Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs

Book Release

Priests in a hurryEvery week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. This week it is the second part of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

While working on this blog and on my book A New City of God three events occurred at roughly the same time. They were:

  1. Greta Thurnberg made her speech to the COP24 Conference in Poland. Her words went viral and they have encouraged young people around the world to take action.
  2. The Methodist church in the United States is going through turmoil with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.
  3. I carried out a calculation to do with the membership of the Episcopalian church while writing A New City of God.

Pull these three threads together, and I am reminded of the image at the head of this post, which shows the neatly arranged deckchairs on the doomed Titanic on her fateful journey across the north Atlantic.

The Titanic

Titanic Sinking
Der Untergang der Titanic

The story is familiar. The luxury steamship RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The submerged portion of the iceberg scraped against the hull, tearing a gash along much of her length. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy North Atlantic.

The quotation, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has become a staple of our discourse. It implies futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe. Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic has generated many other aphorisms and oft-repeated quotations such as,

Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable.
Julia Hughes

Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.
Erma Bombeck

. . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight.
Brander 1995

When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident . . . of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.
E.J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic

Captain E.J. Smith — Titanic
Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1907)

The Brander quotation is important. The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives.

Three Events

I started this post by saying that three events had made an impression on me. Let’s take a quick look at each of these events.

The Thurnberg Speech

Greta Thurnberg accusing world leaders of not acting on climate change
Greta Thurnberg (2003 – )

We have already discussed Greta Thurnberg’s clear, honest and courageous speech. It has encouraged thousands of young people to follow her leadership. To state the obvious, these young people (and many of their parents) are interested in staying alive. Consequently they are also highly critical of the actions of the hypocrisy of the generations that have preceded them. Maybe there is a message for the church there.

Climate Change Protest

Methodist Turmoil

united Methodist church

At the time of writing (February 2019) the Methodist Church in the United States was starting a conference at which LGBT and same-sex marriage issues were to be voted on. The result could be a breakup of the church. The USA Today says,

“What the United Methodist church will look like in March will likely be very different than it is today,” said the Rev. Ron Robinson, a chaplain and religion professor at Wofford College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. “This has the most significant potential for major division out of anything in my lifetime.”

Now gender issues are of high importance to many Christians — not only to Methodists, but also those in other denominations. The catch is that such discussions have, as an unstated assumption, that the present physical world will continue more or less in its current form. The passions are strong and deeply felt. But, if Age of Limits issues are going to create wrenching problems, then such discussions do have a flavor of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Episcopalian Membership

While writing my book, I decided to research the status of the Episcopalian Church in the United States. Using 2017 data from the church’s web site I developed the following rather  scary chart.

Episcopal Church Membership
Episcopal Church Membership: 2006-2016

Membership in the church has declined steadily over a period of ten or more years. (Attendance at Sunday services is probably a more important figure than nominal membership. But it shows the same trends. Average parish attendance in the year 2011 was 65; by 2016 it was down to 58.)

While church membership is declining, the nation’s population is growing. The Episcopal church’s membership was 0.28% of the population of the United States in 2005, but had dropped to 0.19% in 2016. So, in the period 2005-2016 church membership fell from 827,000 to 601,000, a 27% drop. But the church’s percentage of the population fell from 0.28% to 0.19%, a 32% drop.

A simple linearization of the line, which has remarkably little scatter, shows that membership is declining by roughly 22,000 per annum. Given that current membership is at around 600,000 we can expect to hit the zero point somewhere around the year 2045. This is not what will actually happen, of course. The line will show an asymptote (hockey-stick effect) near its end; membership will level off at a low level, but it will not hit zero. Or the church may merge with another denomination struggling with a similar data set.

But, if the church is to have any meaning for the population at large, this trend must be reversed. I recognize that religious faith is not just a matter of numbers, but numbers do matter.

Related to the  decline in attendance and membership is the fact that the church’s congregations are getting older — not only are more members needed, it is even more important to attract young people.

Assessment

So we have the following situation:

  • Young people are growing increasingly passionate about climate change issues.
  • The church is spending its time and energy on issues that do not seem to be important to those young people.
  • Church membership and attendance is down. In particular, youth participation is dwindling.

And so the conclusion is . . .

Yet most church communities are not responding to climate change issues with the same level of passion as are young people. (After all, we don’t want to be controversial, do we?) This means that, from the point of view of these young people, church leaders are, by and large, simply rearranging the deck chairs on their sinking Titanic. So, unsurprisingly, they have little interest in joining the church. Who can blame them? No wonder that membership curve is declining so precipitously.

Moreover, even when the church does consider climate change, it tends to treat it as  just one concern among many. Most churches have committees to organize activities such as food banks, spiritual retreats and mission trips. So the tendency is to treat climate change, and other Age of Limits issues, as being just one piece of the overall program. (“We will form a committee to take care of that.”) But climate change (and other Age of Limits issues) are existentially important — they are the Titanic. And, if the Titanic sinks, i.e., if the climate is drastically disrupted, then the other activities will sink with it.

Conclusions

If the church is to engage the trust and the confidence of young people growing up in a world that is changing frighteningly fast then Age of Limits issues need to become central to the mission. They are not just one activity among many — they are core to our beliefs and our actions.

Which means that a theology that fits this new world is needed.

Stay tuned.

The Third Road

Book Release

Priests in a hurryThis week we release the second section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. It is the first half of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

Three Roads

In last week’s post I described the proposed Green New Deal, and discussed how Christians can respond to this initiative. I have reflected further on this important initiative, and it seems to me that three roads open up to us. They are:

  1. The sensible, cautious and realistic road advocated by leaders such as Nancy Pelosi.
  2. The “reach for the stars” road contained with the Green New Deal.
  3. The road of adaptation.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about these three roads so that we can decide which is best for the Christian community. It’s important.

First Road

The first response is to be “sensible and realistic”. The politician who probably best represents this point of view is the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (1940-)

Her approach reflects the philosophy of Otto von Bismarck when he said,

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.

Or, as we engineers like to say,

Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

This approach to political decisions makes sense when considering normal issues such as health care or trade programs. Using this approach, initiatives such as carbon capture or the use of solar energy may be “attainable” in the human/political sense. In such situations we are negotiating with other human beings. But, political attainability is of little value when faced with an existential issues such as climate change. No amount of “small ball” legislation will enable us to reverse our current trajectory. We can negotiate with other human beings, but we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and thermodynamics. They don’t care what we think or what we want.

Second Road

Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945)

The second road is to take radical, bold action. People in this camp, the Green New Deal sponsors, believe that climate change presents a profound challenge that can only be addressed with drastic action. As the second apparition said to the indecisive Macbeth,

Be bloody, bold and resolute.

The analogy is with the New Deal implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s in response to world-wide economic recession. He did not just tinker around the edges, he came up with a bold vision and then used his influence and authority to implement that vision.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (1989-)

The person who has become the human face for this option is newly-elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and her colleagues are the ones who sponsored the ‘Green New Deal’ Resolution.

Leonard Pitts (1957-)
Leonard Pitts (1957-)

In a Miami Herald editorial entitled Requiem for an American Vision, Leonard Pitts says that the resistance to the Green New Deal indicates that “something vital has seeped out of us”. He notes that criticism of the idea, whether it is from the right or the left, “is simply too big an idea”.

His critique resonated with me. Before I came to the United States I had always been attracted by the nation’s “can do” spirit. But now, that spirit seems to have disappeared. We see it not only with the response to the Green New Deal, but also with regard to the California high-speed rail debacle — dubbed the “No consultant left behind program”. Not only do we not reach for the stars when it comes to addressing climate change and its attendant ills, we cannot even build a railway using 50 year old technology.

The Third Road

Three roads used to illustrate the choices that we face in an Age of Limits.
The two roads just described — moderate response or full-on attack — are what most people would consider as being our only options.

But there is a third road. Those who travel on it basically accept that there is little that we can do to change our current trajectory. To re-iterate a theme of this site — we face predicaments, not problems. When faced with a predicament, we accept the situation, adapt as best we can and develop systems that are resilient (as distinct from efficient). This is not to say that we should not support “green” initiatives. But we need to recognize that those initiatives can only slow the pace of change and/or ameliorate the consequences. They are not going to cause the predicaments to go away.

The Christian Response

In these posts I always try to consider three questions. The first is, “What should the Christian response be?” The second is, “What’s the theology of all this?”

I suggest that the first road — that of being sensible and of achieving goals that are politically possible — should be discarded out of hand. Not only will it fail to make a serious dent in our climate change trajectory, it could create a feeling of, “Well, we have taken care of that problem, we have done what we could”. It could create a fatal, air of complacency.

The second road — the Green New Deal — has four things going for it.

  1. In spite of the cautionary statements made at sites such as this, it just might work. Age of Limits issues are inherently complex, we all see through a glass darkly, so this approach may pleasantly surprise us.
  2. By presenting climate issues in such stark terms, this approach does at least raise the topic as being urgent and existential, one that cannot be ignored on the grounds that, “they will think of something”. At the very least, it will force the idea’s opponents to think, at least for a brief second, about the realities of physics, thermodynamics and ecology.
  3. If the climate does deteriorate to such an extent that nothing can be done, then people will, to some degree, have been prepared for what is to come.
  4. The Green New Deal is the one program that might, just might, mobilize the nation (and the world) to take drastic action.

The third road — that of Acceptance — is actually the one that is truly realistic. No matter what actions we take, climate change is taking place, and its consequences are increasingly serious. In spite of its boldness the Green New Deal approach is, unfortunately, too little, too late. So we need to work within out communities on programs of acceptance, response and adaptation.

It is the approach that Augustine and other church fathers followed in the early 5th century. They did not attempt to revitalize the western Roman Empire. They accepted the loss of that empire, and focused their efforts on building a new City of God.

I suggest that we choose a combination of the second and third roads. That we work toward the ambitious goals outlined in programs such as the Green New Deal. At the same time we understand that such a program may fail, so we simultaneously quietly work on adaptation.

Realistically (a word that seems to crop up quite a lot in the context of these discussions) we probably cannot simultaneously work toward two such separate goals. But it might be worth a try.

The Green New Deal

Book Release

John Bunyan (1628-1688)
This week we have released the first section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. It is the Introduction to the book — what we refer to as ‘The Author’s Apology’. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

Please let us have your feedback.

The Green New Deal

Green New Deal Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

In February 2019 Democrats in the United States Congress submitted a Resolution entitled, ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’. One of the Resolution’s sponsors is the newly famous Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This resolution is very unlikely to move forward as an actual bill. But it is clearly an opening shot in what promises to be an on-going debate within governments throughout the world.

So how should the church respond to this important initiative?

Well, probably the first thing that we should do is to sit down and actually read the document, rather than listening only to  opinions about it (including mine). The Resolution is available at various web sites such as this one. It is just 14 pages long, and is perfectly readable.

The Resolution

Here are a few of the notes that I took as I read through the Resolution.

  • Page 1.
    Refers to the “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”. The Resolution is grounded in established science. It identifies human activity as being the dominant cause of climate change.
  • Page 2
    • Identifies many of the serious impacts of global warming.
    • Calls for global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 60% by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050.
  • Page 3
    Discusses many issues not directly to do with global warming. These include declining life expectancy, economic inequality and repairing the nation’s infrastructure.
  • Page 4
    References the World War II New Deal.
  • Pages 5-6
    The resolution has five elements. Only the first refers to global warming directly.
  • Pages 7-9
    These pages discuss some of the proposed actions to be taken. They include the use of clean, renewable, zero-emission energy sources, and radical changes to farming and transportation.

Analysis

The Resolution covers an extraordinary swath of issues. Yet it provides essentially no detail as to how these changes are to be made, how they are to be funded or how such massive projects can be implemented in such a short time frame.

Lack of Focus

One of the failures of many environmental movements is that they lack focus — they want to solve the problems of the world, rather than fixing one specific issue. This is a problem with this Resolution. Rather than focusing on just one issue — such as reducing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to say 350 ppm — it covers such a broad range of issues that it loses credibility.

The authors of the document probably added the material to do with extraneous issues such as health care and job security to get away from the “gloom and doom” image that climate change discussions often generate. And maybe they had to do this because they are working in a political environment. But, by promising so much, and by plunging into issues such as health care and income inequality that have their own controversies, they have taken their eye off the ball.

Zero Emissions

The concept of zero emissions does not make thermodynamic sense. This is a topic I discuss at some length in Chapter 5 of my book. Take a very simple example. The picture below shows an electrically-powered vehicle (EV). It has no tail-pipe, and so there are zero emissions. What’s not to like?

Electric Vehicle (EV) – no emissions
Zero Emissions?

The catch is that the vehicle does have a tail-pipe — it is the stack of the power plant that generates the electricity that the vehicle needs.

Power plant stack
The EV’s tailpipe

A careful analysis of all aspects of EV technology — including the environmental impact to do with the manufacture and disposal of their batteries — suggests that they are not nearly as “green” as people think. They are certainly not ‘zero emissions’.

Energy Needed for Infrastructure

A radical transformation of the infrastructure, such as is proposed in this Resolution, would require the use of enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy (assuming that such large amounts of fossil fuels are actually available). The transition itself would contribute greatly to global warming.

Project Management

California High Speed Rail

The type of transformation that the authors of the Resolution propose, particularly in such a short time frame, is not realistic. To take one example, on page 9 the Resolution contains the words “high-speed rail”.

In the United States, the biggest high-speed rail project is the one being implemented in California. The project is, as they say, “troubled”. It has been more than twenty years in development, is way behind schedule, over budget by something like $50 billion, and is environmentally disruptive. And not one passenger has yet been taken from Point A to Point B. And that’s just one project that uses well-established technology.

The Resolution refers to the original New Deal, implemented at the start of the Second World War. In a remarkably short time span the United States was able to complete projects such as the building of thousands of Liberty ships, and completing the Manhattan nuclear weapon project. The catch is that, in those days, they did not face the resistance, regulations and the need for “studies” that applies now.

What’s Not There

Our Friend the Atom

The Resolution does not discuss some of the technical responses that many people feel are important. Examples are nuclear power and carbon-capture. (On page 9 there is a reference to low-tech carbon capture, i.e., trees. Once more, the technical reality of such a solution is not considered. There is not enough available land in the United States for the number of trees needed to capture industrial emissions. Moreover, that land is needed for the other low-density energy solutions such as solar panels and windmills.)

Hopium

Maybe the biggest difficulty that I have with this Resolution is that there no acknowledgment that economic and social conditions are likely to deteriorate. Indeed, with its talk of “green jobs” it not only promises that Business as Usual can continue, but that life will get better. This is not hope, it is hopium.

We all recognize that this document is sponsored by professional politicians. And any politician who says, “Vote for me and I will make your life worse” will soon be an ex-politician. But Christians are required to tell the truth. Indeed, one of the themes of this site and of my book is that we are in a time when we really must tell the truth — no matter how difficult that may be. The time for hoping for the best, or for assuming that “they will think of something” is long behind us.

The Christian Response

I try to end each of these posts with some thoughts as to how the church can and should respond, and what lessons we can learn when it comes to developing a new theology. So how is the church to respond to this ambitious, yet technically flawed, document?

One response is to fully support the people who are driving this document forward. Here we have young, energetic people who are at least facing up to the dilemmas that face us. And they do hold a modicum of power. For that reason they deserve our full support. We recognize that their proposal is not realistic. But that’s not the point; this Resolution is a starting point, a stake in the ground. So let’s gather around and support it. The sponsors of this Resolution are to be congratulated on at least getting the ball into play. Moreover, the authors of the document are linking environmental programs with issues of social justice.

A second response is to say that that the Resolution is so far detached from the realities of thermodynamics, physics, ecology and even project management that we should not be associated with it, otherwise our credibility will be lost. At a time of crisis — the decline of the western Roman Empire — Augustine of Hippo was insistent that Christians tell the truth about what was going on. This was the only way, he maintained, that the church could establish auctoritas, the authority it needed to guide society through coming difficult times. This approach requires that proposals such as this must at least pass the red-face test.

St. Wilfred Church, Calverley, Yorkshire

Is there a middle ground? Could the church would work on two fronts? The first front would be to recognize that — materially speaking — the future looks grim. So we work with people at the local level to make our societies as resilient and adaptive as possible. This is the parish concept introduced in the home page of this blog.

The second front would consist of working with  society leaders such as those who sponsored this Resolution on developing a message that lines up with the realities that we face. We show support for what they are doing, but we try to make sure that the message is credible. For example, we would take a honest look at the use of our available land. Do we want to use it from carbon-capturing trees, or for solar panels or for windmills? Pick one.

Doubtless this Resolution is the first of many that will be developed as politicians recognize that we are in for some wrenching changes. It is both an opportunity, and a challenge, for the church to help guide the development and implementation of such resolutions.