Saturday, February 16, 2008

Remarks for Churches Together Climate Change Conference, Reading, UK, February 16, 2008

[These remarks were part of a panel presentation. I have translated what the Elders (most of whom sadly have now left us) told me into language that British people will understand, and I apologize to them if I have made any misrepresentations. The discussion that followed was interesting, if sad. Everyone connected to the institution (clergy and paid lay workers) avoided saying what the church as an institution needs to do to recover credibility. The rebellious laity were not given a chance. So at the end of my remarks, I have appended a list. Readers are invited to add to it.]

In preparing these few remarks, I have asked myself what some of the elders of our indigenous peoples in Alaska would like me to say to you. First I will cite some statistics. Then I will tell you what they think the root of the problem is.

The impact of climate change increases as one goes north. On a scale of 1-10, if the impact is a 4 in Great Britain, it will be an 8 or 9 in the High Arctic.

—A few months ago, thousands of walrus died in stampedes on the narrow beaches of the Chukchi Sea because all of the ice on that vast body of water had melted.

—Because of the failure of the ice, polar bears are moving as much as 100 miles inland, threatening small villages and interbreeding with brown bears. They are also starving and drowning.

—There is so much glacial melt, so much fresh water lying on top of salt, that salmon are now swimming underneath both subsistence and commercial nets. We used to line catch them at 30 feet. In the last two years we have had to drop our lines to 80 feet.

—Our massive backyard glacier in Juneau retreated 800 ft just during the summer months last year. We could see it change from day to day.

—Winter subsistence hunting and trapping, always perilous, have been made far more dangerous by river and sea ice that no longer freeze properly and cannot support snow machines, or even dog teams.

—Without pack ice, increasing wind, sea and wave heights erode silty and sandy shores. At last estimate 235 villages in Alaska will have to move inland.

—The tree line is moving farther north every year.

I could say much more about crazy weather, seasons that are erratic, melting permafrost, heavy metals that migrate to the poles, Inuit women who give birth only to girls, methane releases, trees dying from beetle. But these are symptoms, effects.

I am certain, however, the Elders would much prefer me to spend the rest of my time telling you what they understand as the root cause of the climate change, which is that we have lost our core silence, inherent in our evolution, essential to our survival. Proof of this is our proccupation with wildlife programmes on TV: as we watch the animals' core silence at work in their relationships with each other and their environment, we are looking at our own lost nature.

The Elders know that to survive you must listen. Deeply. For them, a mistake is the same as a lie, and a lie is the same as murder. For this reason Native peoples also regard with horror the white person's habit of ripping time away from space and motion, of which it is a function, and treating it as a discrete entity.

This conference urges us to take action on climate change. But all the talk is pointless unless we recover the work of silence, which alone can help us change our habits. The work of silence enables us to want to live simply. When we repeatedly yield all our cravings, all our thoughts and ways to the silence, its mysterious transfigurative power will effect necessary changes to our habits and our lives. Without it, we are trapped in the cycle of heedlessness.

Sadly, the institutional church is incapable of helping us recover our silence because it no longer knows, understands or teaches the work of silence and the path to simplicity. By the end of 14th century the institutional church had effectively banned silence.

Religion without silence is madness, because religion is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour, the resurrection of the mind through the body. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. If the people making the rules and writing the doctrines do not practice the silence from which these doctrines arise, then religion gets bent out of shape.

Therefore, we the laity, who are the church in fact, must go on alone. We cannot wait for the noisy institution. We need to support one another to find our way back to the core silence that reawakens our environmental and religious sensibility and brings us to spiritual maturity. Without this silence, we will be unable to change our destructive habits or realize our shared nature with God. Without silence we lose our humanity, and all that is most precious, including life itself.

This is the message from the Elders in Alaska.

[The best introduction to the work of silence is "Into the Silent Land" by Martin Laird, published in the UK by DLT and in the USA by Oxford. This is probably the best book on this subject for the last 200 years. It is very user-friendly while also being very deep. It is especially helpful for the fearful, the angry, the despairing, the addicted. My subjective opinion is borne out by objective reviews.]

CORRECTION: Since responding to Kari's comment (below) I have had a most supportive letter from the Bishop of Oxford, who seems to be an exception to the clerical norm. I ask forgiveness for a hasty judgement.

A List of Changes the Institutional Church Needs to Make

1. "Where vision fails, the people perish." The church needs to recover the vision of God and its communication as the reason for its existence.

2. The clergy need to be taught the work of silence and how to teach it: "Every true sacred sign effaces itself." They should be educated for genuine self-emptying service, not for career trajectories. They should stop infantilizing the laity and instead encourage them toward spiritual maturity.

3. The clergy need to stop despising the laity and feeling threatened by them. If the clergy insist on being a caste apart they will soon find they have no one in the pews.

4. The laity should have the courage to pursue the work of silence and spiritual maturity whether or not the clergy will go along with them. They should confront the clergy when necessary, especially on issues such as the abyss between clergy and laity. They should not support being patronized.

5. We need to read the bible using the criterion of silence. One of its major subtexts is the loss and finding of the balance between silence and speech/action, in the Old Testament, but especially in the New. The parables are especially applicable to the work of silence, as is the kenotic hymn in Phil. 2:5-11.

6. Silence should be central to our liturgies, which should be aides to deeper silence. See "Liturgy in Truth" which is in process of being posted on this blog. Making a joyful noise unto the Lord has its place but it must be balanced with leisurely silence. Liturgies should have flow, not deadlines or a relentless jumping from one distracting activity to another.

7. We should use group silence to help us in conflict resolution. Sitting in silence together resolves far more than words. It is this the Southern Cone bishops refused to do with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other primates, for example.

8. The climate crisis is like the apartheid crisis: it can be resolved only heart by heart. Even if we have passed the point of no return, as I believe we have, the Bishop of Oxford is quite right in saying that we should be bound by the moral integrity of who we are meant to be as Christians. In other words, even if the end is coming, we should clean up our act.

9. We need lay presidency of the Eucharist, not only to unclench the dead hand of clericalism, but also because of the situation in many villages. More and more villagers are refusing to use magic cookies by courier sent from another altar because they quite rightly regard such a practice not only as dreadful theology, but also demeaning to their baptismal right as a community, as well as being infantilizing of them as human beings and trivializing of the sacrament. Village churches should not be forced to take matters into their own hands. Lay presiders should not be clericalized in any way. Every adult baptized Christian should know how to celebrate the Eucharist and able to preside as needed. We should also remove the quasi-clericalized status of lay readers and so-called spiritual directors.


Blogger Unknown said...


I think your call back to "core silence" touched people's hearts more than anything else they witnessed yesterday in Reading.

Did you engage with the Bishop of Oxford and did he respond to your remarks about the institutional church losing its mission to preach and teach "silence."?

The final part of your statement about our having effectively "blown it" takes Christians into whole new territory. Although many sceintist are very worried, i know of few who believ we have as yet passed the "critical theshold" but we are mighty well near it.

I thank you for your holy presence. You communicate an extraordinary sense of the sacred.

10:15 am, February 17, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am grateful for your reflections, strictures, even, on the power of silence.

I wonder about the time between Jesus' death and his resurrection. The church seems to fill that time with the groans of hell and the shouting of Christ to 'come over' to his kingdom. But perhaps there was instead a deep silence which was the quietness of God reconciling the world to himself and healing the wounds of his son.

I am involved, as a Reader, in the liturgy of silence in a monthly service and I look forward to enrolling in your course.

12:27 pm, February 17, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Kari,

Thank you so very much for your humbling comment. I think you speak for a lot of people, especially those who have stopped coming to church. When I preach about silence, there are usually several people in tears at the end. Often they come by on a different day to rage about the loss of silence in the church. Recently I made a programme for Radio 4 (to be broadcast on March 12 at 6:30 GMT) with John Lloyd, Bill Bailey, Alan Davies and John Gribbin, before a live audience. There were people waiting in the street afterwards wanting to talk about silence. They were 20 and 30 somethings, well dressed, well educated, but wouldn't set foot in a church.

Unfortunately the Bishop of Oxford has not chosen to pick up on this particular issue. There is nothing that annoys clerics more than upstart lay people, no matter how much they have published, or written, no matter how central the truth of what they say. Clerics listen only to other clerics and they have a fixed agenda. The last thing they want to do is to take Christians into a whole new territor, or to have to do the work of silence. I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, in fact I know some, but as far as the policies of what the church will pursue, I'm afraid it is impossible to hope for the institution to address the root causes of its problems, no matter how many new programmes are floated.

I am sure the Bishop of Oxford is more sympathetic than most, but he probably does not dare risk the scorn of his peers by taking a lay person serioiusly and running with her agenda. Unfortunately the church is a rigid caste system. And it takes a rare Christian to be willing to give up power. People, especially other clerics, don't understand Rowan because he is giving a kenotic (Phil 2:5-11) example of leadership, an imitation of Christ's leadership. It was very clear that the people in charge and the clergy present who knew me were very uncomfortable with my presence because I was not one of them.

As to our having "blown it" on the climate issue, scientists are tied to data and don't want to make predictions until their data is irrefutabe. However, those of us whose lives are daily affected by the catastrophic and rapid changes we see have little doubt that we have passed the point of no return, probably around 1989. That year there were lakes at the top of the ice field, and even the atmosphere felt different. Everyone was commenting on it, but it was the year of the oil spill, so it didn't get any press. Besides, it wasn't "scientific". However, I don't wait for other data when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because I know that even though I can't see or smell or here anything, there's a bear on the other side of the berrybush!

I think the human race, or a small part of it (what geneticists call a "bottleneck" can survive, but only those who cooperate for the common good.

Thanks again for you again for your comment and for your own witness to silence.


9:44 am, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Felicity,

You are right on about the silence of Holy Saturday. In Orthodox churches there is a service that acknowledges Jesus in the Tomb and the harrowing of hell, but we need to feel more the stupendous silence of that day.

Many thanks for you comment and your witness to silence.


9:46 am, February 18, 2008  
Blogger anni said...

Although not present on Saturday I am responding to the comments on lack of silence in our churches today.

I am involved in 'fresh expressions' in my local church -
the Sunday following Christmas we offered a reflective service in our church - space was left for quietness and stillness within the liturgy. Many were blessed by the opportunity to 'be still and know....' as opposed to always 'doing' instead of just 'being.

Thank you that you have brought us all into this debate especially at this crucial time of concern over our environment. May the Lord bless your ministry in this area.

3:01 pm, February 19, 2008  
Blogger Joanna said...

Dear Maggie - thank you for your inspiring and emotional words last Saturday. I certainly had to bite back the tears at points.

Earlier this year I escaped from the noise of motherhood for just a few days at a largely silent retreat and just that was amazingly transforming.

My response to your talk at the time was 'this is so, so right; but we don't have time to wait until everyone realises this is the way' - now that I see you already think it is too late I understand your perspective more.

As it happens the clergywoman I was with was hugely impressed by your words. I'm sure there are power-crazed clergy of the type you have been hurt by, but I really don't believe most clergy are quite the conspiracy you perceive. On the contrary I know a number who feel tied down by the noisy conservatism of those lay people who form the backbone of their churches. These people belong because of tradition and a sense of identity which may have little to do with your understanding of Christianity or mine but because they are the regular folk who will keep things running the clergy cannot break free, even though they know this keeps many other lay folk away.

As I write this I know this in no way reflects the church at which I worship currently (and perhaps that is partly due to regular contemplative worship and a 'fresh expressions' service where there is often much silence), but it has been painfully the case at a number of congregations I have known in the past. I did feel hurt by your generalisations on behalf of many clergy friends - they are an easy target in this politcially correct world and many of them are extraordinary servants of their congregations.

(That said, I would not disagree with your argument on lay presidency. Perhaps what should be limited is who gets to preach - without a solid theological background and indeed experience of silence ill-thought words can cause much harm)

Finally, you may be interested that a few weeks back a non-Christian Guardian columnist commented that the church's recent calls for a 'carbon fast' were far more credible and meaningful than similar calls from politicians, business or magazines because the church had a long history of calling us to live more simply. I was surprised, but heartened, by this outsider's perception of the institution.

10:50 pm, February 22, 2008  
Blogger Joanna said...

I forgot to ask in the last comment - why are Inuit women only giving birth to girls?

11:06 pm, February 22, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Joanna,

Thanks for offering your very different perspective. I have come across congregations such as you mention, so I understand the problems facing clergy who are stymied.

On the other hand, I can go only by my experience with clergy on both sides of the Pond, which has often been horrific, not to mention slanderous.

The first thing the church taught me as a child was a) that as a woman and someone not ordained, and with an unconventional education I would be infantilized by clergy, no matter how theologically or pastorally relevant b) never, ever, to talk about the spiritual life because clergy are embarrassed by it c) that the church doesn't want the gifts of the laity unless the laity are willing to become clericalized and usually not even then and d) that the clergy are deaf to anyone but other clergy. That the abyss between the clergy and the laity is absolute. Of course the system we have is untenable (see Garry Wills' (an RC) very readable short book, "What Jesus Meant."

Thankfully I have come across exceptions to these observations, or I would not be alive. I am very grateful for the clergy who throughout my life have risked a great deal to be supportive. I am especially grateful for the new Bishop of Oxford. In addition, there are signs, possibly because the institution is reaping what it has sown, that these attitudes are breaking down.

Today I had an email from someone which I hope to quote (with permission) at a future date, but for the moment I will only say that for many clergy, ordination is spiritual suicide.

As to the Inuit women who are giving birth only to girls, this appears to have something to do with the chemical bath we are soaking in that imitates the functioning of hormones, but the matter is still under investigation. These chemicals appear to migrate north, along with heavy metals. However, we at temperate latitudes are not spared, though research into exactly to what degree and in what ways these chemicals are affecting us is still in early stages.

Thanks again for your perspective!

11:47 am, February 23, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Joanna,

I now have permission to publish the quote from the priest I mentioned yesterday:

"I am in the unusual position of being a priest who is preparing to renounce my vows as I
find being a priest (and hierarchy/clericalism, etc.) to be dehumanizing. I have even said that in some ways I feel my ordination impeded my development as a human being, and it's that vocation as a human being that is most important (now that I'm 53 and counting)."

10:35 am, February 25, 2008  
Blogger Alexander Massey said...

Hi Maggie - here is something I wrote on a friend's blog recently about silence ...

"There is something in the manner of person that I think can tell us how comfortable they are with silence: the kind of silence that takes us towards immediacy, presence, exposure, honesty; the silence of intimacy with ourselves or another; of intimacy with the truth. All great action, words or music, - or right action - arise from a well of contemplation - stepping first into the void, the cloud of unknowing. There is something in a person’s gravitas - and the lightness of touch that goes with that - that tells me whether they understand something about the importance of tapping into the deep silence within in order to access wisdom."


10:42 am, March 04, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home