Why so slow?

April 22, 2009

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day happened. The verb is apt because it really did seem just to happen, to spring out of air and soil. That first Earth Day, 20 million people gathered in schools, parks and community centers to demonstrate against pollution, to listen to speakers talk about environmental action and to celebrate humanity's only home.

It was the brainchild of one remarkable man, the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.), who, eight years earlier, had been troubled by the fact that the environment was "simply a nonissue in the politics of the country," he later wrote.

Nelson convinced then-President John F. Kennedy to go on an 11-state "conservation tour" of the nation in 1963, but lectures from the White House about the environment didn't stir a lot of action. Inspired by the demonstrations against the Vietnam War called "teach-ins," Nelson conceived of "a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda." When the people acted, leaders listened.

The other seminal event in the environmental movement was natural history writer Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which in 1962 analyzed the effect of pesticides on birds and sounded an alarm about chemical pollution.

Where was the church in all this? It might be fair to say it was playing catchup.

In a chronology on the Episcopal Ecological Network's website, nothing from the Episcopal Church's General Convention concerning the environment is noted until 1979. Apparently responding to the energy crisis of the 1970s, which saw drivers lined up at the pumps as gasoline ran short, the 66th convention urged members to "maintain a simple lifestyle at church meetings," asked local churches to influence land development, continued support for a task force on energy and the environment and called on church members to "exercise a responsible lifestyle."

Today, it still seems that the church has a piecemeal approach toward environmental issues and the expression and development of a Christian theology of the environment. It may or may not be taught as part of Christian formation. Clergy may or may not see it as part of their teaching mission. Putting environmental issues on the agenda is often budget-inspired or driven by a passionate lay person or group.

Some churches are using a "creation liturgy" in the fall months and while it has its fans, others criticize it as "pantheistic" (the worship of all gods) or contrary to the Episcopal prayer book. This upcoming General Convention will be asked to approve the Genesis Covenant ... or the Earth Charter. Anglicans at a recent meeting in Hong Kong discussed climate change.

Many local churches diligently try to save energy, recycling paper, using reusable cups at coffee hour, switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, etc., but, then again, all of society is doing that, too.

What are we doing that is different from society at large, and what do we have to offer that is different? Why do environmental issues sometimes seem marginal in the church? How can we make the message in the Christian context so compelling – as Gaylord Nelson did – that we ensure someone will listen?