Parish tackles climate crisis

Panelists sit or stand on a stage while an audiene listens
Bishop Andrew Asbil, Brian Walsh, the Rev. Alison Hari-Singh, Paige Souter and Adrienne Clarkson discuss the climate crisis at Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St.
 on October 31, 2022
Michael Hudson

Speakers share ideas, urge action

Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St. tackled the climate crisis head-on through a two-part worship, education and action series in early October, involving both in-person and online participants. The series was organized by the parish’s Creation Matters committee and other parish members. More than 200 people in total attended, either in person or online.

“Our goal is to stimulate a sustained conversation about the climate crisis and reflect on ways to engage at a meaningful level. It is too easy to feel helpless in the face of the daily news,” says Grant Jahnke, chair the committee. He says the focus of the series was engagement with the wider body of the Church. “That’s why, fully aware of the heroic challenge of coming together to make significant change, our theme for this year’s Season of Creation is ‘What if the Christian churches, particularly the Diocese of Toronto, were to take the climate crisis seriously and come together to take collective action?  What would change?’”

The first event on Oct. 2 offered a varied service of scripture readings, poetry, music, prayer and an address by Elizabeth May, member of Parliament for the Green Party, an Anglican and veteran environmental activist. “We planned EarthSong, the opening service of our Season of Creation, to appeal to people’s souls and emotions, as well as present key facts. We hope that a wide range of engagement will result,” says Mr. Jahnke.

In a darkened church, solemn drumbeats and the sounds of birds and chainsaws were interspersed with stark comments about the fate of the Earth to open the service. “In a time of climate chaos, humans are starting to feel the sting of ignoring the rights of the Earth,” warned parishioner Jean Bubba, calling for balance with the “beautiful, astonishing natural world.”

In an impassioned address, Ms. May reviewed climate developments since 1986, when she began working on the climate issue. She recalled warnings from that time of what would happen if fossil fuel reduction targets were not met. “We still had time to avoid everything we are experiencing now,” she said. Instead, since 1992 the world has emitted more greenhouse gases than it had since the start of the industrial revolution.

She recalled a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a United Nations climate conference in which he highlighted that in Genesis 9, God commits to Noah never again to destroy the Earth. God made a covenant with all of creation. “We’ve declared war on Mother Earth,” said Ms. May. “We’re in a dangerous time.” She noted the fire in Lytton, B.C., the more than 700 deaths from Vancouver’s heat dome in 2021, and more recently, Hurricane Fiona’s destruction in Atlantic Canada, as well as floods in Pakistan disrupting the lives of millions of people.

She challenged the churches to move from despair and grief about the climate crisis to action. “We still have time to save ourselves. Where’s the belief we can do more than what we see before us?” She urged her listeners to draw strength from the well-known passage in Ephesians 3:20, affirming that God’s power working in us can do far more than we can ask or imagine.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a respected UN authority, warned that fossil fuel emissions must stop rising by 2025. Yet Canada recently approved a major new offshore oil development and approved expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline in western Canada.

“This is a time to kick ass, to be seriously radical,” said Ms. May. “The churches can offer something no one else can: faith. And not allow greed and political realities to allow us to give up on hope for our grandchildren. Miracles happen—but not without us.” As Ms. May wrapped up her talk, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Two women sit in chairs, one speaking with a microphone.
The Rev. Alison Hari-Singh speaks while Paige Souter listens.

As a follow-up to EarthSong, Bishop Andrew Asbil chaired a panel discussion on Oct. 4, also held in-person at Redeemer, Bloor St. and live-streamed, focusing on the question: what if churches in the Diocese of Toronto took the climate crisis seriously? Panelists included Adrienne Clarkson, former governor general of Canada; Paige Souter, a member of the Bishop’s Committee for Creation Care; the Rev. Alison Hari-Singh, a lecturer at Trinity College; and Dr. Brian Walsh, an environmental activist and biblical author. Creative ideas and bold prescriptions for action based on faith marked the event.

Bishop Asbil noted the idea from theologian Walter Brueggemann that God and the world are intrinsically linked in a world of fidelity. God will not act arbitrarily, but the world must act within the order of the Creator.

Ms. Clarkson, an active Anglican, focused on specific practical actions Anglicans and their parishes could take: stop driving to church; garden, because contact with the Earth is important; appoint an environmental point person in every parish; stop using plastic; and develop prayers about the environment and how God can guide us. “If we did things like this, non-Christian people would take us seriously. Young people would admire us,” she said. Steps such as these would be criticized by some people, she said, but “it would be good for us to take risks and be seen as non-establishment.”

Referring to the call in Ephesians 6:10-18 to put on the armour of God, Ms. Souter urged the creation of “climate warriors.” She suggested the Church needs to respond to the needs of climate refugees in our own communities, noting that marginalized people are hardest hit by extreme weather. “The cry of the Earth is the cry of the poor. It should break our hearts that people on the streets are dying because of heat,” she said.

Ms. Hari-Singh zeroed in our economic system, with its relentless push for growth as the chief cause of the climate crisis. “The climate crisis emergency is wrapped up with how capitalism functions. The disease is capitalism, and Anglicans think of it as normal. Capitalism as we know it needs to come to an end, and I know that is not going to happen overnight,” she said, adding that churches need to study economics through the lens of faith.

Our society has the technology to sustain the planet, she said, but we need a “metanoia,” referring to a biblical term for a change of mind brought about by repentance. “This is our moment of conversion,” she said.

Mr. Walsh named the climate crisis as the defining issue of our age. “There can be no business as normal, because the trouble with normal is it only gets worse,” he said. He called for a radical shift in our thinking about heaven and said we need a theology of transformational renewal. Climate concerns should be a central focus in our formation processes for church missioners, he said.

Noting that acknowledgements affirming Indigenous peoples as the original inhabitants of our land have become common in churches, Mr. Walsh suggested the custom should be extended to mention the land itself, its birds, trees and creatures that have been lost. “That could shape us in our character,” he said.

Nothing that the Church no longer has the authority it once had in society, Ms. Clarkson encouraged Bishop Asbil to seek regular meetings with Premier Doug Ford to present concrete solutions. Bishop Asbil replied that he has met the premier six or seven times.

Participants both in person and online put forth a range of suggestions and questions for panellists during a lively question period. They called for climate literacy programs in parishes, asked how we can “break open the Christian imagination,” proposed a hard look at how we use our buildings and perhaps giving some of them back to Indigenous people, and asked whether diocesan investment funds are involved with fossil fuel companies.

“How we use our properties is a big issue we are wrestling with,” said Bishop Asbil, reminding the audience that St. James Park, next to the cathedral, was given to the city of Toronto for a token one dollar so that all citizens could enjoy green space.

The Church’s willingness to take bold action in its response to the climate emergency came up repeatedly during the discussion. “Isaiah invites us to let go out of the past and to see that there’s new life in the wilderness,” said Ms. Souter.

“It will take the tenacity of Anglicans on the ground to make the changes that are necessary,” said Bishop Asbil in closing remarks. “The creativity needs to be filtered up.”


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