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Professor Tim Gorringe gave the Operation Noah annual lecture in November 2011, setting the stage for 2012’s declaration ‘Climate change and the purposes of God: a call to the Church’ by arguing that climate change should be a confessional issue for the churches.
In the lecture, held at at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, he asked: ‘Is climate change, and its connection with the global economy, a matter for church confession?’
Speaking to a packed church, Professor Gorringe challenged listeners, in a wide-ranging lecture that covered church history, theology, economics and science, to make connections between climate change and other moral issues on which the church has previously taken a stand. In the context of a ‘confessing church’ that has questioned itself on issues such as Nazism, nuclear weapons and apartheid, Prof Gorringe asked whether climate change is also a confessional issue.
The three hallmarks of church confession, he said, are firstly ‘a response to an emergency which touches the very heart of what it means to be church’; secondly ‘a decision… that the church, if it is going to be the church, has to take a stand’; and thirdly ‘an acknowledgement of guilt or complicity’. The church itself is called to repentance.
Prof Gorringe reminded listeners of the damaging results of global warming, the danger of reaching a tipping point that makes accelerated warming inevitable, and the related issues of resource depletion and ocean acidification: ‘we face a genuine emergency’.
His analysis of the causes took a hard look at the economy – fittingly, as the venue is close to St Paul’s Cathedral, where the Occupy London protests have raised questions about the relationship between the church and mammon. Drivers of growth, he argued, are firstly the very proper desire to raise living standards for all, but a desire which fails to recognise that 7 billion cannot live at that standard in a finite planet; second competition and third debt. And an economy based on these factors is a driver of climate change.
He argued that climate change is a confessional issue for at least three reasons: because it excludes certain members of society (those countries which are the immediate victims of climate change, coming generations); because it threatens to destroy many aspects of God’s good creation; and because it raises the question of idolatry, giving a higher value to an economic system than to human life and creation.
Using the analogy of the Barmen Declaration, a response to Hitler’s National Socialists (and the institutional church’s subsequent failure to act), Prof Gorringe asked how the church should now respond to climate change.
If climate change is a confessional issue, what would follow? Carbon accounting should become part of Christian discipleship. Discipleship would also include campaigning for a different economy. And there should be repentance on the part of the church, ‘examining our complicity with, and reliance on, the present financial system and doing something about it…. For the sake of God’s creation the church has to set its own financial house in order and develop different investment and economic strategies.’
Prof Gorringe ended with a note of hope, arguing that ‘a low carbon society would be a happier and more just society’. He added: ‘This is effectively a recognition of creation as grace, something the church has always sought to live by. Do we live by it? Do we take it seriously?’
Finally, he challenged listeners: ‘Can we live up to the example of all those confessors in our history? Can we learn from them? Or will we now and later just keep quiet? A decision is required of us.’
Christine Elliott, Secretary for External Relationships, the Methodist Church in Britain, was invited to respond to Professor Gorringe’s lecture. She began by looking at the Pacific Conference of Churches’ response to the effect that climate change is having on their communities, highlighting ‘the perspective of climate change as a spiritual crisis’.
She then explored the relationship between confessional declarations and lived experience, arguing that ‘We need to create opportunities for such reflection, confession and transformation at the most basic level in which we experience fellowship together’ – but acknowledging that this can be easier on an individual than an institutional level.
She then looked at the report Hope in God’s Future produced by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church. The report includes pointers to action but the churches need help in turning this confession into changes of attitude and practice: ‘We need you to help the churches be confessional. We need you too, to help us turn confession into action.’