Bray Day Sermon: ‘Climate change is an invitation to work in partnership’
Every year on 15 February we commemorate the life of the Revd Dr Thomas Bray, who founded both USPG and SPCK. This year’s Bray Day Sermon was given by Jo Musker-Sherwood, a co-ordinator with the USPG-supported climate change action charity Hope for the Future.
I co-ordinate a small climate change initiative called Hope for the Future. We work with UK churches to raise the profile of climate change among British politicians. The campaign is supported by USPG financially but it is also the approach of USPG, that is a focus on relationship, which lies at the heart of our work. It is an approach that is gradually transforming the way in which climate campaigning is being done here in the UK. As we gather here today to celebrate and remember the life of Thomas Bray, I would like to share my experiences about the value of relationship for mission today, particularly in the context of climate change campaign work. This of course holds particular relevance following USPG’s choice to place ‘partnership’ at the heart of their new name this year. A decision which I, for one, welcome.
Climate change turns on its head archaic notions of who it is that is called to turn away from one way of life to another. Climate change challenges us in the Minority World to ask what lies beneath a lifestyle of over-consumption which means that the carbon footprint of the average person in the UK is well over 10 times greater than someone in the Philippines, Pakistan or Kenya. It is also the Two-Thirds world who are experiencing the greatest devastating effects of climate change whilst we here in the UK are only just beginning to feel the serious impacts. These countries have a message for us, they are the prophets of today because it is their experiences that carry a message for us to turn to a different way of living whilst we still have time.
Relationships are powerful because we need each others’ different experiences and perspectives in order to make sense of our own direction. I myself became involved in climate work after spending six months on a voluntary USPG placement in Peru. One of the hardest parts of the reverse culture shock I experienced was realising for the first time that I cannot act without impacting people on the other side of the world- the clothes I buy, the food I eat and the carbon I emit. Relationship taught me why that is such powerful thing. Peru is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change, it led me to the work that I do now.
I believe that the flood account is a story about the power of relationship. The partnership between God and Noah enabled extraordinary hope in an otherwise desolate landscape. This relationship and those between Noah, his family and the animals that accompanied them on the ark, ultimately enabled the continuation of God’s work in humanity and all of creation. It allowed for second chances, and many other chances beyond that. It is extraordinary how God chooses to work in partnership with us, and it is surely a model for us in missionary work.
The flood account is a story that holds particular significance for me. When working at a Church called ‘Noah’s Ark’ high up in the foothills surrounding Lima where many of the poorest in Peru have made their home, I saw a rainbow. For the children I was working with, this was a very exciting moment because, with Lima being a desert city, it was for many of them the first time they had ever seen a rainbow. Even as someone accustomed to seeing rainbows fairly regularly, given the particular British weather we have been blessed with, a full, beautiful rainbow is quite something to behold. I didn’t think much more of it until I got home that day and found an email from a friend that simply read, ‘A R K, ark, Acts of Random Kindness’. I mentioned it to my parents and a few weeks later when they came to visit me they told me that the song ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ had been the last song played on the aeroplane, and the first as they re-embarked. A few months later when struggling to adjust to university life and considering leaving, I visited a church who told me that the building where my lectures took place is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest rainbow ever recorded – a full six-and-a-half hours! I am very glad that I stayed to finish my studies, and rainbows have since then played quite an extraordinary role in my life. It is little surprise to me that I have ended up working in climate change where rising sea levels due to unchecked greed seriously threaten life as we know it. As it happens, I did not choose the texts used in the service today, but it didn’t surprise me when I saw it.
And yet, despite these powerful experiences, I still struggle to turn away from a lifestyle that I know contributes to global warming – and I suspect that I am not alone. Only a couple of weeks ago, I was on holiday in Budapest and I certainly didn’t swim there! Many of the Gospel stories give accounts of how an encounter with Jesus transformed not only how someone thought but how they acted. How can we who know about climate change really know deeply enough to change not only how we think, but how we act? It is a significant challenge.
As I embarked on the plane to Budapest last month, I felt like the man at Bethsaida stuck somewhere between seeing and not seeing. I know but I do not know, or at least I struggle to remember. Whereas eight years ago when I embarked on the plane to Peru I was totally oblivious to the reality of climate change, now I can see but often only out of focus, blurrily, not enough to result in a full turn from my high carbon lifestyle.
But I’m not here to bemoan my short falling, or anyone else’s for that matter. I think the majority of us working in this sector are painfully aware of the inequalities that mar our partnership with those we seek to serve alongside on the other side of the world. Their lifestyles are a challenge to our own.
I would like instead to suggest something that I believe the Christian faith has to offer those of us in the climate movement as we struggle not only against the huge forces that determine how the earth’s resources are used, but also against ourselves. It is something I believe that can enable us to better honour the relationship we have with those across the world, allowing their stories to transform our lives and our partnerships to flourish.
Conclusive evidence has shown that our human brains are not wired to cope with the reality of climate change. It’s too nebulous, too distant, too slow, it doesn’t elicit our fight or flight response in the way that a hungry lion staring us in the face would. One of the biggest causes of this psychological shut off is that the reality of climate change is simply too terrifying. Tackling climate change requires long-term, global collaboration and a radical shift in lifestyle to prevent a kind of global chaos we have yet to experience. It’s an issue that actually elicits a brain shut down to protect us from the psychological damage of such a possibility. How can we overcome this?
We know that there are ways to communicate our message better, including using personal stories of those affected and talking about the opportunities that tackling climate change presents to us such as cleaner air, lowered fuel bills and growth of the green economy. But I believe there is something unique that the Christian faith has to contribute to this critical challenge. I believe that it is the framework of grace which lies at the heart of the Christian faith that enables true transformation.
It is knowing that we are loved despite our short fallings, knowing that it is open arms and the resolve to help us on our feet again that greets us when we fail, which makes facing the reality of who we are truly possible. It is knowing that our God is one who works all things together for good, despite the death and crucifixion around us. It is this which has enabled me personally to turn again and again back to examine my lifestyle, back to try again, back to facing reality without drowning in despair.
We know that shame holds us in unhealthy and damaging patterns, but that hope enables true change. And what is the Christian hope? What is the message that lies at the heart of mission? I believe it is the hope of forgiveness, hope of transformation, hope of full restoration for all that has been lost.
Unfortunately, the climate movement is known for judgementalism, hopelessness and aggression, certainly among the politicians I work with anyway. Our Christian hope has something very valuable then to speak the movement’s well-intentioned but ill-received message.
And I would like to finish by speaking a little bit about the work of Hope for the Future and our work in partnership with Churches in the UK which attempts to tackle this problem head on.
Climate change is a collective problem that requires a collective response. The original Greek meaning of the world ‘politics’ is, as a rough translation, ‘the affairs of the community’. Whilst many may feel a hopelessness looking at the current political climate, securing policies that promote sustainable development are an essential part of tackling global climate change. The mission of Hope for the Future is to restore hope to a movement that has almost utterly lost its faith in politicians to deliver the policies needed to secure a safe future for generations to come.
And how on earth do we do this? Well, we firmly believe in the power of the partnership between constituents and their MPs. It is the bedrock of our democracy. We have witnessed first-hand the transformation of MPs that previously had no interest in climate change whatsoever go on to launch local campaigns, raise issues in Parliament or raise awareness in their constituencies. These are only small steps, but nonetheless significant. Constituents have a powerful role in educating, informing and even transforming the work of MPs.
To the best of my knowledge, Hope for the Future is currently the only UK organisation in any field, not just climate change, that trains constituents in the art of building a constructive partnership with their local MP. Practically this means training people in conversation techniques such as effectively interrupting an MP who has taken over a conversation. It means teaching people how to narrate climate change in language that appeals across the political spectrum, and in what realistically and MP is able to do in tackling such a huge issue. But deeper than that, we awaken in campaigners a genuine openness to other perspectives, to learning from even the most difficult of MPs, to respecting differences in opinion and searching for ways to work together regardless. We train people to search for why an MP went into politics in the first place and to show that MP how action on climate change works towards the world they would like to see. Our campaign is one that draws people away from a get in, get your campaign ‘ask’ and get back out again mentality, to a working partnership that spans political boundaries.
Remarkably, it is an approach that is incredibly effective and with a proven track record for constructive MP engagement in the space of three short years we have grown from a cluster of Yorkshire-based churches to a national organisation advising major NGOs and policy makers. It has been an extraordinary journey, and thankfully USPG saw the potential in us right at the beginning when few else did.
Climate change is, if nothing else, an invitation to work in partnership. It shows us the deadly results of being unable to find ways of working together. The promise that God will never again flood the world, signified by the rainbow is a promise that I hold onto. What it does not promise, however, is that human beings will never again flood the world. It is our relationship with ourselves, with God and with each other that will determine how this flood story unfolds.
I will finish with a prayer from Eco-Congregation Scotland:
May God who established the dance of Creation,
who marvelled at the lilies of the field,
who transforms chaos to order,
lead us to transform our lives and the church
to reflect God’s glory in Creation.
- Find out more about Hope for the Future at www.hftf.org.uk