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The Green Church


Solar panel at St. Anselm’s, Lafayette, California is just one of the Episcopal Church’s responses to global warming and the energy crisis. We are quietly refitting our buildings all over the country, from cathedrals and seminaries to high schools and church camps. Now it’s time to be less quiet about it.

The Episcopal Church needs to radically reposition itself to help 21st century people with the death-defying 21st century problems we now face, as well as the vexing quandaries that are perennial to human existence.

We are becoming the Green Church. Environmentally friendly. Cutting our carbon emissions in dramatic and meaningful ways. We are the leaders in this, because our unique history and ethos help us understand a little better than the competition that human beings are just not allowed to mess up God’s Creation.

While other churches are still screaming about evolution and the sanctity of marriage and all the other Falwell leftovers, Barack Obama just swept the White House. I bet he carried Episcopal “precincts” 3-1.

There are no such exit polls, of course; the media are only interested in “evangelicals,” Catholics, Jews, familiar racial and gender groups—not the views of mainstream Protestants. I haven’t heard of any Muslim or Hindu exit polls either.

Episcopalians have been moving the Green way for 30 years now. We didn’t just catch the Obama wave, although most of us probably welcomed it.

Further, although we’ve got much in common with other mainstream Protestants, we’ve been working through human rights and ecological issues for long enough that we’re able to do some real teaching and sharing on them now. I think of Eugene Sutton, the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, who’s not only Black, he’s Green.

Episcopalians have slowly been working through the racial divide that was sadly in evidence in this presidential campaign, and we’ve come to consensus on it. We still have work to do and we always will have; but there’s no racial controversy anymore. The most overt racists walked out on us in protest 30 years ago.

The same is true of women’s issues, and it’s increasingly clear that we’ve done the same with LGBT issues; we’re not done yet, but we’re ready to move, while other mainstream Protestant denominations have lagged behind watching what Episcopalians do, because they’re even more afraid than we are.

The other day the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, Illinois decided to secede from the rest of us because we’re too liberal for them on Gay people. I doubt anyone outside Quincy said a word about it at church on Sunday.

We know we still have anti-LGBT folks in our churches, but they’re opting out now, leaving the rest of us to keep doing what we’re getting halfway good at, learning to really welcome human diversity and celebrate our commonalities.

Church politics, which has garnered a lot of publicity the past few years, is now just background noise. They’re here, they’re queer, we’re used to it — heck, we’re over it! Meanwhile we have real issues with how we treat this earth and whether God’s Creation can survive humans’ ignorant and greedy self-destruction.

Yesterday in The New York Times there was a blogpost about an open letter sent to Obama by two well-known ecology professors at Stanford, Paul and Anne Ehrlich. (Read it all here.) I don’t necessarily endorse their predictions or prescriptions (one about Afghanistan really got to me as presumptuous, as if they’re experts on war strategy), but I found their questions fascinating.

I also felt like many are the exact same things we wrestle with every day in church. That may surprise you, but see for yourself.

The Ehrlichs’ Prescriptions (edited by me)

1) Put births on a par with deaths. …As been done in many family planning programs, the happy family should be promoted as one that limits its numbers. But the change should be in the motivation. Traditionally the small family was supposed to supply a higher standard of living — including more stuff for each individual. The new approach could be to promote it as a multi-generational unit that in each generation limits its size in order to maximize the chances of each following generations’ retaining a happy, sustainable life style.

To move in that direction, humanity must rapidly expand programs to educate and give job opportunities to women, make effective contraception universally available, and develop public support of population policies.

2) Put conserving on a par with consuming. At any given level of technology, there is a trade-off between how many people can be born into a society and the level of per capita physical affluence that can be sustainably supported. The more people there are, the smaller each one’s share of the pie. One way of dealing with this trade-off would be a cultural shift away from creating ever more gadgets to creating more appreciation and better stewardship for Earth’s aesthetic assets.

3) Transform the consumption of education. (snip)


5) Rapidly expand our empathy. We’re a small-group animal, trying to live in large groups…. People are gradually gaining more empathy toward those others distant from us in skin color, gender, religion, class, culture or physical space, but our ability to inflict harm on them has also increased. Cultural evolution is not rapidly enough reducing this discounting by distance (caring less about situations the further away they are). The same can be said about discounting by time — not caring enough about the world we will leave to our children and our descendants in the more distant future.

6) Decide what kind of world we all want. What are the ultimate goals of our lives? Are Americans really happier traveling to work an hour or more each day wrapped in a few tons of steel and breathing smog that threatens their lives?

7) Determine the institutions and arrangements best suited to govern a planetary society with a maximum of freedom within the constraints of sustainability. …In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, states are a recent invention, existing for only a tiny fraction of our existence. In their modern form as nation states, they are only a little more than 200 years old. We need to look closely at possible alternatives that could combine greater awareness of the problems of living at a global scale while regaining family-style psychological comfort. More cooperation at a global level is clearly necessary for civilization’s long-term survival.

In the Episcopal Church we talk a lot about human rights, consumerism, peace and justice issues, and the ultimate goals of our lives. As Christians we believe we’ve got some real clues about them. All of these questions have religious and ethical aspects, and we deeply believe that the Biblical record speaks with remarkable clarity today on timeless issues which people have always faced. No, the Bible never says, “All churches should now switch to compact fluorescent bulbs and decrease their carbon footprints.” But it does say, “The earth is the Lord’s” (and you better not screw it up).

Because we don’t read Scriptures with literalistic or legalistic lenses as other Churches do, the Bible opens up a vast treasure trove of ancient holy wisdom to apply to new discoveries. And we’ve simply been applying it a little better and a little more widely than anyone else, because we’re no longer wasting our time over whether it is moral to distribute condoms for AIDS prevention. We don’t have a foreign dictator to keep happy till he’s 90, and we’re not busy building our megachurch supermall/media empire.

The Episcopal Church is not the Mensa Society, but we do attract highly-educated, involved people actively finding ways to live more simply, more generously, in harmony with each other and the universe, and the Holy Spirit whom we believe hums through every human body, every rock and rill.

It’s time we shared these resources much more widely.

Let us engage our theologians and artists and marine biologists and economists and businesspeople and soldiers and teachers to develop Christian ways of life in this century.

And yes, let’s find a marketing hook the general public can actually understand, and keep repeating it till it becomes familiar: the Green Church.

Tom Friedman has some interesting things to add in an interview with the Huffington Post about the massive international effort going Green will take human society, as opposed to environmentalism as a fad. I don’t want the Episcopal Church to “jump on the Green bandwagon”; I’m saying we are early adopters, and that Christians should be among the earliest leaders precisely because we bring some views that secular economists and engineers and entrepreneurs don’t necessarily share. We help connect the newest technology to the oldest human aspirations.

Take my next-door neighbor Tony, a machine operator who breaks big rocks into little rocks for a living. He’s just as concerned about the air his daughters breathe as a bunch of Starbucks Episkies are. He voted for Obama too. I guarantee Tony worries about what happens when the oil dries up and the price of heat goes through the roof and the Chinese add a new coal plant every week and Antarctica melts and the world economy collapses.

What he doesn’t know is what to do about it besides voting—how to alter the human attitudes, power structures and frank desire for sin that keep us on this destructive course we’re on.

No, we’ll never substitute “politics” for Jesus Christ, much less Barack Obama. We need sacraments and Creeds, community and prayer to keep us from jumping off the nearest bridge, much less opening a door to real spirituality. But consider this equation:

S=W²DW³G (∞)

“Stewardship is what we do with what we’ve got, all the time.”

I can understand it, so can Tony, and it came right from an Episcopal Church.

We are sitting on a 2000-year inheritance earning compound interest every day. Our magnificent storehouse of resources makes Wall Street in its heyday look dingy and drab. Conservative rejections and defections have made us keep our doors shut for a long time, wondering why no one comes to our fabulous feast.

Now Episcopalians are learning to share, to speak out, to invite, to organize from the grassroots up, and it’s time we opened the big green doors of God’s mansion and invited everyone in.++