On the international stage, conversations about Canada and climate change tend to focus exclusively on the tar sands of Alberta, but this was not the case at the recent Anglican “Eco-Bishops conference” held Feb. 23 to 27, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, shifted the focus slightly to shed light on the devastating impact that climate change is already having on indigenous Canadians living in the Arctic.
“I think they had anticipated that a Canadian voice would be focused on Alberta and oil development,” he said in an interview. “Although I said things about that, I wanted them to understand the unique situation of indigenous peoples in Canada, and that unique impact of climate change.”
MacDonald said that the bishops were very attentive to this message, to the extent that “by the end of the meeting, people were referring to indigenous peoples in the North as being part of the Global South,” due to the shared experience of rising oceans and volatile weather.
MacDonald was joined by Bishop Jane Alexander, of the diocese of Edmonton, and 15 other Anglican bishops at the conference hosted by the Anglican Communion Environmental Network, which is dedicated to fighting climate change.
The delegates represented dioceses from around the world, including Fiji, the Philippines and Namibia, which are suffering some of the most dramatic effects of climate change, and from the Western nations who are seen to be driving it.
“The meetings went very well,” said MacDonald. “I think that they brought together a really great group of people, and for the first time in an international meeting like that, they really paid attention to the global South, to indigenous voices and to people on the so-called margins.”
Alexander also found it to be a very productive conference, and while she was quick to note that everyone was aware of the dilemma that flying to Cape Town posed in terms of carbon use, she said the trip was, in the end, worth it.
“We were mindful of the impact of the air travel, but hearing the stories from around the Communion, I think in those face-to-face meetings, I found that we shared a common ground in an incredibly complex issue,” she said. “There’s something about being together. You realize that because the Anglican Communion is a global entity, there is something, surely, that we can say as a global Anglican church about climate change.”
She admitted to being particularly struck by the difficulties illustrated in a story told by the bishop of Fiji, Apimeleki Qiliho, whose diocese includes a number of small islands that, it is predicted, will be submerged within a generation. “There have been offers of resettlement for people because these places will not exist,” she explained, “and [the bishop] has to respond to people who say to him, ‘Well, God told Noah that he’d never flood the land again.’ And so they won’t leave; it’s their home.”
But there were challenges inherent in such a diverse meeting as well. While extensive preparation had been done beforehand, much work still needed to be done to bring everyone onto the same page, according to Ncumisa Ukeweva Magadla, one of the conference organizers.
“I felt like they were coming from two different worlds, the indigenous churches and the Western churches,” she said. “I really did think that some of the bishops—especially the ones coming from the Western side—did not understand the issues that were going on in those indigenous countries like Fiji, like the Philippines, where they face water literally at their doorstep.”
But Magadla noted that sharing their stories brought the bishops together and strengthened their resolve to deal with the problem. “Let’s face the lion,” she said. “Let’s do something that’s going to be change…because really, the people that own these big companies are part of our congregation.”
MacDonald also felt very positive about the conversations the conference had generated, and was particularly energized by the spiritual richness he had seen there. “A lot of folks, both on the right or the left of environmental issues in the dominant Western society, have seen the environment as a kind of add-on to Christian faith,” he said. “What clearly came out of this, which was a pleasant surprise for me, was that a colonial reading of Christianity ignored the inherent environmentalism of the Christian scriptures.”
Among the leaders from the global South, MacDonald saw a rejection of the divide between environmentalism and spirituality. “There wasn’t even a little bit of light between those two; they were part and parcel of who they are,” he said. “They were, by North American standards, radical environmentalists—they were also very Christo-centric evangelical Christians.”
Alexander found this to be true as well. “I think the thing that came out from the meeting for all of us was that this is an environmental problem, yes, but it’s also a spiritual problem.”
The conference will present its work to the Communion in a statement, which is planned for release on Good Friday, April 3.