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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Talk at the College des Bernardins, Paris, November 2015

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Talk at the College des Bernardins, Paris, November 2015

by glynch — last modified 25 Nov, 2015 11:24 AM

A talk entitled "Nature and Man in the Image of God - how to interpret the first words of Genesis? How to understand that submission of nature to man?

La nature et l'homme à l'image de Dieu Comment interpréter ces premiers mots de la Genèse? Comment comprendre cette soumission de la nature à l’homme?

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury


Thank you to His Eminence Cardinal Vingt-Trois for his invitation to contribute to this series in preparation for the UN Climate Change Summit. I am honoured to speak as the Church of England’s relatively new lead bishop on the environment. This is the formalising of a role previously carried with distinction by the Bishops of London and Liverpool. I bring greetings from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. 

Our Pilgrimage to Paris of 40 Pilgrims walking to Paris set off from London on Friday 13th November. That night acts of terrorism here in Paris shocked the world.  “Today I have set before you life and death. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30.19). Our prayers are still for the care of the earth and all God’s people. It is the same problem of sin that we seek to address in thinking about what it means for nature and humanity to be made in the image of God.

The Context

We are at a new stage in human history, what some have called the ‘anthropocene’ era in which the impact of human activity is changing the fundamental conditions of life.  In the earth’s 4.5 billion year history the earth’s climate has developed and changed, with periods of greater rain and drought, heat and cold. In the past 3-5 million years there have been about 30 ice ages. We live in a relatively stable and milder period in which people have flourished. There have been temperature changes but what is different now is that the human impact on the earth is global: we people are causing climate change, particularly through our use of fossil fuels which took a billion years to lay down in the earth.

Pacific islanders are worrying about the rising sea level. In the last 3 years the Philippines have experienced 4 of the strongest typhoons ever. In Malawi there were floods at the start of the year followed by drought. People say they used to know when the rains would come and that their crops would grow, but not now.

The costs of mitigation and adaptation in response to climate change are huge. It is 9 years since the British economist Nicholas Stern estimated the impact of climate change would reduce gross domestic product (GDP) globally by 5-20% per year[1]. He now thinks he underestimated. In terms of the big issues that face us, we will not make progress with the Sustainable Development Goals unless we also make progress with climate change.

Being Human

Every religion contains an account of what it is to be human. What do the theologian and the Church offer?

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth... God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen 1.1, 31) Genesis chapter 1 tells the story of creation in six days. On the sixth day God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and gave them dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth, every green plant for food. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. We are made for goodness and we are given dominion.

This is followed in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That there are two creation stories in the Book of Genesis ought make it clear we are not dealing here with science or history but with an exploration of what it is to be human.

In Hebrew Adam means man or an alternative translation is earth creature, linked to Adamah, earth. Eve is linked with the word for life. So God forms the earth creature out of the earth / dust/ elements and breathes the breath of life (Eve) to animate the creature.  These earth creatures are put into the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it  but an alternative translation could be to serve and preserve it.

We are creatures tempted to want to be like God. Yet we find it difficult to take responsibility for our actions and, when found out, are prone to hide and pass the blame –  Adam blames Eve for giving him the apple, she blames the serpent  for tricking her. No scientific account of human nature could convey so well their feelings of guilt and shame. Adam and Eve are everyman and everywoman. 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. The earth, adamah, now gives them a life with thorns and thistles. That is the human condition.

Jesus Christ comes among us, God in human form. St Paul describes him as the new Adam, the new earth creature, the one uniquely full of God’s breath, the Spirit. In John’s Gospel he is the one who was with God before creation and continues to recreate us. Not only does he teach us to love God and love our neighbour, his death and resurrection makes this transforming possibility a new reality, a new creation.  “All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation with God and one another[2].

We are called to live as citizens of heaven in the here and now, as people witnessing to God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In this new reality the greatest is the one who serves. Jesus redefines what it means to have dominion, to live as people who care lovingly for God’s creation in the manner of Jesus Christ our Lord and Master who came to serve.  

An Ecumenical Convergence

Among Christians there has been a striking ecumenical convergence about the environment.  This was given renewed emphasis by the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si’. In it the Holy Father makes special mention of the work of the Ecumenical Patriarch, “beloved Bartholomew”[3] who has done so much to encourage the Church to care for the earth.

Since the 1980’s the Anglican Communion has stated that safeguarding the integrity of creation, and sustaining and renewing the life of the earth, are integral to evangelism and mission. In July the Church of England’s General Synod overwhelmingly reaffirmed its belief that God’s creation is holy and that we are called to protect the earth now and for the future.  This drew on a statement called ‘The World is our Host’ which was produced earlier in the year by bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion Environmental Network[4]. The sacramental nature of the Eucharist framed the statement’s theology of the environment and made an urgent call for climate justice.  We are taking practical actions to shrink the Church’s carbon footprint 80% by 2050. A policy from our Ethical Investment Advisory Group disinvested from tar sands and thermal coal, engaged with fossil fuel companies about the transition to a low carbon economy, and sought to invest in renewable and sustainable energy.

The Archbishop of Uppsala was one of our ecumenical guests at that General Synod in July 2015. The Swedish Lutheran Bishops’ letter about the climate[5] is one of the finest contributions to our Church discussion recognising the impact of people on climate change. They make the point well that although most scientists publishing on climate change agree on the need to limit global warming to no more that 2 degrees C, nothing is certain. There is still some scepticism about climate change. The matter was well put by the Swedish Lutheran Bishops:

Our knowledge about future climate change is subject to a range of uncertainties... No one is able to predict exactly how the climate will develop. However, it is essential that we act now. It will certainly not be possible to establish that there is an alarmingly high temperature increase until it is too late to avoid it. Uncertainty about how the climate system reacts to emissions cannot therefore be used as an excuse for postponing powerful measures until we have more certain information.

The only reasonable approach to the climate challenge is to act with caution[6].

In other words, proceed with caution. Human life depends on the one, fragile but beautiful home God has given us.

The context in which this ecumenical convergence has emerged is critical.  Partly it is the secular and pluralist context of all religious discussion but the scale of the environmental challenge is so fundamental an existential problem as to overwhelm our traditional divisions as to relativize them almost to the point of extinction.

In calling his encyclical ‘On the Care of Our Common Home’ Pope Francis recognised that the care of the environment is an issue that all people need to address together.  In June in the UK the Archbishop of Canterbury gathered the renewed Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change which has been signed by leaders from all the major faiths. Some of the other faith communities have also issued their own, in many ways similar, statements. Our government has been encouraged and strengthened by this.

Areas of Agreement

The science of climate change is complex but the science, economics and politics all point in the same direction about the urgent need to limit global warming to no more than 2C, as was agreed by the United Nations in Cancun in 2010. The offers on the table for the UN CoP21 summit are projected to result in warming of 2.7 - 3° C. That seemingly small difference could have major consequences. There can be no advance proof of a projection, but the vast majority of scientists think we might be at a tipping point. That we are having difficulty in finding the collective will to change is not just a technical problem but a moral and spiritual one.

Climate Change is a moral problem

There is agreement that climate change disproportionately affects the poorest in the world. That is why development agencies have Climate Justice as a top priority.

One of the strengths of the worldwide Church is that we are local everywhere. Our brothers and sisters help us to see the world through their eyes. In the teaching of Jesus the law is summarised as love God and love your neighbour as yourself. In stories such as the Good Samaritan neighbour is defined without limit. We are blessed by the Samaritan, the despised outsider, who teaches good religious people the true meaning of God’s law.

In this it is not enough that we care for the poor but that the poor are our teachers. The most moving thing for me on a trip to Malawi earlier in the year with Christian Aid was when the poorest people we met were addressing the impact of soil erosion by planting trees that will not fruit for 3 or 4 years. They had very little, and yet they were making what for them was a long term investment because they knew the seriousness of their circumstances.

In the UK our government has shown considerable leadership in its recent announcement of a 50% increase in climate finance from within the Overseas Development budget for the world’s poorest countries. This is aimed at resilience and adaptation programmes such as flood-resilient crops and infrastructure that reduces the impact of natural disasters. It will be important for those gathering for the UN Climate Change summit to get agreement for this sort of finance to support those countries that have had little benefit from the economic development of fossil fuel and who now need help to go straight to renewable energy.

Earlier this year the Archbishop of Canterbury and Patriarch Bartholomew wrote jointly about the connection between the environment and health[7].  They observed that tackling climate change could be the single greatest health opportunity of the 21st century. Again, this is not just a scientific or medical problem. It, too, is a moral problem, as is the question about how our actions affect the world our grandchildren will inhabit. Ours is the first generation that cannot say we did not know the likely impact on them of what we now do.

Our politicians and diplomats need our prayers to strengthen them about climate justice for our own sakes, for the sake of the poor, the health of all people and for our children and grandchildren. 

Climate Change is a Spiritual Problem

Even people who do not have a religious faith have identified climate change as a spiritual problem but the nature of the spiritual problem seems to me to be variously understood.

The scale of the environmental challenge sometimes feels too big to face. It feels impossible for us individually to make a significant difference. A mixture of futility and fear causes us to bury our heads in the sand. We despair.

There is also a very serious problem that we have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do. St Paul would have recognised the gap between beliefs and actions. In his letter to the Romans he wrote that “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7.19).

I sometimes wonder if what is really being asked for in this yearning for spirituality is a bit like the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous.  We won’t even be able to begin unless we realise our circumstances are so serious that we have reached ‘rock bottom’, when we know that it can’t get any worse for us. Unless we acknowledge the terrible mess we are in and our need for the support and solidarity of others, we will not be able to work our way through a 12 step programme designed to help us in recovery. The prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous is that God will give us the courage to change the things we can change, the grace to accept the things we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Within the environmental movement there is a secular spirituality which has taken the wisdom of the world’s religions without the theological substructure.  In England there is a very good example of this at the Eden Project in Cornwall. They are a big educational charity and have taken their name from the second creation story in the Book of Genesis. They are a marvellous exploration of what it is for us humans to be earth creatures “connecting us with each other and the living world, exploring how we can work towards a better future”. In this Eden I was struck by their excellent ‘top tips’ of what we can do for a greener life which include:

Don’t waste; learn about your life; imagine different things; give gifts and give thanks; forgive yourself (and others); be hopeful.

For Christians the spiritual question is whether these familiar ‘tips’ can be lived and sustained apart from that life in which we have become a new creation in Christ, the new Adam.  The Papal Encyclical quotes Patriarch Bartholomew on the need for each of us individually to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet and acknowledge our sins against creation.  This is the way of sin and repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is our Christian hope.

In June, it was striking to see the coalition that came together around the Climate Change lobbying of the UK Parliament. We gathered around the slogan that our concern for the environment is, “For the love of....”. There is no more powerful motivation: for the love of our children and grandchildren; for the love of creation, for the love of God. “God is love” and “Perfect love casts out fear” says St John.


The use of energy stored in fossil fuels has given us marvellous developments. We have made rapid progress. Now we live in a new era, when climate change is caused by human activity, particularly the use of fossil fuels. That which has been good for us is now a mixed blessing. It is creating new dangers. We need a spirituality that will nurture and sustain our best minds, courageous hearts and a strong collective will to make an even more rapid transition to a low carbon economy for the health and salvation of the world.

In this place east of Eden the earth, adamah, gives us a life with thorns and thistles. That is the human condition. We face considerable moral and spiritual challenges to address climate change and the care of the earth. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, the new Adam in whom our relationships are transformed. Love God, love your neighbour as yourself, care for creation. This is a moral and spiritual life which has the power to move mountains.

[1] Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, 2006

[2] 2 Cor 5.16-21

[3]  Pope Francis  Laudato Si’ Of The Holy Father Francis On Care for Our Common Home, 2015, para 7.

[4] Anglican Communion Environmental Network Bishops, The World is our Host: A Call to Urgent Action For Climate Justice, 2015.

[5] Church of Sweden Bishops’ Conference, A Bishops’ letter about the climate, 2014.

[6]  A Bishops’ letter about the climate, Church of Sweden, Bishops’ Conference, Uppsala 2014, p.21

[7] Bartholomew and Justin Welby, Climate Change is a Moral Responsibility, New York Times, 19 June 2015.

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