Caroline and I felt privileged to have Fr. Tom Cullinan to stay with us - for a talk to Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link on Friday evening. Fr. Tom, now 75, lives by himself in great simplicity in the country outside Liverpool: he not only gets about without a car, but (as I said the other day) has neither computer nor telephone. He arrived by bike from Cheltenham Station. "I see it's power-assisted," I said. "When you are as old as me," he replied, "you'll need one the same."
At 7 o'clock, we were in St Gregory's for mass, Fr. Tom being assisted by Deacon Robin and David Andrews. It was a worshipping experience different to what we are accustomed - from the very beginning when Fr. Tom requested us all to move up together into the first few rows before the altar. Shock, horror! But the effect was dramatic: it truly became a celebration by the community together.
I didn't count the numbers present in The Old Priory for Fr. Tom's address, but there must have been 60 of us, seated round him in a half circle. Many Cheltenham church communities were represented: this was only to be expected, since Christian Ecology Link is an ecumenical organization, but people came also from Fairford, Malmesbury, Bristol and even London to hear Fr. Tom.
The Rev. Arthur Champion and I between us have put together the following notes of what was a thought-provoking, sometimes intense, talk, to a rapt audience.
Fr. Tom started by telling us that he was in the process of making his bed one morning when he looked out of his window and noticed a wren. "Why do I think of a wren making her nest as part of nature," he thought to himself, "and me making my bed as not?" The reality of course is that, in today's age of ecological awareness, we are learning that people are as much a part of nature as are the birds; that humans are not invaders from outside planet Earth. And the agenda of our day invites us to contemplate what it is for God to embody himself in our life.
With others, Fr. Tom told how, when visiting a learned professor at Jodrell Bank, he asked innocently: "What is an electro-magnetic wave as it travels through space?" "We don't know," came the answer: "all we can see is the effect on our instruments." In the same way, we can only know God through what he has created.
Our knowledge of God is partial: it points to God beyond ourselves, known to unknown; just as the Temple at Jerusalem had an outer court and an inner, dark holy of holies. "When we stop pointing beyond ourselves, religion can become very dangerous."
Our mindset, Fr. Tom said, has traditionally been that the Earth is a backdrop for the human stage. Only in recent years has there been a breakthrough in that we now recognise the inter-relatedness of everything. We are becoming aware that the human narrative and the narrative of our planet are the same story.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said: "That which I call my body is not part of the universe that I possess totally, but is the totality of the universe that I possess partially." Today we have been given an understanding of what it means to be Earthlings!
Christianity is not about spirituality. It's about embodiment: God's embodiment in our story. How, is a deep mystery: God is most present when least obvious. Christ is part of the evolutionary process.
Why does Paul say in his letters that our full individual realisation must await the Second Coming of Jesus? Perhaps because, if we as persons are part of the story, God cannot fulfil his purpose with us until he has completed that story. No previous generation has been privileged to obtain a glimpse of that as we have.
We are not spirits freed from our bodies, but spiritual beings with bodies. The Holy Spirit is always taking the initiative: we are invited to respond. God is not a spectator, but an activist.
The question of suffering doesn’t have an answer. Job struggled with it and, at the end, all he received was a call to go deeper in trusting God. Jesus underwent crucifixion in all its awfulness, yet God was there. Dame Julian of Norwich, writing in the aftermath of the Black Death, was assured that "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well…" On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples' conversation implied that Jesus' death was a disaster. But God works in our world through crisis, through catastrophe. The wealthy, learned and powerful turned against Jesus: the poor and simple came on board.
We are living at just such a moment of crisis: a time of Peak oil, when the rate of consumption exceeds the rate of discovery of new oil fields. During the next 50 years, the human population is estimated to need more food for consumption than has been produced in the whole of recorded history. It is a time when we are invited to live absurd alternatives. "Until Western culture has gone through economic collapse," a missionary priest once said, "people will not be able to hear the good news again." On the continent of Africa, in contrast to Europe, people are poor enough to recognise God at work.
Being aware of the environmental crisis can somehow make us think we are not part of it. We need to beware our addictions; and beware too a tendency to self-righteousness. Our involvement must start with a transformation of ourselves. With grace, we are enabled; but it in no way replaces our responsibility.
Tom closed by leading us in his new version of the creation story (Genesis, chapter one), said in the form of a litany.