Churches and Cultural Climate-Change Denial (Part One): Learning from Canute

Dry Stone Wall, Orkney
Image Caption

The myth of King Canute is one of those stories that you may remember from your childhood. Like one of Aesop’s Fables, we may have lost the original point of the story long ago, but the tale nonetheless persists.  Cnut the Great ,also known as Canute, (born 975?; died 12 November 1035), was King of England, Denmark and Norway, which were often referred to together as the North Sea Empire during his rule.

As a Danish Prince, Canute won the throne of England in 1016 in the wake of centuries of Norse invasion and settlement.  Canute’s later accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together.  Norway was added later, with a crowning at Trondheim.

The earliest written record of the Canute myth comes from Henry of Huntingdon in his Historia Anglorum (early twelfth century):

At the height of his ascendancy, Canute ordered his throne to be placed on the seashore as the tide was coming in. Then he spoke to the rising tide,

“You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.”

But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the King’s feet and shins. So, jumping back, the King cried,

“Let all the world know that the power of Kings is empty and worthless, and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.”

This has become by far the best-known story about Canute, although in modern readings he is usually a wise man who knows from the outset that he cannot control the waves. Today’s readers might look at this tale with fresh eyes in the light of climate change.  Can we do anything to stop the rising, incoming tides?  In a word, “no”. Despite wave-power being harnessed, and extensive efforts in cutting carbon emissions that might slow the increasingly rapid melting of our glaciers, and the warming of our oceans, things only seem to be getting hotter and wetter.

We are currently gearing up to host he Global Climate Change Summit in Glasgow.  As gatherings go, I suspect we may look back on this moment in fifty years’ time, and wonder if we had done enough?  Or could have done more?  Or was it all just too little too late?  The jury will be out on this for some time to come.

None of this might seem to be immediately relevant to the churches.  We seem to have our own worries, of which more later.  True, denominations and church leaders do issue statements on climate change and ecology.  These are typically messages of hand wringing, spliced up with the usual care-for-creation virtue-signalling – but little on how that change accelerates poverty, deprivation and disease in the developing world. 

Some church leaders go further, and announce ecclesial zero-carbon-footprints, setting a date for the future by which time they will themselves have joined the choir-invisible. There is also the odd gesture to nudge the faithful: the Bishop driving a hybrid car, or the Dean eating a burger entirely made of plant-based protein, or perhaps some solar panels to replace the church slate roof.

However, the issue is much closer to home than you may think.  A senior colleague and friend hailing from one Diocese in the east of England, and one that enjoys a lengthy coastline along the North Sea, was surprised to come back from a short sabbatical and be met by the recently appointed Leader of the Enabling Team, charged with delivering and rolling out the new Mission Action Plan for the Diocese. 

Mission Action Plans are peculiar works.  Imagine a recipe book written in a foreign language you are not familiar with, and even with the illustrations, hardly any of the ingredients available in your local shops or have ever been heard of by local people.  If you can imagine that, then you will have some insight into the basic problem with Mission Action Plans.  Yet such booklets are routinely churned out across our Dioceses, and somehow must be read.  Few will ever be remembered.

These recipe books – for that is what they are – are not based on research or are demand-led.  None of the authors of Mission Action Plans normally bothers to ask twenty parishes and their clergy such questions as “how can we help?”; “what difference could we make to the stresses of ministry, and alleviate the strains faced by clergy and parishes?”; and “what would sustainability look like in your neck of the woods…and what resources do you need just to keep going?”.

No, these are all the Wrong Questions. The Right Question are “how can we grow…and also cut costs at the same time, and prune parishes and clergy we suspect are unproductive…?’.  The writers of most missional recipe books are Top-Down-Folk by instinct, and hence their results in programme design.  They know what the gospel is; what the church should be; what the people all need. There was no need to consult.  They got all of their know-how from the bible, and so there was no need to do any research or take the local pulse, and ask some actual questions. 

This recipe book approach does not emerge out of collecting local food stories and know-how.  It is prick-and-ping microwave cooking; ready-meals in minutes that just need to be re-heated.  But parishes don’t need a strategy document for this; it is just air cover for enforcing compliance.  So these piles of “new”, “fresh” and “inspirational” missional recipe books, mainly unread, grow ever larger.

Producing these Mission Action Plans is committee work, but still top-down. Progress from the three-day meeting with the flipchart and post-it notes to the final product – a glossy brochure replete with charts, maps, graphs, numbers, vision, testimonies, aspirations, quotes and photos of Bishops doing something (usually with livestock), and pictures of young people smiling – had been expedited quicker than any super-fast-fibre-optic broadband provider could manage.  Naturally, my friend and colleague had to be paid a visit by the Leader of the Enabling Team promoting the fizzy new Mission Action Plan, so everyone senior in the Diocese was “fully on board” with what it said.  Compliance issues again noted.

My friend and colleague studied the maps carefully, which showed where the new congregations were to be “planted”, and how the “old parishes” were to be “consolidated” into “Missional Minster Areas”.  The rural deaneries were to be replaced with “active-out-facing resource hubs geared for equipping disciples and enabling transformation”.  (Who in God’s name writes this stuff?). This would all be done and dusted by 2035.  There was a new strapline too, as well as a prayer for this bold, adventurous endeavour (written by a committee) and lots of exciting projections.  Looked at on the map, and within the framework of this mission planning exercise, this might have all made sense. 

But my reader, just back from sabbatical, asked if the authors had seen the BBC Weather App of late, and looked at the predicted 2035 climate change map for the UK, their region, and the Diocese in question?  It turned out this future-map had formed no part of mission planning groupthink. 

“Well”, said my colleague, “that map shows half the diocese under water, so most of these new congregations will be submerged.  Worse still, our rural economy, tourism, fishing, shipping and port industries, and many of our current transport infrastructures will be decimated. Did the group think, at all, about what kind of world we might be living in by 2035?  I mean, that is where our churches will be trying to exist, live and serve in a dozen years or so.” Answer back came there none.