Lessons from COVID
A core theme of this site is it is vital for people of faith to understand the scientific, engineering and project management realities to do with climate change. This understanding is a part of the theme 'Understand and Tell the Truth'. If we promote ideas and solutions that simply will not work then a lot of time and effort will have been wasted, and the church’s credibility will suffer. Two examples at this page illustrate the importance of facing these realities. The first example is Net Zero by 2050, the second is An Episcopal Policy Statement’.
In many nations the COVID-19 pandemic has passed the crisis stage, at least for now (this post was drafted in late June 2021). Society is going about business as usual with just a few limitations still in place, and so is the church. (Many liturgical churches, for example, now conduct normal worship services, but communion is still restricted to a wafer only — there is no common cup of wine.) This is not to say that COVID is behind us for good — the rate at which new variants are developing is an on-going concern, the Olympics in Japan will be spectator-free, and far too many people are refusing to take simple precautions that will protect themselves and their neighbors. In other words, there is always a chance that the disease will return. But, for now, we seem to be past the crisis point.
So how did the church respond, and what was its message during this difficult time?
In many ways the church responded well. Pastors quickly learned how to preach and communicate with modern technology, on-line meetings provided a much-needed sense of community, and the care shown in protecting the vulnerable sent an important message.
However, at a more basic level the church’s response was something of a let-down. In his post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church, Ugo Bardi says,
. . . some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody.
Bardi is, one hopes, exaggerating to make his point. Nevertheless, what he says is mostly true — by and large the church has responded to the crisis in a responsible manner, but so have many secular organizations. The church had nothing special to say and its leaders meekly accepted their subservient status to the secular authorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as being the precursor to something much more serious: the impact of climate change. As global temperatures continue to increase crops will fail, sea levels will rise and millions (possibly billions) of people will be displaced. Is it possible that the church will develop a response to climate change that is special, and that is not just a repeat of what the secular authorities are saying?
In one important respect the pandemic and climate change differ. Almost as soon as the disease started its spread pharmaceutical companies around the world were developing vaccines against the disease. And they were successful. Although the political and social aspects of the distribution of the vaccines were often handled ineptly the technical response was good — science triumphed once again, and religion followed along.
With regard to climate change there is no single technical solution — no vaccination that will allow us to resume our current, energy-profligate lifestyle. The fact that so many options as a replacement for crude oil are being discussed — solar panels, Gen IV nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen storage, to name but a few — shows that there is no single solution, no easy or simple way forward. Science and technology have reached a limit. It is this limit, this inability to “solve” climate change that presents an opportunity for the church to provide leadership.
In many parts of the world the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be winding down. There is, of course, always the chance that new variants or insufficient vaccination could create a new wave. But, for now, it appears as if we are moving into a post-pandemic phase.
Over the course of the last year many church people have anxiously expressed a desire to return to “Normal”. But is that what we really want? At least, do we really want to return to the “Old Normal”. Isn’t this a time to work out what a “New Normal” may look like? After all, the “Old Normal” for many churches consisted of declining congregations, gray hairs, and financial stress. Is that what we want to return to?
The following chart illustrates the difficulty and the challenge. It shows membership for the Episcopal church in the United States, but most other churches are seeing the same type of decline.
The Episcopal priest Dwight Zscheile told the Episcopal News Service.
The overall picture is dire – not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly. At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.
If we are to create a “New Normal” that brings in younger people then the church needs to identify what it is that most concerns them and then “speak to their condition”. Many young people are exhibiting a passion on this topic that is rarely seen inside a church. The best-known spokesperson for their generation is probably Greta Thunberg. She is not just passionate, she is angry.
The anger of Greta Thunberg
Correlation is not causation. But young people know two certainties. The first is that, if we continue on our present climate change trajectory, we are heading toward catastrophe. The second certainty is that the older generations have not taken the situation seriously. It is fascinating to witness the applause that Greta generates when she speaks words such as the following to leaders of the United Nations and other bodies.
You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.
A theme of this site and blog is that the climate change crisis provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Any serious attempt to address the climate crisis will require that people reduce their (material) standard of living. We have to accept that infinite growth on a finite planet cannot happen. We cannot have our planet and eat it too.
This is something that most politicians and secular leaders cannot say. Indeed, any politician that says, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living” soon becomes an ex-politician. But the church can go there — indeed, the concept of sacrifice is integral to Christian theology.
Therefore, if the church is to create a “New Normal” that attracts young people it would make sense to develop a theology that is appropriate for the challenges that climate change presents. Attempting to revive the “Old Normal” is likely to be a futile exercise.
Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant