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A Liturgy for the Integrity of Creation by Frances Hiller

Address delivered by Frances Hiller at St Mark with St Margaret Church, Plumstead Common on 14 May 2000.

Touch the earth lightly,
use the earth gently,
nourish the life of the world in our care:
gift of great wonder,
ours to surrender,
trust for the children tomorrow will bear.

The earth is not ours to do with as we will. The message of this New Zealand hymn is unequivocal. It can be applied globally or locally, to the world or to Plumstead. It expresses concern for the future of our world. It emphasises our responsibility as stewards of our environment, which we hold in trust for tomorrow for those who will follow.

Many people these days are turning away from Christianity, looking instead towards spiritualities that teach a reverence for creation that the Christian West seems to have lost. They are searching for alternatives to what they see as the exploitative injunction set out in the Bible in the Book of Genesis. In chapter 1, verse 28, God instructs humankind to 'fill the earth and subdue it; to have dominion over every living thing that moves upon it.' For too long this injunction has been interpreted by some as a licence for humans to do what they like with the earth, with disastrous results.

But there are strands within our Christian heritage that affirm an incarnation faith that honours created matter. The Celtic and Franciscan traditions have an approach to God and to God's creation that is holistic rather than dualistic. It is an approach that honours created matter, taking account of the interdependency of the constituent parts of creation. Francis of Assisi, writing in the 12th century, uses language and thought which contain no trace of a need to dominate or transform nature. Instead he expands the Christian call to love God and the neighbour to include all creation. He does this in a way that heals the split between God, humanity and nature that is found in so much of Christian literature before and since.

'No man is an Island' says John Donne. We are beginning to be more aware that we are all part of humanity-we are individuals, but we are inseparably linked; we are unique, but wholly inter-dependent. And we are not linked only with each other as human beings, but with the whole of creation of which we are a part. What Francis knew instinctively, scientific research has confirmed-the importance of bio-diversity, the knowledge that we are merely a strand in the web of life, as we read in a passage attributed to Chief Seattle back in 1854:

The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

We are at last beginning to realise the dangers the earth faces from greed and exploitation. We are all beginning to be aware that capitalism does not contain all the answers. It is increasingly clear that there has to be a debate about its future. Whatever goods it delivers, it fails a substantial number of people. The greed and lust for power of the few is the cause of the poverty and powerlessness of the many, and of the desecration and destruction of the earth's resources.

But why has it taken so long for humanity to come to the realisation that we are part of the created order, the created order which is longing and struggling for completeness and redemption (Romans 8.18-25)? We are not individuals living in isolation. What we have, we hold in trust for others, whether it is our parks and open spaces or the world's resources. We have a responsibility both for those we share the earth with now and those who will come after us. This is why we cannot separate environment issues from justice issues.

The same values can be applied both globally and locally. As a community of people living in and around Plumstead, working together to improve the quality of life of all members of the community, you will discover that the boundary between environment issues and justice issues at times becomes blurred.

I was born in 1953 in a prefab on Winn's Common, and I lived there for the first five years of my life. In those post-war days of rationing, gardens on the common were full of vegetables, chickens and even the odd goat. When the prefabs were demolished and the land returned to grass, we moved to the new estate across the main road, but returned to the Common to play.

As we grew up, my siblings and I explored every inch of that expanse. It was from a tree on the Common, overlooking King's Highway, that I fell at the age of 11, and was in St Nicholas Hospital for a week. My brother and I had been throwing acorns at the roofs of passing buses. The Common continued to figure in my life in quite a big way. I walked across Plumstead Common each weekday on my way to school and twice on Sundays to come to church. As a teenager I roamed endlessly, pondering the meaning of life, and as a Cub Scout leader I played rounders on summer evenings. On a warm Sunday evening after Evensong there was sometimes cricket with the Youth Club followed by a drink at the Prince Albert, overflowing onto the Common as still happens today.

Looking back in this way, I can see that growing up in Plumstead, with its open spaces and parks, helped to make me the person that I am today. I see this process being repeated in my children as they grow up in Plumstead. We are shaped by our environment. Plumstead Common Environment Group is working to help create somewhere where it is good to live and good to grow up. This is especially true of its attention to the detail of things which can easily be dismissed as unimportant, reporting broken street lights and abandoned cars, litter control, clearing up broken glass, and fighting the endless battle against graffiti. Its members also work continuously to enhance both the beauty and the natural abundance of our open spaces and the wildlife they support.

What we have, we hold in trust for others, whether we're talking about Plumstead Common or the resources of the earth. Our open spaces are enormously important. They help to civilise us. We all benefit from them. Children who are cooped up in flats with no gardens need the space. The Common provides a focal point for community events like the Make Merry. We are all stewards of the environment, which shapes us, and will shape our children.

In global terms, as a human community, how we use the earth's resources represents a choice either for life or death. In local terms, the way we care for our environment can improve the quality of life for everyone in our community, both now and in the future. Both in the world and in Plumstead the Christian choice must always be for life, life in all its fullness.

God of creation
the earth is yours
with all its beauty and goodness
its rich and overflowing provision
But we have claimed the earth for our own
plundered its beauty for profit
taken its resources for ourselves

God of creation, forgive us
may we no longer abuse your loving generosity
but care gently and with justice for the earth
which we hold in trust for those who will follo


Thanks to the Plumstead Common Environment Group for their kind donation of this story.

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