The Episcopal Church–standing up to climate change denial?

SearchIn Spring 2018, prompted by Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Search: A Church of Ireland Journal published a package of essays on the subject of climate action within the Episcopal Church. I was privileged to be one of four contributors to this larger article, collectively titled, “The Episcopal Church–standing up to climate change denial?”

The full article is available via PDF here, and I have posted my own piece on studying the environment while in seminary below. The other three essays include the Presiding Bishop’s statement following Trump’s Paris announcement, the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas’s description of her job as Missioner for Creation Care for two denominations in Massachusetts, and the Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith discussion of fossil-fuel divestment in the church. Here’s my contribution:

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20180406_162841.jpgGod willing and the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane consenting, I will be ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church in two years. First, I need to finish seminary at Yale Divinity School. I also need to finish my Master of Environmental Management at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

When I describe this joint-degree program to former coworkers from my first career, working in politics in Washington, D.C., I am often met with confusion. “Wow,” they say, “I’ve never thought about that. That’s… an interesting combination!” I used to always give the same easy reply: “Well, you know that churches try to help the poor, right? And you also know that pollution and climate change hurt the poor more than anyone? I’m exercising my Christian duty to social justice by focusing on environmental justice.”

That used to be my reply, but over the past two years at Yale, I have found that my answer has grown. I am still deeply committed to environmental justice, but it is no longer my sole focus. I have now also adopted the theological and scientific viewpoint that humans are not separate from or above nature. We are part of it, and deeply embedded in it. Everything on this planet is interconnected. This is basic ecology: Carbon, water, soil, nitrogen, and rock cycles are all intertwined. Earth’s systems are a house of cards, and changing just one piece can cause the whole thing to come tumbling down. This is especially true of the global climate. Everything from our transportation habits to our diet choices, as both individuals and as nations, has an impact on sea levels, storms, wildlife extinction, and more. Climate change is not an environmental issue – it is an everything issue.

When it comes to interconnection, in many ways the environmental sciences are only just catching up to religion. I have learned from Professors John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker that interconnection is a central concept in many forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, and indigenous lifeways. Pope Francis reminds us that it is also a vital Christian concept, writing in Laudato Si, “Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.”

This means that everything Christians care about, from liturgy to helping the poor, is impacted by climate change. Until we realize and begin to act as if we are a part of nature, not just its masters or stewards, we will not be able to fully live into our Christian responsibilities.

I don’t know yet if God is calling me to be a parish priest, but I do know that I will continue my career in politics and organizing, now from an ordained perspective. That’s not always easy here in the United States. We have what we call “the separation of church and state.” While I do support keeping the two formal institutions separate from one another, many confuse “church and state” with “faith and politics.” No one should be expected to set aside their understanding of creation when engaging with the social issues that are part of that creation. Nevertheless, many American ministers are skittish about addressing social issues, including the politics of climate change. Some fear offending their congregants, while others have a misplaced but understandable fear of running afoul of our Constitution.

This skittishness holds us back from engaging with the issues that matter most to God’s people, including climate change. As the Rev. William Barber, a noted progressive leader, said here at Yale, “To be a pastor and then not be concerned about the social and public conditions that create the pastoral needs of your people is a form of malpractice.” There are thousands of Episcopalians, both lay and ordained, who are active on climate change. At the same time, we could be doing even more to care for the whole of God’s creation, especially when the threats to that creation are political. I pray each morning that the Spirit will give us the tools, the conviction, and the will to begin that work anew, today.

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