Originally delivered at the ‘Knowing Our Place’ conference in Manchester diocese to the mark the 25th anniversary of women first being ordained as priests in the Church of England.
Our Current Place
Climate change is often referred to be as being a wicked problem – caused by multiple factors, lacking simple solutions, and pertinent to everyone on the planet. What, then, does this have to do with Christian women in church leadership? I want to begin with the following observations:
- The majority of Christians live in the countries who bear least responsibility for our climate crisis and are also most at risk from its impacts. There are over 300 million Christians in Asia, and Pew Forum projects that by 2025 there will be 600 million Christians on the continent of Africa.
- The majority of those regularly praying and attending church globally are women.
- As droughts and floods increase, so has economic insecurity, leading to growing numbers of child brides in some countries, and women and girls selling sex to survive in others. Women are more likely to experience violence, including sexual violence, in conflicts over scarce resources.
- Women around the world bear the overwhelming burden of home making responsibilities, including water sourcing. As water scarcity and pollution increases, women bear this burden more heavily, and are more likely to die from lack of access to clean water.
- Women make up the majority of those living in poverty, meaning that they are both less culpable for and also more threatened by a changing climate: 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Even in the minority world, women have less disposable income and so have lower carbon footprints.
- Women are more likely to die in extreme weather events: in the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, almost 5x more young women than men died. In the 2003 European heatwave, more women died than men.
This discussion therefore needs to be informed by the reality that women – and specifically women in the majority world – face much greater immediate physical risk from climate breakdown, while also being a (perhaps the) majority identity group in the global church. Their voices must be the basis upon which we envision the future of women in the church, and appointing leaders who represent this interest group must become our immediate focus. This is a move in the name of crisis prevention, which holds the interests of all of us at its heart. As Joyce Ann Mercer points out, ‘it may be that attending to the differential impact of ecological decline on women will add to our awareness of what is needed for all people to thrive.’ It therefore needs to be established as theologically and practically necessary. Here, then, are some avenues that demonstrate the theological and practical basis for such an urgent shift in our leadership demographics.
The key theological challenge we face is one of misdirected attention. In the eco-feminist collection Planetary Solidarity, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda Koster observe that our ‘theology and doctrine have focused on humanity and made the ‘rest of creation’ external to the story of God with human beings. Climate change brings home that there is no such externality.’ While there is growing acceptance of the reality of climate change and the need to change our individual choices amongst Christians in the UK, we have yet to fully embrace the urgency – and therefore the radical response – that will be required. This does not require a ‘new’ theology, but rather to ask what Christian theological tradition has to say, for example, in the context of a young Filipino woman in Manila receiving death threats for leading a campaign to protect Freedom Island, a wetland habitat for migratory birds and vital for the survival of the local fishing community.I want to explore the ways that a theological emphasis on solidarity amongst the communion of saints might be a helpful approach for disrupting assumptions that side-line women as leaders in the church and side-line our human relationship to the rest of the living world.
The problem of our language when talking about the community of creation is well-trodden ground – we tend towards separating humans and nature into competing, or at least distinct, categories in our everyday language and even in theological descriptions of creation. Even towards describing the planet as our ‘home’ can imply that the earth and its systems is merely the structural backdrop for the place humans get on with living significant lives. Anthropocentrism has rightly been a target for extensive critique for the ways it has warped our perceptions of ourselves and encouraged us to imagine that we are independent from the rest of the living world. The stewardship of creation is one such example. Heather Eaton argues that ‘stewardship implies an ontological separation between humans and the natural world… as an ethic of restraint, stewardship is essential. As a theological model, it is detrimental.’ While I do not think this is necessarily always the case with stewardship, it is certainly a danger of which we should be aware. There are only two categories of existence – God, the uncreated, infinite, creator is one category, and everything else – created and finite – is another. We belong alongside other creatures, even if we have a distinct way of being a creature.
What does the language of solidarity offer as a helpful contribution? While solidarity has usually been applied to issues of climate justice with specific reference to humans, I want to suggest that the same framework might also have a wider application to our relationships with other created things. When we think about the communion of saints, we receive a wider vision of the people of God: it includes all of God’s people, from all of history. Solidarity in the communion of saints transcends the restrictions of our particular time, space, and culture. Perhaps if we are going to challenge some of limiting anthropocentrism, we need to talk about the communion of God’s creatures and the solidarity we owe there, too.
It is important to emphasise here that solidarity with the world is not proposed as an extension of the communion of saints, but gives us some helpful principles for solidarity with other creatures and created things. Solidarity implies something shared as well as some distinction. The communion of saints is both non-optional (we participate by virtue of being Christians) and also many distinct members in shared belonging. Solidarity expresses that we have distinct experiences and gifts which we can recognise and uphold in each other. Likewise, creatureliness – and our dependence on each other as creatures in a wider system of creation – is non-optional, whether we recognise it or not. But we also acknowledge that when we express solidarity with other creatures, we are expressing our distinct roles.
Again, I am not proposing that solidarity amongst humans
(and in particular solidarity with women in the majority world) and solidarity with other creatures – and the earth itself – mean the same thing in order to correct the dangers of anthropocentric language and expression. We need to be careful to avoid collapsing the distinctiveness of God’s many creatures and fails to recognise their particular roles in the community of creation. Humans are not the same as other animals, either in our role as bearers of the image of God or in the destructive and constructive power we hold over the planet. Rather, if we are using solidarity amongst the communion as a model, it suggests joint participation – a gift jointly contributed – and solidarity connotes the process of recognising, defending, and amplifying the otherwise silenced participants in this gift. It is therefore very important that this solidarity must be implemented in ways that recognise the particularity of the participants. To quote Kim and Koster’s introduction to Planetary Solidarity, ‘Solidarity requires attention to differences in suffering while extending preferential treatment to those who suffer more’. Solidarity with and for the oceans is not the same kind of solidarity that we might have with an endangered species, or with other humans – clearly, the relationships are different. But that does not mean that solidarity is not required in each instance.
Pursuing solidarity as a priority will mean that we look to our communities – whether amongst humans, or amongst created things – and discern whose gifts have been least recognised and celebrated, and seek to honour those before all others. This understanding of solidarity is vital for both the voices of women in the church and the defence of other creatures. Those different kinds of solidarity can also overlap in their application: if we return to Freedom Island in Manila, honouring and defending the voice of the young woman leading that protest, honouring and defending the migratory birds, and honouring and defending the wetland are all complementary forms of solidarity, not competing ones. And, in general, it is the case that when we talk about solidarity with women in church leadership and solidarity with our dying planet, the two complement each other. Research indicates that placing women in leadership roles will be essential for mitigating the worst of climate breakdown. Women are more invested in the future of the living world, and more likely to make changes to their behaviour based on concern for environmental impact. This is evident on both a personal and national scale. Research has shown that nation-states with a greater proportion of women in national parliament are more prone to environmental treaty ratification, even while controlling for other factors like GDP. When it comes to personal consumption, women are more like to embrace environmentally friendly behaviours.
What should the practical moves of solidarity be? I want to close with some specific ‘big picture’ and ‘immediate context’ proposals.
Our Future Place
The first ‘big picture’ shift we need to make is an immediate and marked increase in investing in training women for lay and ordained church leadership in Africa and Asia, particularly in communities facing imminent threat from climate change. This might include investing in training lay leaders to deliver community sustainability and resilience projects alongside recognising the significance of endowing women with theological authority. The second ‘big picture’ shift is amplifying the voices of majority world women leaders in our minority world conversations around climate change. In particular, their voices should be amplified at general synod, at international gatherings of bishops, and in discussions concerning church investments. This recognises the reality that there are many women already leading their churches and communities in the fight for a more resilient future, but their voices are often ignored or even deliberately silenced.
In our immediate context, there are two areas of work I would like to briefly raise. Firstly, our churches could become hubs for hosting local greening and growing projects, particularly for women and children, who often bear the burden of feeding their household. We could imagine a city in which every church garden and unutilised patch of grass on church property was turned to growing food for our increasingly stretched and threatened communities, partnering with organisations who already run similar projects to reflect the expertise and time required. Secondly, we could imagine a church leadership unafraid to challenge councils and developers who threaten local green spaces, and unafraid to support protest in defence of our dying planet, much of which is led by young women. Loss of local green space threatens the mental and physical health of the people we seek to serve. Low-income women with children often feel the loss of those spaces the most keenly, having less freedom to travel to green space or choose where they live based on access to parks and trees. It is no good insisting that we are invested in developing women as leaders in the church if the interests of women in our community are not also at the heart of our ministry and witness. By the same token, if we are truly seeking ways to ensure that women flourish under their call from God, we must not only support women leading in the church, but women leading everywhere. And the ‘everywhere’ that we currently inhabit is fundamentally shaped by the climate crisis we face.
True solidarity in the communion of saints requires prioritising the voices of those most on the margins in order to strengthen the community as a whole. In the case of women of the majority world in the age of climate breakdown, a focus on investing in the future of those women in leadership is both a reflection of this priority and a reflection of our urgent need to ensure resilience for everyone.
Pew Forum, ‘The Future of the World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050’ (2015) https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/christians/, accessed 05/04/2019
 Pew Forum, ‘The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World’ (2016) https://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/women-report-praying-daily-at-higher-rates-than-men/, accessed 05/04/2019
 The ‘Brides of The Sun’ reporting project was set up to investigate a link between child marriage and climate change, focusing on two countries – Malawi and Mozambique – where nearly half of girls are married by the age of 18.For more details visit https://www.bridesofthesun.com/, accessed 06/04/2019
 Water.org, ‘A Women’s Crisis’, https://water.org/our-impact/water-crisis/womens-crisis/, accessed 22/04/2019
 Halton, M., ‘Climate change impacts women more than men’, BBC News (2018) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43294221, accessed 20/04/2019
 European Parliament News, ‘Climate Change: Mitigating the impact on women’, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20171201STO89304/climate-change-mitigating-the-impact-on-women, accessed 23/04/2017
 Mercer, J., ‘Environmental Activism in the Philippines: A Practical Theological Perspective’, Planetary Solidarity, (Fortress Press, 2017), p.289
 Kim, G., and Koster, H., ‘Introduction’, Planetary Solidarity, (Fortress Press, 2017), P.7
 Mercer, J., ‘Environmental Activism in the Philippines: A Practical Theological Perspective’ Ibid., p.288
 Eaton, H., ‘An Earth-Centric Theological Framing for Planetary Solidarity’, Planetary Solidarity, (Fortress Press, 2017) p.22
 Ibid., p.32
 Kim, G., and Koster, H., ‘Introduction’, Planetary Solidarity, (Fortress Press, 2017), P.7
 Norgaard, K., and York, R., ‘Gender Equality and State Environmentalism’, Gender and Society Vol. 19 No.4 (2005) https://pages.uoregon.edu/norgaard/pdf/Gender-Equality-Norgaard-York-2005.pdf
 Brough, A., Wilkie., J., Ma, J., Mathew. I., Gal, D., ‘Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 43, Issue 4 (2016) https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/43/4/567/2630509?redirectedFrom=fulltext, accessed 20/04/2019