We are now well into the season when our priests planning their services and delivering sermons in churches and schools to celebrate and give thanks for Harvest time, and in doing so they will be treading a thin line whatever they do or preach. They should, of course, be setting worship within the traditional context of hymning the harvest home with gratitude, for Christians believe ‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his Love’.
However, as Extinction Rebellion has been filling TV and social media screens of late with apocalyptic messages and pagan rituals every bit as bizarre as those which accompanied the celebration of the golden calf, our priests will naturally and properly seek to engage with people’s concerns. But calibrating their responses is far from easy, for there is now an heretical Green gospel being inculcated which is every bit as troublesome as the Gnostic variety of old.
If our churches embrace the priorities and mirror the concerns of of the day, they risk being condemned for being political, yet if they ignore contemporary anxieties in favour of the comfortable and traditional, they will be criticised for their complacency and lack of prophetic urgency. It really is not easy for them.
I hope it is not presumptuous to offer a few words of encouragement and advice. I was once active in the Green movement but had to chose between deploying my available time between continuing within its increasingly authoritarian mode of thought, and preaching the gospel as a Reader. I do not regret the choice I made. So here is my advice to preachers.
Whatever you do, do not fall for the dogmas of this age: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ is no guiding principle for Christians. By all means get alongside people to address their concerns, but never forget that the world will end in God’s good time. He who knew you in your mother’s womb, who has counted the hairs on your head; He who “paints the wayside flower and lights the evening star” also set the much appropriated rainbow symbol as a reminder that He will not be allowing us to end his creation anytime soon. We cannot frustrate God’s purposes now, anymore than the arc of redemption was capable of being derailed by cries of ‘Crucify him!’
Equally, having sent His Son to suffer for and redeem humanity, God is not going to step aside now and leave it all to Greta Thunberg. Insofar as she believes it is her responsibility to save the world, we must gently remind her that she’s not the Messiah; she’s a very naughty girl. Christ’s gospel is one of hope, confidence and reassurance, which stands in sharp contrast to the despairingly self-righteous Gospel of St Greta. ‘To everything there is a season‘ says the sage of Ecclesiastes, and Harvest is a time for celebration, not lamentation, no matter what George Monbiot or Caroline Lucas may preach.
This is not a pious platitude; neither is it ignoring science or burying one’s head in the sand. There are indeed many problems and multiple issues around us, but there are also many reasons to be grateful for the times in which we live. Churches can and should be counter-cultural; ready to say what others will not. Theologically we can and should proclaim that whilst humankind may be good or bad stewards of creation, we are but the stewards. We are neither in control nor are we the determining factor in the Earth’s story. We have our portion of responsibility for how the story of creation unfolds, but it is when we elevate our significance that things go wrong. We may no longer view the story of Genesis as historic or scientific truth, but as an expression of man’s place in the world order and his relationship with God it is as true today as it ever was.
Will our priests be prioritising that message? I hope so. If they do, is it what people will actually hear and take away? Reception of the word is not entirely within the preacher’s gift, but one thing is sure: if you lean too heavily on the side of apocalyptic Green Millenarianism, that is what people will take away.
I happen not to be preaching at Harvest this year, but if I were I would be inclined to offer a counterbalancing narrative to the secular-pagan one that has been invading our streets and screens.
I would be happy to accept and endorse the principle that we must be responsible and just stewards of the planet. I might commend the need for service and charity, and for preserving natural habitats. I would celebrate the manifold variety of all life, highlighting how it enriches our lives in many ways. I might acknowledge the need to avoid polluting the air and oceans, and call for our Harvest generosity to be expressed through tins for the foodbanks rather than cabbages to decorate the font (though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, either). I would certainly not want to risk being cast as Private Frazer of ‘Dad’s Army’ fame – “Doomed! Doomed! We’re all doomed!” – and I would distance myself from any sense of sympathy for ecological self-flagellation.
Nor would I, directly or by implication, be sacrificing the gospel message of redemption and hope by allowing it to become confused in any way with the self-indulgent and self-righteous anti-capitalist hysteria which we are currently being served up by many who should know better.
‘All good gifts around us’ include energy, transport and technology, each of which can be used for good as well as ill. One of the great blessings of modern technology is that whereas falsehood and propaganda might once have taken a great deal of time to be exposed, the blessing of the internet enables truth – including the truth of the gospel – to be shared swiftly and widely. There are many examples I could cite, but two will suffice for any readers worn down by the dreary diet of gloom and doom presented by many broadcasters on behalf of political activists masquerading as prophets.
Ten years ago Hans Rosling presented a fascinating graphic which is still relevant today as it plots the rise in wealth and health over the past two centuries. Though he does not explicitly say so, the improvements in every metric by which we measure human flourishing have occurred thanks to widespread cheap energy and free trade. Those countries which embraced them progressed; those which turned their backs on them, as a Extinction Rebellion would now have us do, were characterised by high infant mortality, disease, depressed longevity and malnourishment. Few things are more destructive of health and the environment than poor masses burning wood.
That message has been refined by Daniel Hannan MEP in many of his short web talks, but his one on why Capitalism works is typically optimistic and clear. Africa has progressed in the last decade thanks to free trade and mobile telephony, and progress occurred only after it shrugged off the failed paternalism of socialist ideology.
Andrew Neil’s dissected and filleted an Extinction Rebellion leader who tried to defend the ludicrous claim that billions of people would die if we did not reset human progress to year zero. We should note that when the Khmer Rouge tried this on a small scale, 25% of the Cambodian population did actually die as a result of anti-human, genocidal policies.
Debunking irresponsibility needs to be part of our Christian witness: we are required to be as wise as serpents in the face of patent falsehood, and whilst it is good to listen to people’s fears, a responsible church and discerning priest will also take account of the fact that there are multiple mechanisms in play affecting and effecting the variability of climate – not least the Milankovitch cycles and volcanic activity. Contrary to what secularists, pagans and anti-capitalists may claim, it really is not all about us.
Yet apart from the science, it does all come down to a simple message and a clear image: God loves His creation. He loved it so much that He entered into it with the Incarnation of a Jesus who experienced its tribulations and redeemed it. He is not about to hand over the keys to the Kingdom and walk away.
That matters practically at this time.
A few weeks ago somebody on Twitter asked for prayer. His teacher-wife had returned home devastated because one of her pupils had committed suicide, citing anxiety about climate change. That may not have been the whole story, of course: bullying may have contributed. But we need to be aware that some young people are being deeply traumatised by the hysterical apocalyptic rhetoric put about by extremist Green campaigners. Vulnerable children are becoming prey to the wolves of totalitarianism and crackpot sects. We owe them a principled defence against such hocus pocus.
Let us therefore hope that the message which people take home from our Harvest Festival celebrations is proportionate, wise, and appropriate. In the words of a more modern hymn: ‘Come on and celebrate, His gift of love we will celebrate, the Son of God who loved us and gave us life.’ It was in just such a spirit of confidence that the prophet Samuel responded to people’s anxieties after defeat by the Philistines. He called on them to return to the Lord , put aside the worship of false gods, and directed their hearts to the Lord to serve Him alone. He set up a stone which he named ‘Ebenezer’ which means ‘God has brought us this far’. It was to be a reminder that God had not brought them through many trials and tribulations only to abandon them now. It is a sound and reassuring message in the face of those openly urging our children to panic, the better to manipulate them.
This passage from 1 Samuel may not exactly be a text for the Harvest sermon, but it might serve as a helpful context for reflection. I hope it will assist our clergy as they decide how best to respond to some of the quasi-worship we are seeing on the streets, with people mesmerised by the drumming, dancing and chanting in celebration of their own significance.