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  • Writer's pictureIan Sutton

The Bishops’ Deckchairs

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

Deckchairs on the Titanic represent the actions of church leaders in a world impacted by climate change.

The deck chairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged, at least for now

In May 2021 the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States crated a minor flap when they voted to withhold Holy Communion from the most powerful person in the world: President Joe Biden. (In the end, they did not follow through with their proposed action — President Biden can still participate in the church’s most important rite.) The reason for the Bishops' threat was to do with abortion. The Roman Catholic church strongly condemns the practice; President Biden permits it to take place. The bishops felt that the situation was important enough to take this unusual and controversial action. The church was roundly condemned for its action for two reasons. The first and most important reason was that communion should not be withheld from anyone, as long as they are willing to say the words such as the following (taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer).

We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed . . . We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

The bishops were also criticized for mixing politics with religion. Their action was perceived by many as expressing support for one political group. Not only does this go against the principle of the separation of church and state, it creates division within the church itself. (It is also likely to be counter-productive.) But there is a third factor to consider. Through their actions the bishops effectively said that abortion is the most important item on the Christian agenda. Other issues do not elicit the same level of disciplinary response, therefore we can assume that they are less central to the church’s beliefs. For example, no Catholic politician faced the same potential consequence for failing to take action on climate change. To the bishops, abortion and birth control are what matter most. There is no question that abortion is a profoundly important concern, and the bishops are right to speak strongly on the topic. But is it the most important topic? It could well be argued that climate change is even more important. After all, if some of the more dire climate chaos predictions come to pass, billions of people could suffer profound hardship, or even lose their lives. On this topic President Biden, who is trying to push climate change legislation through Congress, is on the side of the angels, and is supported by the sentiments expressed in Laudato Sí, written by Pope Francis in the year 2017.

Titanic sinking represents the actions of church leaders in a world impacted by climate change.

The Titanic — before her one and only voyage

The phrase “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has come to mean, “making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail” or “futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe”. (The story of the luxury Titanic ocean liner is familiar. She sank on her maiden voyage in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg . Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.)

The ‘Rearranging the Deckchairs’ phrase can be applied to the manner in which the church is setting many of its priorities. The issue of abortion has just been discussed. But it is not the only one. For example, in recent years church leaders have spent much time and energy debating topics such as same-sex marriage and ethnic/racial diversity. Once more, as with abortion, these are profoundly important matters, but they pale into significance when compared to the potential impacts of climate change. Maybe our theological focus needs to change. If we persist with the old theological debates then we are rearranging the deckchairs on the church's Titanic.

There is much concern in the church to do with the chronic decline in membership and attendance. Maybe it is because young people, in particular, see the church as focusing on yesterday’s issues — not on what matters in today’s world.

Titanic sinking represents the actions of church leaders in a world impacted by climate change.

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