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The Pope’s Encyclical in Dialogue with Anglican Theology



John L. Kater

On May 24, 2015, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis I, issued an encyclical entitled Laudato Sì.  It was not his first encyclical, but of all his publications, dating from both before and after his election as pope, it has attracted by far the most attention beyond the orbit of the Roman Catholic Church.

Its impact on Christians beyond Francis’ own church is not surprising.  Perhaps part of its appeal lies in the fact that, in spite of his Jesuit training and background, the Pope opted in his encyclical for a perspective more clearly identified with St. Francis of Assisi – a perspective anticipated by his choice of a name at the time of his election to the papacy.  Francis of Assisi may well be among the most popular of Roman Catholic saints in the wider ecumenical context (even if that perspective is often romanticized and trivialized in popular culture).

But part of the encyclical’s appeal may also lie in the remarkable ecumenical appeal of its author.  At a time when institutions in general are widely criticized as dysfunctional at best and oppressive at worst, Pope Francis has demonstrated an affect shaped far more by his own personality and character than by the institution he heads.  At a historical moment when the trappings of power are widely scorned, Francis has opted for a notable simplicity of life.  In a time when the heavy-handed use of power is resisted, Francis has lectured bishops and even cardinals and challenged them to a style of life and ministry marked by humility rather than pretension.  The populist appeal of such a pope is perhaps inevitable, particularly when the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church have been tried by corruption and scandal.

The Jesuit and Franciscan impulses of Francis’ ministry are mediated through his own personal experience as an Argentinean of Italian heritage whose rise through the ranks of the church occurred against the backdrop of the regime of Juan Peron and the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.  Nor was his own career untouched by the strong currents that shook the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, notably the Theology of Liberation that emerged as a product of the profound theological reflection following the Second Vatican Council.  The church Francis served was divided between those who saw it as a bastion of social order and those who argued for a “church of the poor.”  And while the realities of poverty and dictatorship assumed primary importance for much of Francis’ adult life, sexual morality as it applies to gay and lesbian people, the appropriate role of women in the church, and the worldwide scandal of child sexual abuse also demanded his attention.  Furthermore, Francis served a church which experienced a steady erosion of its influence as Argentine society became increasingly secularized.

Each of those aspects of Francis’ own history and context is evident in the text of Laudato Sì.  But the focus of the encyclical is not drawn directly from any of them, but rather the care of the earth, “our common home,” described by St. Francis as “a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us,” but who now “cries out to us because of what we have inflicted on her.” (1, 2)[1] The encyclical thus places the authority of the papacy on the side of those scientists, politicians, social scientists, politicians – and theologians – who warn of potential catastrophe from human mistreatment of the natural world.  In joining his voice to such a diverse chorus, the Pope challenges his hearers to consider the crisis from a particular perspective shaped by Roman Catholic theology and especially that of St. Francis of Assisi, but relevant, he claims, “to all people of good will.” (62) Francis commends his perspective to an audience wider than the Roman Catholic Church and broader than the Christian community.  His purpose in doing so is to argue that the perspective he proclaims adds a particular dimension – a transcendent dimension grounded in the reality of God – to the conversation, as well as to provide a spiritual/theological underpinning to efforts to heal the broken creation.  In his Introduction, Francis invites those with other perspectives to enter into a creative dialogue with him.  This paper will attempt to respond to that invitation from the point of view of Anglican faith and practice, seeking common ground, and indicating where a perspective shaped by Anglican sensibilities might strengthen, challenge, and complement his assumptions.


Francis’ perspective is enlightened primarily by scripture and the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is Francis of Assisi on whom the Pope calls as his primary advocate of “an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” (10)   Alongside scripture the creation must be understood as another source of revelation about the nature of things, and like all revelation of God’s being should evoke a response of “gladness and praise.” (12)

The body of Laudato Sì begins with a chapter describing the affronts to creation for which humankind is responsible:  pollution linked to a ‘throwaway culture’, climate change, the depletion of water and other natural resources, and the loss of biodiversity.  But to the catalogue of self-evident degradation of nature, Francis adds a generalized decline in the quality of human life, social fragmentation, and a global experience of inequality.  He recognizes that the Church has no unique expertise for concrete solutions to the crisis, but shares the realization that “our common home is falling into disrepair.” (61) The balance of the encyclical will offer his analysis of why this has happened, as well as offering insights into how the work of restoring the creation to health can be undertaken.  Christian theology does not stand apart from the knowledge gained from the natural sciences; all knowledge is from God, whatever its source.


Many readers might be surprised that the second chapter of Laudato Sì moves directly to an affirmation of a theological perspective on the creation, which the Pope entitles “The Gospel of Creation.”  Francis insists that “the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their internal life and spirituality” (emphasis mine) have a role to play in analyzing and responding to the ecological crisis.  “If we are concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.” (63) Quoting John Paul II, he insists that “responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of [Christians’] faith.” (64)

Francis’ doctrine of creation is rooted solidly in the Hebrew scriptures; he cites the early chapters of Genesis to assert that human dignity is based on the goodness of God’s creation and the biblical teaching “that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness.” (65)  And, he goes on, “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” Sadly, all three relationships have been ruptured by sin. (66)

It would appear that for Francis the world of nature in a sense transcends humankind:  “[T]he earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”  He rejects the notion that human beings have been given “absolute domination” over the earth; rather, they are charged with “caring, protecting, overseeing, and preserving,” which in turn implies “a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (67) The body of biblical laws overseeing human behavior includes our relationship with all other living creatures. It is human sin that leads to the breaking of that relationship.

Within the network of relationships that binds the creation together, Francis postulates a uniqueness to human beings which the theory of evolution does not negate:  “Each of us is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself [sic].  Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet disclosed capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.” Francis believes that the novelty of a “personal being within a material universe” points to “a direct action of God” and precludes taking any person as an object (emphasis mine). (81)                The earth is a “shared inheritance,” the “patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone.” The inevitable consequence, he affirms, is that “every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and underprivileged.”    (93, 95)


Where are we to look for the origins of the ecological crisis?  Francis invites us to discover the root of the ecological crisis in a flawed understanding of human being, focused in what he calls the “dominant technological paradigm.” (101).  People once strived to “receiv[e] what nature allowed,” but contemporary technological advances are shaped by “the idea of infinite or unlimited growth…so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.” This attitude, he observes, “rests on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earthly goods” and results in the degradation of the planet. But that degradation is only one sign of a reductionism that ignores the fact that what seems natural and inevitable is in fact the result of choices about “the kind of society we want to build.” (106, 107)

Francis has no interest in eliminating the obvious benefits of technology; he is arguing for a new paradigm that will “limit and direct technology” towards progress which is “healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”  (112)  He believes that the current technological paradigm has drawn from and encouraged an anthropocentrism which posits humankind over and against nature, an attitude which inevitably devalues both nature and human life.

Francis relates the technological paradigm to a prevalent relativism which makes the individual’s own interests the center of each person’s universe, objectifying others and fueling an appetite for consumption.  He expresses serious concern over economic policies which encroach on the right of every human being to meaningful work and commends efforts to support “small producers and differentiated production” over against “economies of scale,” particularly in the agricultural sector, where small farming has been devastated in many parts of the world and contributed to rapid and unplanned urbanization with the problems that accompany it. (128) “A technology severed from ethics,” he observes, “will not easily be able to limit its own power.” (136)


In place of the destructive paradigm he blames for the degradation of the planet. Francis proposes what he calls “integral ecology,” which begins from the recognition that “everything is connected.” (138)  The environment, he affirms, should be understood as “a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it.”  Hence a solution requires “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (139)  Both economic and social policies directly affect the environment; so does culture, especially when influenced by the juggernaut of consumerism. Nowhere are its effects more visible that in the global process of urbanization, marked by poverty, instability, and violence. Inadequate housing and transport, overcrowding, insecurity and lack of services are not, in Francis’ view, simply unavoidable side effects of an inevitable process; they are the compounded fruits of multiple choices that violate human dignity.

Underlying Francis’ vision of human ecology is the traditional Christian concept of the “common good,” based on an appropriate relationship between the individual and society, so that society does not favor some over others but provides opportunity for all to achieve their God-given potential.  Inherent in the common good is a set of individual and social rights that protect each human being and the groups that define them, above all the family.  Given the facts of life under which many human beings struggle for survival, “the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (158) – a remarkable papal endorsement of one of the foundational principles of the Theology of Liberation. The same principle of the common good also calls for attention to the rights of generations yet to come, whose future is compromised by the extravagance of an individualistic attachment to consumption.


Francis concludes his encyclical with a chapter entitled “Ecological Education and Spirituality.”  He insists that the seriousness of the crisis demands attention to how the human inhabitants of the planet are trained to see and to act as the stewards of the earth which is their calling, particularly since so many people not only fail to recognize the gravity of the situation but also assume that there are no alternatives.  The “techno-economic paradigm” which he blames for the “needless buying and spending” so common in modern cultures claims to affirm human freedom, but Francis complains that the nature of freedom is limited and distorted; for many, it is only the “freedom to consume,” while real freedom is in the hands of “those who wield economic and financial power.” (203) Consumerism is intimately related to a “collective selfishness” which is itself the product of the instability and uncertainty which are endemic to contemporary life. (204)

Countering this faulty paradigm requires more than simply getting our theology right; it calls for what the Pope calls a “new lifestyle” to challenge the “utilitarian mindset” at the root of the planetary crisis. (81)  This lifestyle rests on an alternative spirituality which sees things as they really are and is sufficiently open to the transcendent dimension of reality to lead people to go beyond themselves.  Francis is pessimistic about the power of laws to effect change without a thorough-going conversion through an encounter with Christ that alters our relationship with the world around us – a conversion, he suggests, not unlike that of Francis of Assisi.

But beyond individual conversion to a spirituality of relationship and stewardship, society itself needs to be converted and transformed, to reflect God’s presence in the world and the order which is God’s will and purpose for the natural world.  It is a spirituality that leads both people and institutions to tread lightly on the earth through a “responsible simplicity of life,” to understand that “less is more,” and to celebrate the peace that comes from living together.  (222)  For Francis, it is the family that serves best as the primary school for living in community, supported by the Church’s witness to the world as God’s and its concern for the poor as well as for the environment.

This is an essentially sacramental vision of the universe, and Francis looks to the witness of Eastern Christianity to emphasize that in the sacramental life of the Church, creation itself is taken up into God in the water, bread and wine of baptism and Eucharist and becomes the means of “mediating supernatural life.”  (235)  In what is perhaps the most eloquent passage in the entire encyclical, he writes:

Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures [sic].  The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter.  He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours.  In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and inexhaustible life.  Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God.  Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love…The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation.  The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to [God] in blessed and undivided adoration…Thus the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.” (236)

At the end of his encyclical, this remarkable exposition of a sacramental approach to the environment takes Francis back to theology, for the relationship between creatures in fact mirrors the relationship between the persons of the Trinity, and is indeed “created according to the divine model.”  Hence, “the human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationship, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures…Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which follows from the mystery of the Trinity.” (240)

For Francis, this spirituality is also reflected in the figure of Mary, whose maternal affection for Jesus he now sees as grieving “for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power.”  Taking the doctrine of the Assumption as his starting point, he sees her “glorified body, together with the Risen Christ,” now achieving “the fullness of its beauty.”  Indeed, she now “understands the meaning of all things” and can therefore profitably be asked for the wisdom we need to perceive the reality of creation from a heavenly perspective.  (241)

His vision of the glorified Mother of Jesus and the World offers Francis confidence that “at the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God”…and perceive “with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude….Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give to those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” (243)  But that vision lies in the unknown future.  Meanwhile, “we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.  In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God…” (244)

The prayer with which Francis ends his encyclical is a fitting conclusion to this remarkable document:

God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight. Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live.  The poor and the earth are crying out. O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty.

To which the only appropriate response is surely “Amen!”


In the Introduction to Laudato Sì, Francis expressed his hope and intention “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” (3)  That assertion is an invitation to seek and identify common ground, and also those elements of his thought which other religious traditions, including the Anglican Way, might amplify, question or critique.

The Anglican theological tradition shares much with the theological basis of Francis’ thought in Laudato Sì.  Perhaps this is due in part to the long shadow of Thomas Aquinas; certainly much of the underlying structure of Francis’ assertions about the creation, while mediated and moderated through a Franciscan perspective, owe much to the Thomist theology which underlies the Roman Catholic magisterium.  Far more than any other tradition of the Reformation, classical Anglican theology (following Richard Hooker) approached the doing of theology in categories inherited from Aquinas.

In a lecture delivered more than a decade ago, former Archbishop Rowan Williams summarized Hooker’s theology of creation in this way:

Hooker suggests that the most primitive sense of law, theologically speaking, is God’s acceptance of the logic of a limited creation. In creating, God chooses to make a world of limits – that’s what creation is; his [sic] purpose being to secure the greatest possible variety of imitations of his own being, a complex of realities each (in the language of classical patristic theology) ‘participating’, sharing, in his own being in a unique way…. The ‘laws’ of nature tell us how all material beings exist together. The laws of society propose how beings with free choice can exist together. The law that regulates the Church tells us how human beings may live in the society of God and the angels.

Like Pope Francis, Hooker understands the creation to reflect the being of God; but Hooker also sees the very existence of multiple created beings, each reflecting something of God, as implying that God also intends for them to live in harmony with each other.

Furthermore, Hooker is affirming not only that authentic human life recognizes our place before God and in the midst of creation, but also that part of the responsibility of being human entails the obligation to discern how to live together on the planet with a lifestyle that cares for creation rather than violating it.  Hooker’s theology was a strongly public theology, believing as he did that the proper practice of Christian faith affected not only the life of the individual but of society as a whole.[2]

At least since the nineteenth century, a strong strain of Anglican theology has argued for the Church’s deep engagement with social issues, grounded (as in Pope Francis’ writing) not only in the doctrine of creation but in the belief that in Christ, God has definitively entered the natural world and (in John’s memorable phrase) “come to dwell among us.” (John 1:14)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Denison Maurice and a small group of like-minded clergy and laypeople became outspoken critics of the increasing social costs of the rapid process of industrialization and urbanization which was re-making English society.  While their distress was shared by many, what distinguished Maurice and his colleagues was their theological analysis of the social ills which troubled their conscience.  They adopted the term ‘Christian Socialism’ because the solutions they proposed to the problems associated with the Industrial Revolution were ultimately theological.   Like Francis’s analysis of the ‘dominant technological paradigm’ over a century and a half later, Maurice understood that the economic system on which England’s ‘progress’ was based itself rested on the twin impulses of greed and competition and a belief that freedom implied the option of accumulating wealth without any moral restraints.  Because its roots fundamentally violated God’s order, the world of nineteenth century finance inevitably led to social and spiritual misery.  Economics, Maurice believed, must be shaped by the principles laid down by God for human inter-action, which embraced cooperation rather than individualism; hence the need for careful reading of Scripture to determine the Christian principles on which society is to be based.

As Jeremy Morris notes,

Maurice’s overwhelming conviction was that the ground of religious truth lay in the doctrine of creation….Therefore what is certain above all else is our createdness…As the Christian God is a God of love, humanity’s creation is marked by a deep longing for union with God….

The divinely-implanted desire for union with God also implied a desire for communion with our fellow human beings.  Separation, isolation, extreme individualism and selfishness were social sins.  Human society for Maurice rested on God’s will, and the fulfillment of that will would mean the creation on earth of a just and peaceable society.[3]

Maurice’s critique of consumerism takes its beginning from Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: “Woe unto you that are rich; for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full; for ye shall hunger”).  Maurice warns that

it is greatly for the interest of all of us who are leading easy and comfortable lives in the world that [this language] should not be evaded.  If any amount of riches, greater or smaller, does give us consolation, it is well for us to understand that there is a woe upon those riches….And thus all alike are taught that they are under this fatherly government…All may be brought to take their places with their brethren (sic) in this kingdom.  All may be taught that the common blessings – the blessings from which one cannot exclude another — All may be brought to know that this one fact, that they have a Father in heaven, is worth all others.[4]

Charles Kingsley, contemporary of Maurice, shared his concern over the consequences of the laissez-faire capitalism that provided the rationale for England’s rapid industrialization.  Unlike Maurice, he was very much interested in the scientific discoveries that accompanied it. Kingsley supported Charles Darwin’s explanation of evolution as the process by which life developed, and strongly criticized the popular piety of his day for its failure to appreciate the natural world as God’s gift. The fallen– indeed cursed – dimension of the creation is not God’s doing, he insisted; rather, it is the fault of humankind:

Man’s [sic] work is too often the curse of the very planet which he misuses. None should know that better than the botanist, who sees whole regions desolate, and given up to sterility and literal thorns and thistles, on account of man’s sin and folly, ignorance and greedy waste.” Kingsley calls for a theology which is both scientific and biblical:

If it is to be scientific, it must begin by approaching Nature at once with a cheerful and reverent spirit, as a noble, healthy, and trustworthy thing: and what is that, save the spirit of those who wrote the 104th, 147th, and 148th Psalms–the spirit, too, of him who wrote that Song of the Three Children, which is, as it were, the flower and crown of the Old Testament, the summing up of all that is most true and eternal in the old Jewish faith; and which, as long as it is sung in our churches, is the charter and title-deed of all Christian students of those works of the Lord, which it calls on to bless Him, praise Him, and magnify Him for ever?[5]

Nearly a century later, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944, addressed the role of the Church in the issues of his own day. His book Christianity and Social Order is Temple’s effort to re-assert what he considers a fundamental aspect of the Church’s life, which is its right and duty to address issues of politics and economics.  Temple understood that the problems affecting society are complex and multi-dimensional, and that the Church has no special insight into their solution; nevertheless, he insisted that the Church “is entitled to say that some economic gains ought not to be sought because of the injuries involved to interests higher than the economic….”[6]

The Church’s attitude towards economic justice, in Temple’s view, is based on the “fundamental Biblical principle” that “the earth – land – belongs to God; men (sic) enjoy the use of it,” but that use must be regulated not only so that each family would be provided for but “to ensure that all members of the community shared in the enjoyment of some portion.”[7]  Furthermore, he argued, “worship is the offer of our whole being and life – therefore  very prominently our work – to God;” but “in modern industry…the work required of [labour] is so monotonous and engages so few human faculties that it is hard for a [person] to find in it any real vocation.”[8]  Temple argued for a political, economic and educational system that recognizes the personhood of every human being, and offers to each the opportunity of meaningful work which will contribute to the common good.  These brief references affirm the congruity between Temple’s approach and the Pope’s arguments for an economic system that honors the human community and encourages a sense of human solidarity based on the recognition of our common humanity.

While the seeds of a vision that relates the inter-connectedness of humankind to a broader vision of the human within the natural world can be discerned in the Anglican emphasis on the doctrine of creation and incarnation, it is only in the latter part of the twentieth century that Anglicans have addressed this perspective directly.   In June of 2005 the Sub-Committee on Creation of the Episcopal Church’s Committee on Science, Technology and Faith published a study document entitled “A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Understanding.”  The document affirms a biblically-based doctrine of creation centered on its relation to God as creator but also emphasizes humankind’s “obligation to care for God’s creation.”

What specifically does the Bible say about this obligation?

Genesis 1:26-28 states that human beings are created in God’s “image and likeness” and

given dominion over all other creatures. “Dominion” does not mean “domination,” but

refers to the need for humans to exercise responsibility for the earth as God’s

representatives. In Genesis 2, the human beings are given the garden to tend and serve,

symbolizing our obligation to care for creation…. As “the earth is the Lord’s and

everything in it” (Ps. 24:1), we human beings are called upon to tend, serve, and protect the earth as a sacred trust for which we shall one day give an accounting.[9]

In language reminiscent of Laudato Sì, the “Catechism” challenges everyone to care for “other creatures and their habitats,” caring for the land, air, and water, “protecting the creatures that form its ecological communities…. [and] places of beauty that have value in themselves, feed our spirits, and support life for other species.” [10]

In 1985, the Standing Commissions on Metropolitan Affairs and World Mission of the Episcopal Church produced a “Common Statement” in which they asserted that

[e]nvironmental, resource and population stresses are intensifying and will increasingly determine the quality of human life on our planet.  These stresses are already serious enough to deny many millions of people basic needs of food, shelter, health and jobs, or any hope of betterment.  At the same time the earth’s carrying capacity – the ability of biological systems to provide resources for human needs – is eroding….

There can be neither peace nor justice as long as there are drastic differences in access to food, water and energy among the people of the earth.  At the Eucharist we pray that our Lord will give us ‘a reverence for the earth as God’s own creation,’ and that ‘we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to God’s honor and glory’.  The care of ‘this fragile earth, our island home’ (from Eucharistic Prayer C) is part of the call to the Church.[11]

Recent theological reflection across the spectrum of Anglican scholarship has under-scored these observations.  The English physicist and priest John Polkinghorne notes that contemporary physics endorses a “holistic and relational” perspective that demands that “humanity [be] considered in relation to the rest of creation.”[12] New Testament scholar and bishop Frederick Borsch wrote,

We are all part of the world we are trying to understand.  Our world of experience is not something without us that we can dispassionately examine.  It is a world we are within and that is within us.  In and with this world we must interact.[13]


Contemporary Anglican perspectives can complement the Pope’s reflections most fruitfully in areas where concrete undertakings bring together theological insights and practical action.

One such area is in the development of liturgical communities inspired by a theology of creation.  Liturgical reforms of the last generation across the Anglican Communion have emphasized concern for the environment as God’s gift.  The widely acclaimed Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Aoteoroa New Zealand and Polynesia includes liturgical recognition of the responsibility to care for creation:

We pray:

for those who make decisions about the resources of the earth, that we may use your gifts responsibly;

for those who work on the land and the sea, in city and in industry, that all may enjoy the fruits of their labour and marvel at your creation…[14]

Even clearer examples of relatively new liturgical material addressing the ecological crisis in both theological and practical terms can be found in the Eucharistic liturgies of the Episcopal Church’s publication Enriching Our Worship, which include affirmation of the creation as God’s gift, acceptance of the human responsibility to care for it, and acknowledgement of human failure.

From before time you made ready the creation.  Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing.[15]

You gave the world into our care that we might be your faithful stewards and show forth your bountiful grace.  But we failed to honor your image in one another and in ourselves; we would not see your goodness in the world around us, and so we violated your creation…[16]

These liturgical evocations of the wholeness of the created order and the place of the human race within it demonstrate a deep congruence between Francis’ call for a spirituality reflective of the hymn of St. Francis and the eucharistic piety expressed in these Anglican liturgies.

In the twenty-first century, a broad movement known in Britain as “Fresh Expressions” and in the United States as “Emerging Church” has concretized the insights of liturgical reform in the formation of large numbers of new Christian communities with roots in denominational and monastic traditions but emphasizing the importance of commitment to living out Christian faith in intentional communities.  Often related to but moving beyond organized congregations and other church institutions, these new expressions utilize contemporary technology and often draw participants from those with little or no formal spiritual background.  They are often acutely aware of threats to human community and the natural environment, and both explore and witness to the need for changed human behavior and attitudes towards the environmental crisis based on a creation-centered spirituality.  Analysts of new monastic movements identify their attractiveness in their offer of

simplicity in a context of complexity.  Our lives are multi-stranded, all of our actions solicit reactions, and almost all our decisions involve a compromise of some sort.  New monastic communities articulate a desire to live more simply, to cause less damage to the individuals involved and to the wider world…

That monasticism encourages a love for the earth and its creatures is a further reason for its attractiveness…The online community Earth Abbey describe itself as ‘a movement of people helping one another to live more in tune with the earth’ and of pursuing a ‘life-affirming, creative spirituality’.  The monastic terminology used by Earth Abbey is no accident…[17]

Perhaps the flexibility demonstrated in the new liturgical communities springing up around the Anglican Communion and beyond points to an ecclesial style which could enrich and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions from which Pope Francis is constrained to proceed.  May Hunt, a lay Roman Catholic feminist theologian, wrote,

Three substantive issues in Catholic life – marriage equality, feminist ministry, and reproductive justice – reveal why I am ambivalent at best about the papacy of Francis contributing to a postcolonial church…In marriage, ordination, and abortion, the kyriarchal model of authority and decision-making results in the continued oppression of large groups of people.[18]

Ultimately the question she raises is a difficult, complex – and important – one:  How effective can an institution as hierarchical and authoritarian in its structures as the Roman Catholic Church be as a catalyst for the change of consciousness called for by the ecological crisis?  And does the principle of subsidiarity or diffused authority and the full inclusion of laypeople in the its decision-making mean that the Anglican Way has an important contribution to make in shaping the concrete practice without which even the Pope’s encyclical remains at the level of theory?

We might also ask if the historic Anglican reticence about making theological assumptions into unchangeable dogma also make it easier to move towards the concrete changes called for by Laudato Sì.  Perhaps the implications of the question are best seen in the light of the issue of artificial contraception, itself an issue related to environmental issues.

Like the Roman Catholic magisterium, as recently as 1930 Anglican teaching was highly dubious about the practice; in 1930, the bishops of the Anglican Communion warned that

[w]here there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles…. While the Conference admits that economic conditions are a serious factor in the situation, it condemns the propaganda which treats conception control as a way of meeting those unsatisfactory social and economic conditions which ought to be changed by the influence of Christian public opinion.[19]

However, as the impact of the population explosion of the mid-twentieth century became clear and its impact on the planet’s resource ever more obvious, the bishops of the Anglican Communion were able to underline the importance of slowing the growth of the population in terms that might have well shocked their predecessors:

The Conference believes that the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children has been laid by God upon the consciences of parents everywhere; that this planning, in such ways as are mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience, is a right and important factor in Christian family life and should be the result of positive choice before God. Such responsible parenthood, built on obedience to all the duties of marriage, requires a wise stewardship of the resources and abilities of the family as well as a thoughtful consideration of the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations. (emphasis mine)[20]

It is precisely this flexibility in the face of changed awareness and circumstances that is required if the encyclical is to have a lasting impact.  The insights of creation theology in an Anglican key might well prove to be an important resource in its interpretation and implementation.


The papal encyclical dedicates its fifth chapter to “Lines of Approach and Action.”  Perhaps because he recognized the difficulty of prescribing appropriate responses for a complex crisis in which the Church has expertise about ends but not means and because he rightly argued that approaches and solutions are radically dependent on context, he limits himself to identifying five dialogues which are important for responding to the planetary crisis.  He urges dialogue in the international community.  He emphasizes the need for new policies at both the national and the local level which will seek out long-term solutions to endemic problems.  He stresses the importance of transparency in decision-making.  He raises the issues of the relationship between politics and the economy.  And he encourages the world’s religions to engage in dialogue with science.

But such conversations remain at the level of theory until they issue in practice.  That is the point at which the expertise of countless persons with expertise in a wide range of fields become critical.  And it is at this point that observations and examples emerge from the realm of ideas into the crucible of human life.

Perhaps once again the reflections of William Temple can be useful in pointing the way towards the necessary dialogue through which theology actually plays a role in the healing of creation.  Temple insisted that while the Church has the right and the obligation to articulate the fundamental principles of Christian faith and their implications for how society is shaped, it has no special expertise with regard to the practical measures that must be undertaken in order to fulfill those theological demands.  Indeed, he realized that when the Church moves from asserting principles to dictating practical methods, its proper role is “compromised by injudicious exercise, especially when the ‘autonomy of technique’ in the various departments of life is ignored.”  This distinction means that “it may declare the proper relation of the economic to other activities of men (sic), but it cannot claim to know what will be the purely economic effect of such proposals;” nevertheless, Temple affirms, “economics are properly subject to a non-economic criterion.”[21]

Furthermore, in Temple’s view, “nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.”[22]  It is those Christians whose perspective is informed by the theological principles of their faith who make concrete the hopes, aspirations and judgments which that faith commends.  Nor is that work restricted to those whose values are overtly Christian; the expertise required in order to make creation whole again also rests with people who may not be Christian at all, but who are, in Pope Francis’ words, people of “good will.”

Writing from within the violence and chaos of the Second World War, Temple understood that the practical effects of the incarnation for his and every time would be born from the fruitful dialogue and work of people whose God-given knowledge and skill were dedicated to purposes that reflected the values of God’s reign.  Surely Pope Francis would applaud that insight as he now urges on a similar conversation and commitment for the healing of the planet.

[1]Numbers within parentheses refer to the paragraphs of the English text of Laudato Sì.  The text from which they are taken is  Encyclical Letter Laudato Sì of the Holy Father Francis on Care of Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015).

[2] Rowan Williams, “The Richard Hooker Lecture – Richard Hooker (c1554-1600): The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Revisited,” 25 October 2005.  Accessed on 19 April 2017.

[3] Jeremy Morris, ed., To Build Christ’s Kingdom: F. D. Maurice and His Writings (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2007), 13-14.

[4]  F. D. Maurice, The Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven: A Course of Lectures on the Gospel of St. Luke (London: Macmillan, 1893), 113.

[5] Charles Kingsley, “The Natural Theology of the Future,” Read at Sion College, January 10th, 1871.  Accessed on 10 February 2017.

[6]  William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (London: SCM Press, 1942, 1950), 11, 13.

[7]  Temple, 34.

[8]  Temple, 96.

[9]  Committee on Science, Technology and Faith, “A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Understanding”  (2005), 3.  (, 16.  Accessed on August 26, 2016.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Quoted in Anne Rowthorn, The Liberation of the Laity (Wilton, CT:  Morehouse-Barlow, 1986), 108-109.

12 John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 16-17.

13 Frederick Borsch, The Spirit Searches Everything:  Keeping Life’s Questions (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005, 39.

[14]  A New Zealand Prayer Book (Auckland, NZ: Tuia, 1988), 463.

[15] Ibid., 60.

[16] Enriching Our Worship I (New York:  Church Publishing, 1998), 58.

[17]  Ian Adams and Ian Mobsby, “New Monasticism,” in Steven Croft and Ian Mobsby, eds., Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition (Norwich:  Canterbury Press, 2009), 57, 61-62.

[18]  Mary E. Hunt, “Postcolonial Catholics:  A U.S. Feminist Perspective” in Nicolás Panotto, ed., Pope Francis in Postcolonial Reality: Complexities, Ambiguities and Paradoxes (Borderless Press, 2015), 88.

[19] 1930 Lambeth Conference, Resolutions 16 and 17.  Accessed on October 24, 2016.

[20] 1958  Lambeth Conference, Resolution 115. Accessed on October 24, 2016.

[21] Temple, Christianity and Social Order, 31-32.

[22] Temple, 39.

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