declaration reflects on humanity’s calling to have ‘responsibility for creation’, and to use our power wisely. It urges the Church to ‘seek justice’, especially in seeking a sustainable economy not based on limitless growth, overconsumption and debt. ‘Love to our neighbours’ extends to future generations as well as disadvantaged communities everywhere. It ends with a call to ‘Act with Hope’ in the light of God’s future: the promised coming reign of Christ over all. 

To be a Christian, this Declaration argues, is to accept the call to radical discipleship, and to work through the implications for Church life of the change of lifestyle needed, of the change needed in our unsustainable consumer economy which places acquisition above all other values and crowds out other dimensions of human flourishing and planetary well-being, of the kingdom call of Jesus to repentance and faith. 

This is a document for church leaders,  for theological college tutors,  preachers and school teachers.  It is for PCCs to discuss and decide on,  for individual Christians to use as part of their prayers.  There are some Bible study and other resources on the ON website.  The Declaration will be launched on Ash Wednesday in a service of prayer.  As Professor Mary Grey put it:  "For Christians, the themes of this statement - joy, repentance, hope, justice and so on - are not optional:  they are at the heart of our identity as Church.  We will encounter them in the form of a question when we face God's judgement:  "What did you do to cherish my creation in its hour of danger?"