An environmental coordinator for Southern Africa is calling on bishops to lead by example and take action to change the spiritual DNA of the church into caring for creation.
The Revd Rachel Mash is the Environmental Coordinator for Green Anglicans, which is the environmental network of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, including South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique. She talked to the Lambeth Conference Team about why she believes action on climate change is so desperately needed.
“The actions that we take now will have very serious implications on how our children and our grandchildren live. The question that we are faced with is, are we going to leave our children a bleak and barren world, or are we going to leave them with a world which will sustain them into the future, a world with living ecosystems? We have been called to be carers of creation. And it’s important for us as the Church to remember the very first commandment that we were given in Genesis 2: 15, was to work the land and care for it.”
How would you encourage people who feel overwhelmed by the scale of the climate crisis?
“I think we need to understand that if we leave it to the politicians, we’re going to leave it too late… But if we work with social movements, then we can change the world. We’re bombarded with so many issues, and that makes us feel like we can’t do anything.” She said people should read about climate issues and find areas which they are most passionate about changing.
“Discover what is breaking your heart, because that is where the Spirit of God is touching you. And then when you’ve identified that issue, find a group of people or social movement that you can work with… The antidote to despair is action. So, once you start taking action, then hope begins to be created.”
Why are indigenous people so affected by climate crisis and what role do they play in bringing about change?
“I think the first thing that we need to do is lament. We have to recognise that as the institutional church we have treated indigenous people appallingly. Then we need to recognise that indigenous people, according to the World Wildlife Fund, only make up 6% of the world’s population, but they are protecting 80% of the last remaining pristine biodiverse areas. So, they are the frontline of climate change. They are living in the areas which are most impacted by climate change, and they live off the land generally. Their ways of life, their livelihoods, their cultures are being destroyed as they’re being pushed off the land.”
Rachel said, “They are the most impacted and they are also the ones who can do the most to protect the biodiversity in those areas. If we can learn from indigenous brothers and sisters, and particularly if we can treasure our Anglican indigenous voices, then we can find a different way of relating to creation.”
According to Rachel, care for the environment has to be more than an ‘add-on’ and will require a change in spiritual DNA.
“What is important for us as the Church is that we change our spiritual DNA. And over the last nine years, the Anglican Church in southern Africa has been part of the ‘Season of Creation’ movement from 1st September to 4th October. You have this wonderful opportunity to really look at what the Scriptures are telling us about creation, to pray about it, to preach about it, to celebrate it, to lament it. And as the Church begins to incorporate ‘Season of Creation’, you find that your spiritual DNA begins to change, and then the actions follow.”
What changes have you seen starting to happen?
“I’m really encouraged by what’s happening in the church in central Africa, people are seeing very practical ways of making a difference, of restoring ecosystems. Many bishops are saying, each child that is confirmed must plant a tree. When you have a funeral, you have a memorial tree and a memory of somebody that’s passed away. That’s been quite a healing thing for people during COVID because often we couldn’t attend funerals. So, people plant Memorial trees in memory of somebody who’s passed away, where they couldn’t go to the funeral. The linking of our rites of passage with tree planting means that those trees won’t just be planted, the tree will be cared for and nurtured and grow because it means something to them.”
“Another example we have been involved with in Namibia was when a Canadian drilling company wanted to drill in one of the most pristine areas of the world, the Congo Basin. It was very encouraging to see how the bishops of Southern Africa signed a petition to stop the drilling, and the petition immediately got support from our brother and sister bishops and Archbishop’s in Canada, where the drilling company, ReconAfrica, is from. So, it became an international global petition. After the drilling company had sued the Namibian local newspaper that had broken the story, all the other press agencies were very quiet, because they were worried about getting sued. But when the bishops signed a petition to stop the drilling, that became the story. The press agencies could write stories about Anglican Bishop standing against drilling in Namibia without any fear of getting sued. Advocacy can actually raise the issues because the voice of the Church is still recognised and it does make a difference.”
How would you like to see the bishops of the Anglican Communion continuing to respond to the climate crisis?
Rachel believes bishops can be powerful role models for climate change and caring for the environment. “One of the important things about bishops is that people watch you and people look at you and people look up to you. And when bishops begin to role model different behaviour it makes such a difference. I think of some of the eco bishops and green bishops, when you see them out in the field planting their papayas, rolled up sleeves with a spade, those images go viral. Because people see this is my bishop, my bishop is growing papayas, or picking up litter on the street. And then you really begin to change people because they say, ‘Oh, if my bishop can do it, then I also should be doing it’.”
She said she would also like to see bishops championing the voices of young people.
“I think young people are the prophets of our time because they understand that this is their future.”
“Young people want to change this world. Young people are taking fossil fuel companies to court and winning. Young people are inventing new ways of doing things with reduced carbon emissions. They are entrepreneurs, they are making a difference. And if we as the Church don’t listen to young people at this point in history, why should they want to be part of this Church?”
“It is an amazing opportunity for us at this time, to reach out to young people, and to show them that the Church cares. We can amplify the voices of the young prophets of our time, throughout the Anglican Communion, so that we can hear them and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church of today.”
“This is the most important decade of human history. Yes, the task ahead of us is huge, but the opportunities have never been greater. Our actions can make a radical difference.”