Thursday, July 12, 2012

Good Weather for Proverbial Elephants

General Convention, 2012

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church ended today. Several resolutions supportive of environmental concerns passed: one opposed fracking  (correction: this did not pass the House of Deputies), another calls for study of genetically modified food crops, while others authorized daily prayer for all seasons. (The Episcopal Ecological Network will be listing all these resolutions for reference in coming weeks.) With the fifth of the Anglican Marks of Mission being “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”, this year’s budget includes $500,000 for that work. Overall, the care of God’s creation received some thoughtful consideration, some funding, and was one of many topics of this convention.

I arrived in Indianapolis Saturday afternoon, when the temperature was somewhere around 105 degrees. Extreme heat and drought were evident every time people stepped outside the convention center and the network of skyways connecting it to hotels. Flying into Indianapolis, I was shocked at the parched, light brown appearance of fields. Several Nebraskans who had driven to Indianapolis told about the poor condition of some of the cornfields they had driven past in Illinois and Indiana, with the leaves of the corn plants curled up in the heat. Yet despite the extreme heat and drought of this summer, and despite the conversations around the specific bits of environmentally related resolutions and budget items, most of the time in the convention center it was easy to forget about environmental degradation of any sort. The plain truth is that for most Episcopalians, environmental issues are not a central concern. Global warming seemed a bit like the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room (or the convention hall): everyone was aware of its presence on some level, but it was seldom mentioned. Even those of us who are intellectually certain that global warming is happening act much of the time as if nothing unusual is happening; we accept global warming intellectually but not existentially.

The record heat we have experienced for several months now is finally helping people get a sense of the meaning of global warming – this worldwide and long-term climate trend that will have deep economic and cultural impacts. The evening newscasts on July 10 on ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS all made the connection between greenhouse gases and this summer’s heat wave. (See Every Network Gets Extreme Weather Story Right… by Joe Romm.) Denial is becoming less of an option.

In recent years, the church's environmental work has been concentrated on traditional stewardship -- e.g. "greening" our churches, meetings, and homes. While that remains important work, the reality is that these traditional conservation measures practiced by parishes and some of the individuals who worship in them will not stop climate change, which is well underway with lots of feedback loops assuring it will continue. At best, they will mitigate climate change, making its impact less severe than it might have been, or reinforcing the impact of any governmental policies that might come along to address global warming.

Given the reality of climate change caused by global warming, the church has a much deeper task ahead. Secular environmental groups, government, and industry can lead in traditional conservation practices as well as establishing political and economic policies that can do much more to mitigate global warming, but faith communities are uniquely able to work on humankind’s deeper needs during this time.

One task for the church is to help us name and get past the existential denial that keeps us from really seeing that big, hot elephant in the middle of the room. When the church meets at General Convention or at the diocesan or parish level and plans for the future without accounting for the reality of that future, we are in deep denial. Along with addressing denial, the church needs to be prepared to help people through the spiritual crisis that looms ahead as the reality of our situation becomes more evident to more and more people. Finding hope (which will look different from our old hopes) and learning how to lead meaningful and faithful lives as humankind faces a completely new type of challenge is the task of the church now.

God’s creation is still all around us. There are still wonders to behold, the marvels of the web of life, sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, and stars. Renewing our spiritual connection with the earth is a piece of the search for hope and meaning as the fragility of so much of what we take for granted becomes apparent. Our meditations and prayers can reflect both sides of our reality: the beauty of the earth and the unknown future of life on earth.