The St Clara Church

Deeper Green Churches

Deeper Green Churches

This is an abstract of my full article in the Sewanee Theological Review (Fall 2014)

Despite decades of hard work, stacks of data and passionate pleas, the church seems barely moved by the injustices and spiritual disconnects the environmental crisis brings to its altars.  Green team members trot out facts and figures and host documentaries created by those from the scientific and political battle fronts. They organize the use of fair trade coffee and washable dishes in efforts to raise awareness and align behavior. But meanwhile, the sacramental and teaching life of the church remain unchanged and the results appear shallow and disconnected to those looking on.

There is some agreement that good stewardship is wise and that environmental exploitation that adversely impacts the lives of poor people should be challenged by the church’s prophetic voice. But environmental concerns continue to fail to have a deeper and more central place in the church’s life – its sacramental life of worship, holiness, fellowship, salvation and mission.

A Need for a Deeper Green

What can help move the ecological crisis from the fringe committee to the center pew and core life of the church? Wendell Berry offers some direction:

Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy”[1]

Berry’s naming of this destruction as a “blasphemy” points a way forward for moving these issues into the heart and center of the Christian church – the worship of God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The “destruction of nature” to which Berry refers can indeed serve as a call to stewardship and justice, but there is something more.  Calling it blasphemy points to a sacred dimension of wrongness. Blasphemy points beyond material and economic assessments toward spiritual ones.  Blasphemy names more fundamental spiritual disconnects between our souls and God’s coming kingdom. Naming this destruction as a blasphemy extends to the church an invitation to a deeper repentance and a whole hearted participation in God’s unfolding work of reconciling all things to Himself (Romans 8:19-23).[2]

What the church needs are ways of seeing the salvation of all creation as the work of Christ in the world and to include it as the church’s work of being Christ in the world. This means finding ways to connect present ecological concerns to traditional church life and God’s plan of salvation. This invitation needs to become Gospel. In other words, Good News.[3]

A key is put forth in John Gatta’s book, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation, where integrating the theme of transfiguration into the theological and liturgical life of the church would serve to:

Expand the ecological vision beyond the stewardship focus that has thus claimed almost exclusive attention among mainline churches . . . and enable her to respond in more integrally liturgical, contemplative and doxological terms, befitting her authentic charism as the church. For unless the church develops these latter gifts, she risks becoming, in her environmental witness, little more than a technically incompetent adjunct of the Sierra Club.[4]

Many clergy and other church leaders do not recognize the activity of the secular environmental movement as something “befitting the authentic charism [giftedness] of the church.”  To fire the bones of the church, the realm of ecological wellbeing needs to be expanded beyond committee actions, material calculations and life adjustments to include worship, holiness and salvation.  Core Christian doctrines, such as the trinity and redemption, need to be revisited and reclaimed so the church can expand its circle of fellowship to more fully include all creation as fellow recipients of God’s grace.

Deep Green Church Life

The real battle ground in the church, then, is not so much the science, but the bible and tradition; not economics, but faith and faithfulness. What the world needs most from the church is not so much a helping hand on the political battlefronts, but a Word from God. A deeper green invites the church to respond not only to the social issues brought to her doors through current discoveries and crises, but to revisit her role in perpetuating the attitudes, worldviews and habits that support them. A deeper green invites the church to more fully include a celebration of and concern for the whole web of creation in her worship, fellowship and prayer life.

This work truly befits the charism of the church, a work whose end is not to save the planet but to live rightly as the Creator intended and join in the proclamation of the whole gospel of salvation; a gospel which culminates in the reconciliation of the whole creation in Jesus Christ.

In kinship,

The Rev. Jerry Cappel, Ph.D.

Province IV Environmental Network Coordinator



[1] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 98.

[2] For a treatment of this, see David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment (Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2010), 75-80.

[3] Jenkins writes, “A practical Christian ethic. . .should show how the environmental crisis amounts to a crisis in the intimacies of God’s salvation.” Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 17.

[4] John Gatta, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 73.