Rich Christians in an age of climate change

The Irish churches must address economic and ecological issues, and not just spiritual and sexual ones, as part of their Kingdom mission.

From February to June of last year, I, along with many others, protested peacefully against the decision to drill an exploratory oil well less than 400m from a drinking water reservoir in the hills above Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, my then home. It was my first time getting involved in such a process, as it was for most of the others. And contrary to the claims of various politicians, the protestors were overwhelmingly local and overwhelmingly ordinary, with few classing themselves as ‘greens’ or ‘environmentalists’. Also striking was the sense of community that developed amongst this diverse group over the course of the five months: there were codes of conduct written; there were barbecues and ceilidhs held. I even brought my kids.

But there was also a serious side to the whole affair. We were there to protest against the dangerous idea of drilling such a well, including with all the toxic chemicals used in the process, so close to the water supply of homes in over 1800 streets. We were there to protest against the complete lack of transparency and legality involved in allowing such a scheme to proceed, including with no proper planning permission. We were also there to protest against the moral madness of attempting to extract yet more new sources of fossil fuels at a time when all of the evidence suggests that we should keep such deposits in the ground, to avoid catastrophic climate change, and instead invest in the renewable energy revolution that is sweeping the globe.

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The militarised drill site. Photo by Maurice Macartney.

The story of the Stop the Drill campaign ended in June when the test well revealed that, despite the promises of 25 million barrels of oil at the Woodburn site, there were, in fact, none. But the story of rich Christians in an age of climate change only begins there. For despite the community-spirit, and the triumph of peaceful protest over what many considered to be illegitimate and immoral development, I was profoundly discouraged by the almost total absence and silence of a local organisation that should really have had rather a lot to say about the matter: the Church.

To the best of my knowledge, and despite numerous enquiries over the entire duration of the Stop the Drill campaign, I am unaware of the formal involvement of any local congregations, local clergy or the Irish denominations themselves. This is despite the confluence of critical issues relevant to the prophetic role and mission of the Church that the Stop the Drill campaign represented, including human and environmental health, political transparency and climate change. The only bright spots that I am aware of were an inter-denominational prayer walk at the site that I helped to organise, at which a representative of the local Catholic church read a prayer from Pope Francis’ creation care encyclical Laudato Si, and a policy submission on the planning process to Stormont by Christian Aid.

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Fenced access road along public right of way. Photo by Maurice Macartney.

Yet climate change is the defining issue of our time, and one that demonstrates the intimate interconnection of economic, ecological and social (including spiritual) issues. Two hundred odd years ago churches, and Christians like William Wilberforce, were at the forefront of the abolition of slavery in the UK and its territories. Fifty odd years ago churches, and Christians like Martin Luther King Jr., were at the forefront of ending segregation in the USA. But today, on climate change, most churches and Christians in Ireland are lagging far behind their secular contemporaries. By limiting its mission to spiritual and sexual issues only, the Church isn’t only watering down the Gospel, but is also watering down its witness to a world weary of rich Christians in an age of climate change doing so very little about it.

Hope is not lost though. As I have written in this blog and the church press before, divesting their pensions from fossil-fuels, and reinvesting them in renewable energy, is an excellent opportunity for the Irish churches to tackle the causes of climate change. The process is at different stages for different denominations. For the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, encouraging words on the need to address climate change from Moderator Frank Sellar at the 2016 General Assembly will be followed by an opportunity to vote on a climate change resolution at the 2017 or 2018 meeting. Here is an excellent opportunity for Irish Presbyterians in an age of climate change to take positive action.

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Team Hanson protesting peacefully despite the heavy police presence.

But it needs to go much further, for all of the Irish churches. Political pressure needs to be applied to elected representatives of all parties to take climate change seriously, whether by increasing the scope and impact of legislation already passed in the Republic of Ireland, or by passing comprehensive climate change legislation in Northern Ireland for the first time. The roofs of church buildings and Christian’s homes need to be covered in solar panels, which could be paid for if the Irish denominations collectively pooled a small percentage of their pension pots to invest in ‘religious’ renewable energy on this island. Trainee clergy of all denominations need to be taught the relevance of creation care as mission and discipleship, especially in a 21st century world where climate change will wreak havoc with economies and societies. And above all, support for the poorest communities, particularly in the poorest parts of the worlds, who are already struggling to cope with the effects of climate change caused by the rich world’s excesses, needs to increase significantly.

There is a strong biblical precedent for this situation. Writing in his famous book, Rich Christians in an age of hunger, the evangelical author and academic Ron Sider noted that sexual perversion (gay and straight gang rape if you are unfamiliar with the story) was not the only reason that Sodom was destroyed in the Old Testament. Quoting Ezekiel 16:49, he points out that it was their refusal to share their wealth to meet the needs of the poor that was also the cause of their downfall. The message is clear: we can’t limit the mission of the Church to culturally familiar sexual and spiritual issues only, but we also have to extend it to economic, and by default, environmental, issues too.

Of these, climate change takes precedence, because it affects every other aspect of life on this beautiful planet. Tackling climate change with compassion is our version of abolishing slavery, our version of ending segregation. The question is will we, individually and collectively, be the Wilberforces and Luther King Jr.’s of this issue, in this era? Will we – rich Christians in an age of climate change – put the interests of the poor before our love of money and stuff? It is time for the churches of Ireland to answer these questions.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.  Versions of this article appear in the Church of Ireland Gazette, the Methodist Newsletter and VOX.

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