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Living Churchyards Prizegiving, 4 October 2014

by Gerry Lynch last modified 06 Oct, 2014 01:35 PM

Address at the Dorset Wildlife Trust Living Churchyard’s Project prize-giving ceremony at Brooklands Farm, near Dorchester, on St Francis’ Day, 4 October 2014

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Thank you for inviting me.  I can’t think of a happier way to spend St Francis’ Day.

The Living Churchyard’s Project has been enormously successful.  Over 100 parishes have been involved.  This really is one of those competitions when, although winning is nice, what really matters is that people really get the bug about creating “wildlife-friendly churchyards”.   There are some wonderfully good examples now in urban as well as rural settings, some of which will not have entered the competition.

Churchyards are a rich resource right across the country.  Something like 6,000 British churchyards are now run as ‘sacred eco-systems’ – without pesticides and mowing at least sections of the grass only one a year, ensuring that birds, reptiles, insects and bats can thrive. 

Churchyards are interesting places.  Although my family left the village where I was born when I was 3, I can still walk round that churchyard and feel as though I am among friends.  The Christian faith began at an empty tomb and the Early Church discovered that the tombs of the saints were ‘thin places’ where heaven and earth met.  The way in which Christians cared for their dead said something profound to the society around, about their living faith.  People have eternal significance and every individual matters. 

It was Philip Larkin who said that a church is, “a serious house on serious earth”.  If God is, God is everywhere but churches are places set apart, holy, where people have prayed and done their serious business with God and each other, often over centuries.  That is why they are as Eliot said, a place “made valid by prayer”.  It is easier to pray where people are praying, or have prayed before.  Just as they are places where we can be put right with God and one another so they are also places where we can be put right with the creation.  This has become a very important mark for the Christian church in our day.  In fact there is a convergence for the world’s faith in caring for God’s earth.  A friend who is a rabbi emailed recently with greetings for the Jewish New Year.  He wrote about the person who makes peace with their neighbour makes peace with the world and about the Hebrew Tikkum Olam, the repair of the earth.  We have to begin with ourselves and our neighbourhood and that is the way in which we primarily relate to the whole wide earth.

Or course, Jesus sided with a particular interpretation of the meaning of neighbour in such a way as to make it clear that the love of neighbour includes absolutely everyone, including the outcasts and the enemy.  The same must be true of our care of the earth.  Charity begins at home but it does not stop at home.  The care of the environment begins with ourselves and is without limit.

This is really important as we prepare for the most important UN Climate Summit of the decade in Paris next year.  It is really important that we see that our living churchyards project is connected with that.  A few weeks ago I was appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to be the Church of England’s lead bishop on the environment.  This was rather unkindly headlined on our diocesan website as, “Bishop of the Planet”!  Or course we’ve all clocked the significance that the care of the earth begins for a Christian with prayer, and leads into action.  The world wildlife Living Planet Fund’s identified that the world population’s of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 52% between 1970 and 2010.   The scale of this means that it is easy to lose hope. What can we do?  The repair of the earth begins here.  It is to start with at least, a matter of the spirit. 

This morning before we began, I signed an online petition in support of the people of Polynesia who are under particular threat from global warming and rising sea levels.  Their “Oceans of Justice” campaign is to get climate change on to the agenda of the G20 meeting in Brisbane in November.

The climate marches two weeks ago generated a good deal of interest and support in relation to the UN Summit in New York.  The Bishop of London came up with a telling sentence, even more so after the political conferences with their emphases on the importance of the economy for the election next year: “We need to remember the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary for the environment”.  I also liked some graffiti on a white board at a London station noticed by my eldest son, “If you don’t believe the environment is more important than the economy, see how long you can hold your breath for whilst counting your money”.  My youngest son who organised a cycling demonstration in Lund, in Southern Sweden, produced a photo of a placard, “There is no planet B”. 

There are plenty of examples that will renew our hope locally, Living Churchyards among them.

There have been a number of declarations by various church leaders and faith groups.  In October 2009 the then Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a meeting of Faith Leaders and Faith-based community organisations at Lambeth Palace which resulted in the Lambeth Declaration.

“Faith communities have a crucial role to play in pressing for changes in behaviour at every level of society and in every economic sector.  We all have a responsibility to learn how to live and develop sustainably in a world of finite resources.  Building on the examples of local and international action to live and to work together The Lambeth Declaration calls on the faith community to:

  • build on the examples of local and international action to live and to work together sustainably,
  • share best practice and redouble our efforts to reduce emissions that result from our institutional and individual activities,
  • work with our partners, our sister churches and communities internationally to mitigate the effects of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the developing world,
  • press governments to support that effort.”

It really does emphasise the importance of local and global thought and action. I am very grateful to those of you who have really grasped this and are working at it in such creative ways.   

 

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