Remembering the Land - Reckitt Lecture 2007

John Rodwell

This MB Reckitt Trust project, which began in 2005, had two particular starting points and aims. First, I wanted to explore the apparent deficiency in a spiritual perspective in understanding and implementing the sustainability process, and to see what engagement there might be between faith communities and the other sectors – economic, social and environmental – that are involved; and second, in the spirit of the Trust’s challenge to social structures and processes, I wanted to develop a theological critique of the notion of sustainability as we see it in operation in the UK today.

I began my research in the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire, working with key environmental players – Yorkshire Forward, Groundwork, the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the RSPB (Only silence has greeted my several attempts to engage Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council in the work). And among the faith communities, I have been working with the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist Churches. With each, I was asking the same questions through interviews with executives, discussions with staff and engagement of one sort or another with customers: what it meant to ‘secure the future’ as the UK government calls the quest for sustainability, whether there was a spiritual dimension to this task and vision, and whether some notion of ‘belonging to place’ was considered a part of a sustainable future. This work has proved rich and challenging and it continues; but I have increasingly, this past year, stood back from the particular place, to engage wider representatives of these various sectors and to see how far the conclusions from the case study are applicable more generally.

During the research, I have had a gathering sense of some serious deficiencies in the assumptions lying behind the sustainability process and the whole notion of securing the future. First, there are some very partial and impoverished understandings of ‘community’ in the Dearne Valley and how (indeed whether) this relates to ‘place’ – and how communities relate to places. Second, it has become increasingly hard for me to see how it is possible to secure a future for the Dearne Valley when there is such a deficient comprehension of its ‘past’, or pasts.

A third point is this: that, generally, the faith communities of the area are regarded by local authorities, agencies and NGOs as clients or partners in delivering a sustainable future, a role envisaged in the two national reports about their place in the process. And it is clear they can themselves connive in this, partly because they can be singularly successful in projects that help achieve desirable socio-economic goals. What is not so easy for them to articulate is any substantive theological engagement with critical deficiencies in the process itself. This lecture is therefore partly concerned to identify ways in which belief as well as practice might articulate key changes.

A full version of this lecture can be found in Crucible, October 2008.

Dissemination of results The Reckitt Lecture 2006 has been accepted as a paper for Studies in Christian Ethics in October 2008. A shorter, less academic account of the research will appear in Crucible in 2008. This year, invitations to give postgraduate seminars on the research have come from the universities of Chester, Exeter and Manchester.

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