Sewanee launches Center for Religion and Environment

July 30, 2009

The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, has announced the creation of the Center for Religion and Environment, which connects its College of Arts and Sciences, School of Theology, and All Saints Chapel in a partnership to strengthen its mission in education, church and society.

The center and the public programs it will offer reflect Sewanee's commitment to sustainability and its mission as an institution of the Episcopal Church.

Dr. Robin Gottfried, the center's founding director and professor of economics, notes that there is a need to change minds and hearts, to bring together the resources of the university to address the challenge he calls "environmental formation" -- integrating "faith, practice, and the understanding of environmental issues for our students."

The center offers several environmental majors in the sciences as well as one in environmental policy and related humanities courses, all drawing on the expertise of 30 faculty members. It also seeks to serve the surrounding community, the wider Episcopal Church and other faith communities in addressing environmental challenges.

In an interview with ENS, Gottfried mused about the kind of programs the center might offer that could help dioceses and congregations involved in creation care. One possibility could be to provide resources for best practices, he said. The center might also foster environmental formation at various levels, such as for Bible study leaders and youth ministers seeking to strengthen eco-spirituality in their programs.

The Rev. Jerry Cappel, environmental ministries coordinator for Province IV, has found that many church members "are ready to raise their voices and lend their hands to furthering environmental issues at their own parish, but lack the confidence and tools to do so effectively."

Cappel, rector of Resurrection Episcopal Church, Louisville, Kentucky, believes that Sewanee "can help mold church leaders who are both passionate and articulate about the ecological crisis."

The Very Rev. Dr. William S. Stafford, dean of Sewanee's School of Theology, said, "Stewardship of what God has given us in the world may often have been overlooked. However, it has always been part of the Christian tradition, and it is becoming an increasingly clear focus for us at Sewanee."

Sewanee's unique mix of resources includes its management of the Domain, 13,000 acres of sustainably managed and protected wild land on Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau which serves as a living laboratory for environmental sciences. The Domain also provides an experiential grounding and source of inspiration for those working on spiritualities of creation care or environmental policy. According to Gottfried, an environmental theology requires an experiential, not just an intellectual, grounding.

Gottfried notes that the roundtable aspect of the ENTREAT program at Sewanee, bringing together seminary, college and Province IV environmental ministry leaders, was a valuable predecessor to the new center.

"I am thrilled about the new center and believe it will extend the science and religion dialogue that ENTREAT began in 2004 at Sewanee," says Joyce Wilding, a key organizer in the three-year program funded by the Metanexus Institute.

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