Forgetting the Land - Reckitt Lecture 2006

John Rodwell

This project, funded by the MBReckitt Trust, has a number of starting points. First, when I was Professor of Ecology at Lancaster University, I came across a key document produced by the Government Office for the North-West which aimed to develop sustainability principles for the region. It identified key sectors – business, transport, health, farming, wildlife, culture and so on – and, for each sector, reviewed the current situation, characterised threats and presented action points for strategists and decision-makers. As a Christian and an Anglican priest, I wondered as I read down the contents, whether there would be a section on the human spirit, an appraisal of the spiritual condition of the region with questions and challenges for the faith communities and their leaders. There was no such section, so part of my proposal grew from the notion of conceiving what such pages would be like and writing them.

That was in 1999 and I discovered then, and since, that there has been very little serious engagement between the sustainability process, as it is called, and faith communities. In the now voluminous literature on sustainability and sustainable development – government reports at national, regional and local level, publications from agencies and non-governmental organisations, and academic research all of which I have included in my literature review - the notion of ‘quality of life’ has become a key measure of a sustainable world, yet an official survey has assured us that such things as money, good neighbours and access to the countryside rank much more highly than religious belief as measures of this. Faith communities were generally absent from early consultations and few guidelines or challenges have yet been posed for believers or their faiths. Sustainability targets and indicators, here as elsewhere an integral part of the apparatus of policy and project delivery, have remained resolutely material.

More recently, the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme of the Department for Communities and Local Government has begun to involve faith groups but a recent report from the Sustainable Development Commission and the World Wide Fund for Nature UK confirms that this constituency is still not an integral part of this important sphere of influence. In fact, however, though this report provides a very valuable review of practice and projects among UK faith groups on environmental, social and political problems (an impressive picture actually) it never really suggests that faiths might have some critical purchase on the whole notion of sustainability and the values that drive the process. This crucial failure to engage was the complaint of the only previous consultation between government and the faith communities in 2004 where the participants had just begun to recognise that the themes and aspirations of sustainable development were too narrow and compartmentalised, its underlying assumptions and values questionable, and its perspective technocratic rather than visionary, when the conference drew to a close. Indeed, though the 2005 report touches on the …….

A full version of this lecture can be found in Studies in Christian Ethics 21, 103-120 (2008)

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