20. 06. 2015

Can Archbishop Welby (a Former Oil Man) Rise to the Pope’s Challenge?

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Laudate Si’ has landed!

The much-hyped, comprehensively leaked papal encyclical was launched yesterday. I haven’t read it in detail yet, but am absolutely loving all the quotes that people are pulling out to mark this significant moment. (Such as: The Carbon Brief | The Guardian)

And it really is a significant moment. The Vatican must be astonished at the coverage this particular papal initiative is getting, and doubly astonished at the attention from the non-Catholic world. This is of course the first ever encyclical written not just for Catholics but for the entire human population, which undoubtedly extends it reach. But there’s something else going on here.

For years, people have been wearily pointing out that all mainstream religions simply have to reinvent themselves in such a troubled world – not least the Church of England. Endless, embarrassingly archaic debates about various aspects of sexual politics and a sad obsession with the so-called ‘culture wars’, has made the Church of England all but irrelevant to huge numbers of vaguely sympathetic people here in the UK.

So what are the implications of Laudate Si’ for the Church of England – and for Archbishop Welby in particular?

On an historical basis, the Church of England has been vaguely helpful on climate change issues over the last few years. There are a number of solid, low-key initiatives such as Project Noah. Former Archbishop, Rowan Williams, saw it all, and provided some wonderful theological grounding, and former Bishop James Jones, from the evangelical tradition, was a brilliant leader on climate issues. And there have, of course, been many, many dedicated individuals beavering away on climate issues for a long time.

But the overall quality of decisive, moral leadership has, across the country as a whole, been far from impressive. It’s made very little impact nationally, and in terms of media coverage, would be characterised best by ‘invisibility’ rather than by any kind of impact.

Is that now going to change? And to ask an even more difficult question, will Archbishop Welby’s former career in the oil industry continue to put a brake on things in terms of full-on, uncompromising moral leadership? He’s been asked on a number of occasions how actively he thinks the Church of England should now address climate issues, and his answers have, on every occasion, been entirely inadequate.

These issues will no doubt be probed at the Church of England’s General Synod in York next month. Proposals to provide training to would-be priests on ‘eco-theology’ and to urge fasting (for the good of the planet) on the first day of every month will be part of the debate. And there’ll be plenty of people there arguing that the Church of England’s leadership on climate change is just as significant as the Pope’s.

Frankly, that’s just not true. Right now, the contrast between Pope Francis’s and Justin Welby’s approach to climate change could not be more stark.
 

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