You always take a risk with the weather at the New Wine summer conference. About 10,000 of us gather for a week of Christian worship and teaching on a borrowed agricultural showground, most of us sleeping under canvas and pretty much at the mercy of the elements.
And merciful the elements usually are. We’ve now been for 11 summers. I remember one year when tents in a small soggy corner had to be evacuated, and another when the start was delayed by a day because of mud. But for the last few years we’ve needed to bring sun cream, and a gazebo for our church community to enjoy some shade together. We’ve long stopped packing wellies.
Depending on your worldview, you might attribute this to answered prayer. The New Wine Trust has been known to pray and even fast in the run up to the event, if the forecast is worrying. (There’s also a story about an approaching weather front turning sharply away from the area one year, witnessed by a meteorologist on site who said he’d never seen anything like it.)
25 July 2019 – the UK’s hottest ever July day
So this year was a shock. The conference started just days after July’s record-breaking heatwave and not many people were planning for wet weather. But shortly after we got our tent pitched, it started to rain. Or rather continued to rain, having started the day before. An innocent-looking puddle in the centre of our church’s camping ‘village’ started getting ideas. As the evening wore on it commandeered our gazebo as its base camp and sent out raiding parties towards our tents. The rain fell relentlessly all night and by morning our kitchen was under water.
Our kitchen extension, after we’d just moved the tent. Turns out we were sleeping in a swamp. Image: Phil Rogers
Our brilliant church community swung into action and within a couple of hours all the waterlogged tents had been moved – cheerfully – to higher ground. Then we began pondering the meaning of it all.
‘Whatever God’s trying to teach us,’ said my neighbour Eva, who was camping with a fostered newborn as well as her own three children, ‘can we hurry up and learn it so the sun can come out?’
I watched another tent being carried past by six people trudging through the mud. Our dishevelled camp looked like a tent city for refugees. Climate refugees.
‘I think I know what he’s trying to teach us,’ I said, with a dull thud in the pit of my stomach.
Because here we are, thousands of mostly middle-class Christians in a first-world country, standing in the squelchy shoes of climate refugees. Real ones who do not have comfortable homes to return to. Who are not refugees because their country bankrupted the climate budget with over-consumption, but because countries like ours did. We are climate sinners. Why would God not rain on us?
(Mr Suburbanite had not yet popped out in the diesel Volkswagen to buy me fleece-lined wellies from the nearest Tesco Extra, so I stood there in my muddy sandals, feeling sick.)
Before we worshipped the next morning, a leader on the platform prayed for the weather to clear up so we wouldn’t be ‘distracted’. But what if the weather was not a distraction, but a call to repentance?
That conviction grew as the week went on. The climate crisis is the biggest threat to humanity that we know of. It has already cost people their homes, livelihoods and lives. Over the centuries the church, led by Jesus and filled with his compassion, has fed orphans, cared for lepers and freed slaves. Where is our compassion now for victims of a stricken climate? Where is the church’s* voice in the national and international call to urgent action? I know plenty of Christians who are passionate about climate, but it seems to me that they’re on the fringes. I’m not hearing climate framed by church leaders as an urgent priority. And while we were not complicit in the suffering of lepers, slaves or orphans, when it comes to climate victims, first-world Christians are complicit. We bought into the unsustainable systems and lifestyles that are harming creation. Should we not be on our knees in the mud, repenting like Daniel on behalf of our nation?
What if this weather is not a distraction, but a call to repentance?
One barrier in our Christian minds could be wrong theology. I hear more good teaching on this nowadays, but we’re still infected by a centuries-old Gnostic heresy: that when Jesus returns he will whisk us saints away to a squeaky clean, disembodied heaven and blow up that nasty dirty Earth for good. So our job is to save souls and escape. What’s the point in planting trees if it’s all going up in smoke?
I hope any Christians readers will know how wrong that is. The Bible points to Jesus returning to a renewed heaven and Earth, where the redeemed will live embodied lives in a liberated creation. There is every point in caring for creation (which ‘groans’ – can you hear it? Romans 8:22) even if you ignore the fact that God told us to in the first place (Genesis 1). But I’m not sure this has entered the mindset of many churchgoers, sadly. All the more reason for church leadership, nationally and locally, to speak up.
And here’s one last reason why the UK church needs to wake up, repent, and change direction: young people. I’ve seen the passion of a Friday climate school strike first hand and it’s awe inspiring. (I wonder how many Christians God tried to wake up in the night to talk about the climate emergency before sighing, shrugging and moving on to a Swedish schoolgirl.) If the church has nothing to say about climate, why should a youngster pay it any attention at all? We should be the counter-cultural leaders of a climate movement, inspiring young people to follow, rather than slightly disapproving onlookers.
We joined March’s school strike for climate. I failed to take a photo that captured the power and the passion so this one will have to do instead
I have heaps of gratitude and respect for New Wine – it has played a huge part in my own spiritual journey. Its strapline is ‘Local churches changing nations’, and that’s exactly what it does. Every year, in a myriad of ways, it equips thousands of ordinary Christians and their church leaders to bring change to their communities, spiritually and practically. If New Wine chose to take climate seriously, it could make all the difference through those same local churches. Most importantly, it could set the spiritual tone by leading us in prayers of repentance and change.
Have mercy on us Lord Jesus. Wake up your church – start with me. Open our eyes to the mess we’ve created and lead us to repent. Open our ears and our hearts to the groaning of creation and the distress of our brothers and sisters. Move us to embrace change in our lifestyles, helping us to put what’s right before what’s convenient. And give us a voice and leadership in this nation to act radically on climate. Amen.
* When I say ‘church’, I mean the church as the body of Christ – regardless of denomination – in the UK.
After a worrying couple of rainy nights and hurried purchases of towels and wellies, things got drier, and easier. We had a good week. I was half hoping God would sweep the whole site away in an apocalyptic flood – that’s what I’d do if I were him. But clearly God is not like me. And I have to admit, I was grateful.