Creation care does not require “spiritual ecumenism” with non-evangelicals to be pursued faithfully and responsibly. Co-belligerence is sufficient.
“Season of Creation” is the latest ecumenical initiative sponsored by the mainline ecumenical bodies such as – amongst others – the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC).
This initiative covers a period of one month (from 1st September to 4th October, St. Francis’ day in the liturgical calendar), has a focus on creation care issues and includes a variety of activities. The Celebration Guide is full of suggestions for common prayers and common actions. The aim is to unite all Christians in prayer, strengthening their commitment in favor of the environment. The tone is especially indebted to Laudato si’ (Praise Be to You), Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on “care for our common home”. In that document Pope Francis delineated his concerns for the deteriorating health of planet earth and called humanity to take action in order to stop the degeneration process. The remedy to the downgrade trajectory was deemed to be the adoption of an “integral ecology”, i.e. the blending of green and missiological concerns in the context of Roman Catholic social doctrine. Integral ecology has become a buzzword in present-day ecumenical language and “Season of Creation” is a direct response to what Laudato Si’ called for.
What it particularly interesting is that “Season of Creation” includes among its sponsors a significant representation of the global evangelical movement such as the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Lausanne Movement through the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network. While evangelical networks have cultivated informal relationships with other bodies and have taken part to a number of dialogues for a long time, it is nonetheless significant that they are fully onboard with this initiative where – as the official presentation states – “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”.
The involvement of global evangelical networks at the forefront of “Season of Creation” did not go unobserved in the evangelical world. A statement from the Italian Evangelical Alliance (1st September 2020) is worth considering because it helpfully highlights some critical points that need to be dealt with. Here is the English translation of the text:
Having read the program of the initiative "Season of Creation", the Federal Executive Council of the Italian Evangelical Alliance encourages the whole church to pray, meditate, and exercise spiritual discernment in these matters, based upon the revealed Word of God. The Italian Evangelical Alliance:
- supports every evangelical initiative aimed at understanding God's plan for His creation, at the confession of our sin and our responsibilities in abusing it, at the development of educational, social, political and entrepreneurial initiatives in our relationship with creation according to the requirements of the Gospel, in view of the hope of Christ who said: "I will make everything new"!
- is grateful for the evangelical documents already firmly established as being part of contemporary evangelical thought on the theme of creation and creation care, such as: the WEA-related "Statement on the Care of Creation" (2008) and the Lausanne-related “Jamaica Call to Action” (2012).
- supports co-belligerent initiatives for a common and shared purpose (by religious and/or secular bodies) aimed at the care and development of creation, even where the faith and worldview of the subjects and participants involved are different.
- distances itself from the ecumenical initiative “Season of Creation” supported by the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network and does not consider itself represented as it believes that it is neither possible nor biblical to unite in prayer to God with men and women representing religious institutions and bodies who profess a flawed gospel that is different from the gospel proclaimed by the evangelical faith.
- encourages the evangelical bodies involved to exercise discernment so as not to gradually slip into an ecumenical project that goes well beyond the care of creation and invites them not to confuse the right attention for creation with an ecumenical initiative.
These comments by the Italian Evangelical Alliance contain several points worth considering. They reaffirm the evangelical commitment to creation care as part of the evangelical calling to live faithfully and responsibly in God’s world. They also show the awareness of important evangelical documents predating Pope Francis’ encyclical and provide a solid platform for evangelicals to promote creation care without unnecessarily “borrowing capital” from papal documents.
Evangelicals do have a pool of helpful resources that are biblically framed and practically oriented. The Italian Evangelical Alliance’s comments also witness to the evangelical openness towards co-belligerance on specific issues, such as creation care, with initiatives and networks bringing together people of different religious and ideological backgrounds. Evangelical ethics and mission do allow and – indeed – demand of believers in Jesus Christ to work together and alongside non-evangelicals in areas of common concerns on the basis of gospel convictions related to the biblical doctrine of common grace. Co-belligerance is a well established practice in evangelical ethos that does not confuse collaboration on specific issues with unity in the gospel and/or sharing a common gospel mission.
The point of the statement is therefore not to deny the importance of creation care nor to discourage evangelical participation in collaborative initiatives with people of different backgrounds. The main concern has to do with the “ecumenical” framework in which “Season of Creation” was planned and is presented.
When one is told that “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home” there are several implicit/explicit points that are signaled. There is a significant ecumenical meta-narrative that is smuggled in.
1. The language of sisterhood and brotherhood indicates the existence of spiritual ties between those who take part. Question: are we sure that all those participating at “Season of Creation”, be they coming from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Liberal backgrounds, are born again believers in Jesus Christ according to the biblical gospel and therefore “sisters and brothers” in the Lord? The impression that is given is that all those who are interested in this environmental initiative are intrinsically “sisters and brothers” despite their spiritual standing before God and in spite of their different and differing views of the gospel.
2. The reference to the “ecumenical family” further strengthens the impression that an ecumenical agenda is pushed here beyond the shared concerns on creation care. The “ecumenical family” includes all the institutions sponsoring “Season of Creation”, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church and WCC. Because we are part of the “ecumenical family” not only do we need to recognize other individuals participating as “sisters and brothers”, but one is also implicitly pressured to recognize the institutions involved as “sister” churches. Once you accept to belong to the “ecumenical family” all family members, e.g. the Roman Church as institution, Orthodox churches, liberal churches, etc., are legitimate Christian expressions of the “one” family. Is this an evangelical belief?
3. The insistence on “common prayer” in the form of “ecumenical prayers” communicates the idea that all who pray them are brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing the same Christian faith, belonging to the same “ecumenical family”, and therefore being different only on secondary, non-divisive issues. It smuggles in the idea of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. praying together, experiencing unity at the grass-root level, accepting the idea that we are all “one” despite our differences. Apparently the initiative is on creation care, but there is much of the ecumenical project that is embedded in it. The ecumenical agenda is subtly advanced within evangelical circles even if the issue is not formally ecumenism.
Present-day ecumenism is evolving. It is integrating environmental concerns into its activities and joint prayer initiatives on creation care as means of advancing the cause of the “ecumenical family”. Evangelicals need to discern what is happening and to understand what is at stake. One the one hand, they need to be good stewards of God’s creation and being willing to work together with all those who are similarly concerned for its care. On the other, creation care does not require “spiritual ecumenism” with non evangelicals to be pursued faithfully and responsibly. Co-belligerence is sufficient for it.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism