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Oxford University Sermon, 8 February 2015

by Gerry Lynch last modified 09 Apr, 2015 02:37 PM

The University Sermon preached by the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 8 February 2015.

 "The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is." (Psalm 24.1)

At the bottom of a friend’s e mails it currently says: ‘If you go on doing what you’ve always done, you will go on getting what you have always got.’ It couldn’t be more true about our care of the earth.

The environment has always changed. Sea levels have risen and fallen as temperatures have gone up and down, but in the assessment of the scientific collective that is the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they are 95% certain that human activity is the main cause of current global warming. The impact of people causing global warming is so great that some have suggested we are moving from the relatively stable inter-glacial Holocene era to one that might best be called the Anthropocene in which human activities are having a determinative impact on the world’s ecosystems.

The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest source of the problem: as CO2 increases, temperature increases. This century has begun with fourteen of the fifteen hottest years on record. Over the last 50 years, the warming of the oceans has caused average humidity to increase by 4%. The consequence is a greater intensity of floods and storms.

Last year the Bishops of the Church of Sweden wrote a letter about the climate. In the Foreword, the Archbishop of Uppsala said that existence has always seemed almost limitless. "We have grown used to being able to expand out of a crisis. We have now reached a few limits." The period in which we thought it was good to consume as much as we can is over. There is anxiety of apocalyptic proportions that we are up against nine planetary boundaries, such as the loss of Biodiversity, acidification of the Oceans and Global warming.

The crossing of these boundaries will significantly reduce our ‘safe operating space’ on earth. That is why there is such pressure to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees C beyond which there is the likely possibility of exponential change. We are all affected, but those least able to cope are the poorest of the earth, such as the Pacific islanders and Bangladeshis who are most affected by the rise in sea level. There has been an increase in terrible storms and floods in this country and the USA but Malawi is currently experiencing the worst rains in its 50 years since independence. Floods have washed away tens of thousands of houses, destroyed crops, and wiped out livestock. The UN say 336,000 people have been displaced by the floods, 104 are dead and 172 are missing.

In a brilliant presentation at Davos a few weeks ago, Al Gore sketched the problem in response to two questions: ‘do we have to change our current course?’ And, ‘if we do, can we?’ He said he was hopeful about our capacity to change at the speed that will be needed. He pointed out that we are making better progress towards renewable energy than was thought was possible fourteen years ago, ten times better with wind power than was predicted, seventeen times better with solar energy. Germany is the European leader producing 35% renewable energy.

He could also have said that in the more developed world, we are also becoming much more efficient in our use of fossil fuels. My Skoda Greenline does an impressive 60 mpg. The new hybrid BMW claims 124 mpg. At the same time, 1,200 coal fired power stations are planned to be built in our world, about three-quarters of them in China and India3 chasing the dream of economic growth through consumption.

It doesn’t make sense. The science, economics and politics all point in the same direction, but we lack global agreement about the way forward. Clearly that is a political problem but its roots are deeper. It is a spiritual problem.

What do we really believe about ourselves and our place in the world and, so far as we have meaningful choices, how do we want to live? Change is difficult. If that is true individually, how much harder is it for our country or for Europe, or for us to change globally.

Theology can and does help. In the first creation story of the Book of Genesis, in which God made the heavens and the earth in six days, God created humankind in his image, blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth..." And God saw that it was so... and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1.28-30)

That there are two creation stories at the beginning of the Book of Genesis makes it pretty obvious that what we are dealing with here is not history or science but a religious exploration of what it is to be human. There is a theological problem with the way the first creation story gives human beings dominion over creation but it also emphasises we are creatures in relation to the Creator, bound up with the earth and all that is in it, and that creation and Creator are very good.

The second creation story (in Genesis ch 2) is of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Hebrew Adam means ‘man’ and Eve is linked with the word for ‘life’ and a similar Hebrew word meaning ‘snake’. We are creatures tempted to want to be like God. We find it difficult to take responsibility for ourselves and, when found out, are prone to hide and pass the blame. Adam blames the woman for tempting him with the forbidden apple, she blames the serpent for tricking her. No scientific account of human nature could convey so well their feelings of guilt and shame. Banished to a place east of Eden they are consigned to a life of toil with a memory of paradise and a hope of heaven. In this place ‘east of Eden’ we will have to ‘pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on us’.

The well known Jesuit Fr Gerry W Hughes, in a book called ‘Cry of Wonder’ published just before he died last November, said that we are in a severe crisis. "We have seen wonderful technical development, but we have become unhinged. We have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do. It’s a most vicious illness: it faces us with annihilation." St Paul said much the same in the Epistle to the Romans: ‘For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do’.

We all know it, personally and corporately. Fr Hughes encourages us to explore the mystery of our own human experience. He says that attending to our inner conflict can reveal to us a vision of the transformation into which we are all now being invited in all that we are experiencing in every moment of our existence. This is like Carl Jung who said that the person who looks outside dreams whilst the person who looks inside awakens.

I am going round the Diocese of Salisbury at the moment asking groups what has renewed their hope. Some of it is predictable for church congregations – attendance at Christmas services, significant family and community events and so on – but absolutely every group I have been to has said something really difficult that has been handled honestly and well: the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the death of a young Head teacher in a cycling accident. This shouldn’t be surprising when the Christian gospel began at an empty tomb. This is the place where we find hope in response to the enormous environmental challenge that faces us. Christian spirituality is our deepest resource.

Our best brains and most able people need to see this as the priority rather than be seduced by the opportunities to make money in the City.

Last week the four surviving copies of Magna Carta that were written in 1215 were gathered together in London, one of them from Salisbury. Magna Carta held King John to account and established the rule law for the good of all. What was done to King John has been adapted elsewhere. For example, in the Preamble to the US Constitution it is "We the People whose purpose is to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

The major oil companies are crucial to the changes that are needed in response to global warming. The science is clear that we must not use all the known reserves of fossil fuels if we are not to exceed the 2 degree C threshold.

They are powerful but they are also owned by their shareholders. The movement towards disinvestment from fossil fuels is to push the oil companies to move faster. Churches, charities and universities are heavily involved. The Church of England, in response to a motion at last July’s General Synod, is reviewing its investment position.

The recent decision by Shell and BP to support a shareholder resolution calling for a greater commitment to a low carbon economy is unprecedented. The consortium of shareholders has been led by CCLA Investment Management, specialist church and charity fund managers. According to Edward Mason, Head of Responsible Investment for the Church Commissioners, "This represents a step change in engagement between the institutional shareholders and the oil industry on the strategic challenge that climate change poses to the industry."

Care of the earth is not an add-on extra but is as integral to the Christian life as evangelism, teaching, nurture and baptism or service and the search for peace and reconciliation. Christ is the creative Word and the new creation through the cross and resurrection.

The Anglican Franciscans have a house in Dorset at Hillfield. Having received no new vocations for some years they went back to their Franciscan spirit and reinvented themselves as an environmental project. Without intending to, they are being renewed as a community, with a number of people exploring their vocations as Franciscans and as clergy. By paying attention to their spirit their hope is being renewed in a way that might help all of us more widely. Pay attention to the spirit of God in the world and there is hope we can change and be better stewards of the gifts of God’s good creation.

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