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Home  >  Features  >  "It's Very, Very Urgent"


David Coleman preaching at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
David Coleman preaching at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

"It's Very, Very Urgent"

Tuesday July 16 2019

Eco-Congregation Scotland chaplain, the Rev David Coleman, tells Jackie Macadam why environmentalist Christianity is so important.

“I grew up in what was by then an increasingly multi-cultural Birmingham, child of a teacher, in a house which had severe damp problems, but lots of books.

"I remember being present, aged six, at the dedication of a new plot for the rebuilding of Carrs Lane Church in the city centre.”

The Rev David Coleman is the recently appointed Chaplain to Eco-Congregation Scotland. He’s recalling his more traditional roots in his hometown of Birmingham.

“The congregation looked back with pride to the church’s prominent historic role in the transformation of the welfare of citizens through the Civic Gospel and overt engagement in liberal politics.

“Transformative, for a child still vulnerable to the self-perpetuating propaganda of WW2 in comics and popular culture, was a church exchange with people of Zweibrücken in the Pfalz in Germany.”

David found himself at a distance from the traditional church as he grew up, but was drawn back after college.

“By then Carrs Lane had not just one, but two ministers who were both members of the Iona Community, and regularly took groups for reflective experiences on the island. I was able to be around in the church without being pursued or pressed as to the state or nature of my faith and that was good.

“I felt free, at Carrs Lane,” he says. “And it was there, one night, as I looked over the sleeping city from the church roof, I met a tipping point, and resolved to seek Confirmation and Church membership, as well as sign up to visit Iona. The momentum continued with an unmistakeable experience of call to ministry.

“I asked the minister, the Rev Mitchell Bunting, who helped me begin the awful and arduous selection process. I then visited Iona for the first time, and, transformatively, spent the late summer as a volunteer housekeeper.

“I am still unconvinced of the need for the selection process to have been as horrible as it was, though for something which involves the huge resources dedicated to ministry training, I understand rigour.

“I remember one personality test, clearly designed for businessmen, suggested that though I was mentally stable, I should acquire a grey suit and wear ‘proper’ shoes. I later took pleasure in incinerating the absurd document. Discovering and loving what it means to be yourself is part of what you bring to any ministry.

“I spent a year in a retreat house and three months at Iona, before beginning four years of training at Oxford.

“I was the youngest in my year and very taken with the then fashionable ‘Creation Spirituality’ movement led by the likes of Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry. I had begun to encounter this as a volunteer on Iona, when J Philip Newell was warden. I still feel that I learned as much about liturgy and worship as a volunteer moving chairs and candles around for Philip as I did at college.

 “The college did give some encouraging space to my continuing exploration of artistic expression, in a ‘Celtic’ mode. As part of my Iona Community membership project, I assembled an exhibition of art on recycled materials.

“My final dissertation, on the spirituality of St Columba, in which I developed the idea of the Communion of Creation (as a parallel to the Communion of Saints) continues to be of real value in my day-to-day work as Environmental Chaplain.

“I also began to recognise and denounce the regrettable fallacy, current in some Christian spirituality, of the assumption that closeness to the Earth, (and acknowledging in other creatures something like the status of personhood) is a characteristic alien to Christianity, to be avoided for fear of syncretism and idolatry.

“We share citizenship of the planet with other creatures, and indeed, with many spiritualities. It should not frighten us.

“Our urgent spiritual need is an appropriate partnership with God and the whole Earth, against which our species has waged war, and on which we so directly depend.”

It was on Iona that David met his wife, Zam.

“I met Zam Walker on Iona, where her Edinburgh Episcopal congregation went for retreat in 1995 during my ‘hallowing’ as an Iona Community member. I was ordained and inducted to serve two URC and one Welsh Presbyterian congregations in North Wales, which I could do by bike, as the village church of Bagillt was only three miles from Flint.

“We married in St Columba’s by the Castle Edinburgh in 1996, and Zam found work supporting ex-offenders in north Wales.

“Our son Taliesin was born in 1999. He was named after the legendary creation-aware Welsh bard who could sing before he could talk, which turned out to be the case, as his speech was delayed, but he sang along as a baby in Iona services. His autistic spectrum condition led to a consuming interest in dinosaurs, which later encouraged me and Zam to develop ‘Dinosaur Sunday’ – looking at the awe and wonder appropriate to the great age of the Earth, and the implications for faith and humanity of evolution – and more recently, the threat of extinction.

“Melangell, our daughter, arrived in 2001, named after the Welsh princess who fled an arranged marriage to set up a community of prayerful healing women in the Berwyn Mountains, caring for Creation and for people.

“After breast cancer in 2003, Zam trained for URC ministry and job-shared with me in Brighton and Greenock from 2007 until her death in 2016.

“I have no doubt that she would be as excited and motivated with the work of the Chaplaincy as I am. We shared life and calling: the Greenock congregation and I supported her in continuing work until the last fortnight of her life, when she was just able to pronounce the blessing for the Easter Sunday service in 2016.”

Following Zam’s death and having served eight years in Greenock, David says he felt the need for ‘a new start’ when the job as environmental chaplain came up last year.

The post is resourced jointly by the Church of Scotland, URC and Scottish Episcopal Church, with involvement from Christian Aid and other agencies.

“Eco-Congregation remains a very small charity, though we have a sizeable network,” he says. “The chaplain first of all aims to visit and encourage local congregations or networks, leading and contributing to worship in the context of the various traditions. The job involves being both ‘Jeremiah’ (being open about the tragedy of extinction and climate crisis) and ‘Barnabas’, encouraging, rather than judging the commitment of grassroots Christians. I come in and point out how the ‘end of the world (as we have known it) is nigh’, but at close of worship, people are usually upbeat, thoughtful, and encouraged.

“The very broad-based network of Christian congregations that now makes up 450 ‘registered’ congregations with ECS is of great significance in the spiritual life of the nation.

"Christianity engaged with the environment becomes un-tamed: rediscovering the loving militancy and craftiness of a people without coercive power, though relying on the power of God.

“Out of loyalty to God and the wider Church, Eco-Congregations find the confidence to stick their heads above the parapet and disagree with ‘business as usual’ for the way the church deals with resources. The gloomy preoccupation of Western churches with decline and maintenance has become a trivial luxury in the face of what lies ahead environmentally.

“For the sake of the Church, as much as the planet, the Eco-Congregation movement needs every encouragement to grow.

“The issues of ‘our Common Home, the Earth’ bring together all the previous good causes of poverty, fair trade, gender, justice and peace, rather than replacing them, for as in the Bible, it is the God of Justice who is recognised as the Creator.

“’Do not worry about tomorrow’, says Jesus, ‘You’ve got enough on your plate for today.’ And so we have. And it’s very, very urgent.

“If I can say one thing, it’s this – You are, each of you - God’s gift to this beautiful, damaged, world. Don’t forget that.”

A longer version of this story appeared in July's Life and Work. Subscribe or download here.