Archbishop Stephen Cottrell Calls for Attention to Climate Change

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 on January 17, 2022

The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Stephen Cottrell, The Archbishop of York and Primate of England, was the guest speaker for the fall Bishop’s Company event.  Archbishop Cottrell is an engaging and sophisticated leader, theologian, speaker, and writer. 

The format was an informal series of questions and discussion between our Bishop Susan Bell and Archbishop Cottrell.  I submitted the following question in advance:

The Fifth Mark of Mission of the Anglican Church of Canada is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” What’s your advice about how to motivate people in our pews to take positive action about climate change? (and what might that action as a church be?)

The following is a transcript of the Archbishop’s response:

What a good question. Is there a more important question facing the world?  

I think I would start by…two things…on the big picture level I think we need to teach much more about this. This needs to be not a kind of add-on to the Gospel; this is the Gospel…how we inhabit the world in the way of Christ…this is the Gospel. So, I’d want to preach and teach about it much more… good to hear that Canada is ahead as usual…it’s even in your Baptismal liturgy. It’s those things that start to impress it into our consciousness. This is what it means to follow Christ.

For me the Lord’s Prayer is the pattern for our praying and our living, and the other thing that interested me about the Lord’s Prayer in this regard, if you go back to the 1662 Prayer Book, which is obviously the liturgical foundation document for both our churches even if we may not use it that much anymore—if you find the Lord’s Prayer, it says it says, ‘Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, they will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.’  

We don’t say ‘in’ earth any more, we say ‘on’ earth. I’m not aware of any liturgical commission changing the language. It just kind of happened. So now all our modern liturgies say ‘on’ earth, so it’s a really interesting difference. We used to say we live in the earth, recognizing quite naturally that we are part of the created world, interdependent with it. And then we suddenly decided that we didn’t live in it anymore, we lived on it, and it was ours and we could do with it what we liked.

That is the change, I think, in a single word, that we need to make. We need to return to understanding that we live in the earth and we’re part of it. And indeed, from my small understanding of Indigenous cultures and people in Canada, many of them still retain a much richer and deeper understanding of our relationship and interdependence with the whole created order, and that’s a blessing that you need to take hold of as part of your heritage. So that’s the first thing—it’s a teaching [opportunity] about what it means to live the Christian life.

So then of course there’s all sorts of practical things that we can and must do, and I’m sure you have them in Canada. We have all kinds of eco-church schemes in this country [such] that churches can actually do things to reduce their carbon footprint, and in the Church of England we have a very bold ambition to be carbon neutral in the church by 2030, which is twenty years ahead of most government and other organizations.  

Now, I don’t think we’re going to reach it, but we’re going to be close.  And I think it’s our boldness of vision turned into very direct action that we need. We need to be more uncomfortable about this. And the good thing about having a target like 2030, which is the target we’ve given ourselves in the Church of England, is, that’s my watch. So, you can’t not engage with it. So, I think that the trouble with all our current targets is, and the reason our politicians and nations are not engaging with it is, it’s not my watch…so if I fail, I will not be accountable for this. Well, I will be, but I won’t be around to face the accountability—literally not be around. By 2050, let’s face it, most of the current generation of leaders will be long gone.

So, I think we must be much bolder, much tougher on ourselves, much less comfortable, and it’s got to be action against climate change (not talk), but at the same time it must flow for us Christians from a deep renewal of our own traditions to see that this is what it means to be a follower of Christ.”

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