Bishop Viv addresses Synod - Nov 2019

First published 19th November 2019

And God blessed them...

I wonder what you think blessing someone or something means or achieves (and Bishops do lots of blessings of people and of things, in my early experience particularly of loos)? In my experience the common response is likely to be that it makes something good, or holy, or special. And that is an important part of Christian thinking. But there is more to it. Because whatever else we are doing when we bless someone, something or somewhere, we recognise that all God has made is already good, already possesses a certain holiness, because everything comes to us from God's hands.

So when one of our children comes to the communion rail for a blessing, they are prayed for that they may continue to grow as followers of Christ, and they are simultaneously also recognised as a fellow disciple. The child is prayed for, and the child is also received and perceived in a particular way. And that is because blessing is one of the ways in which we learn, as followers of Jesus, to see as he sees. And in learning to see we also learn to speak, and, as the derivation of the English word benediction puts it, speak well of what we bless.

And that reminds us of the earliest chapters of our scriptures and to foundational thinking about our faith in the Book of Genesis which is not history, or science, but rather a great dramatic poem, maybe even originally a liturgy to which the congregation responded at particular points: "and it is good, it is very good".

At the end of each day God looked at the world and saw that it was good. He recognised that it was good. There again is that double meaning of blessing, both making holy and recognising holiness . It is salutary to be reminded that God's rst blessing was for all creatures of the earth each of which have their own relationship with God, independently from human beings.

God blessed them, and then blessed us too. Here is the second moment for a response: and it is good, it is very good. God blesses the human beings, male and female, to whom he had given dominion. And that word dominion has proved to be such a difcult word, taken by so many over countless generations to sanction our ransacking and destruction of God's good creation. Christians see God's hand in this as creator and see humanity as the pinnacle of creation, able to appreciate recognise and name the glory and splendour of the galaxies. Christians and atheists alike acknowledge the slender balance by which life has been able to evolve on planet earth and the delicate forces which enable life to ourish over tens of millions of years.

But in the last century and a half, this balance has tipped. There is now a different answer to the question: What are human beings? We have entered the Anthropocene era, the human centred era. The worlds population and our technology is altering the delicate balance of life on Earth.

The featured image is by Duncan Lomax of Ravage Productions of a recently created altar frontal designed by Malcolm Lochhead and painstakingly created by the York Minster Broderers over the last six years. The frontal is, as I am sure you recognise, for use in ordinary time, which includes harvest time and what the church is beginning to call creationtide. When I blessed it, I preached of its allusions to the Trinity in its three interlocked gold swirls, which are repeated on the reverse side of the altar giving six swirls each representing a day in God's creation of the world.

But there was something I didnt notice until Archbishop Winston Halapua, Archbishop of Polynesia stood in front of it and wept. Because the panels put the glory of our planet before the creation of humanity, as in the Genesis accounts, and that puts the planet at the centre. And Archbishop Winston, whose home islands of Fiji are being inundated by rising sea water, whose people are losing their livelihood because their lands are salinated, whose seas have been overshed by commercial trawlers, whose land is strewn with plastic waste. This frontal was an image of the message Bishop Winston was trying to take across the world. And he wept.

We are planning for the 2020 Lambeth Conference of Bishops. One of the most powerful experiences I have had in ministry was listening to a group of Bishops prior to the 2008 conference who had come from some of the richest and some of the poorest parts of the world. They included the Archbishop of Bangladesh, the Bishop of Central Newfoundland, the Bishop of Utah and the Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro.
They were asked to speak about the impact of climate change on their diocese, and their people.

The Bishop of Central Newfoundland spoke of how the permafrost was no longer permanent, leading to changes in hunting and shing from which many of his people lived. The Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro spoke of the desertication of his diocese, of increasing conict between pastoralists and settled farmers as both groups struggled to nd ways of feeding themselves. Many were leaving the land for the cities or for Europe. The Archbishop of Bangladesh spoke simply and directly of how, as sea level rises, his Province is gradually being ooded by salt water. Of how his own diocese will soon not be inhabitable. And each bishop invited us, each of us, to change our ways of living, to recognise creations goodness and God's goodness, and to reduce our impact on God's creation.

Our scriptures gives us a powerful nudge in that direction too, with Genesis, Psalms and more generally the Prophets and the Writings and the gospels all reminding us the glory of creation, but also and by contrast, the ghastly images of hell.

One such image is that of the ood waters rising bringing chaos. Another is a place too hot to live. Another is of a rubbish dump. We are seeing those hellish conditions across the world in Fishlake, and Sydney and Vanuatu. As I write this, the UN Special Rapporteur on the environment says our world is increasingly at risk of climate apartheid, where the rich pay to escape ooding, heat and hunger caused by the escalating climate crisis while the rest of the world suffers. These are the futures we are bequeathing to our children.

But there is a third, and very surprising moment when we are invited to respond and it is good, it is very good. And that is when God stopped. On the seventh day God nished, and rested, and he blessed the seventh day. Stopping is the root of the word Sabbath. In literal Biblical terms one day a week we are called away from our obsession with ourselves, with consuming, with having dominion. We are called to turn round, to turn back to God. The call to Sabbath living is to overow to inuence everyday living. We know about the impact of climate change on our world.

We need to learning more about Sabbath living. The church's participation in the eco church movement is one ongoing nudge, a reminder to us, to every single one of us, of profound importance of the Sabbath, of the need to stop, to rethink, to rework how we act, to nd all sorts of ways to tread more lightly on God's glorious created earth, entrusted to our care.

It is good, it is very good, is the refrain of the rst creation story in our Bible. And from there it is a short step from speaking well of creation to speaking well of the creator.

And that is where Pope Francis, in his encyclical on our relationship with creation, begins. Not with the oughtage and mustery of rules and regulations, of self discipline and rigour, though these will have their place. Nor does he begin with ethics, or science or for that matter with the theology I have been drawing from Genesis 1 and 2 today. But the Pope begins somewhere very different as he sets out the case for the care for creation, our common home:
LAUDATO SI, mi Signore Praise be to you, my Lord.

It is typical that he begins with a quotation from the saint whose name he carries as Pope, St Francis great canticle celebrating creation which we know through the English translation

All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia.

Pope Francis, as Genesis 1 and 2 hints is right, begins with praise. Laudato si mi signore. Let us praise the Lord, let us bless the Lord. So he says it is in praising and blessing God, recognising who God is and how God acts, that people of faith will nd the new frame of reference, the new mindset, the new approach which may, just , save us, just save God's creatures, just save God's world from the terrible threat which faces us all. Of a creation which is no longer very good, no longer good at all, no longer good for anything.

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