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Believing and Belonging in the Sustainability Process

John Rodwell.


Synopsis of the project

This project is now completed. Please see below for links to MB Reckitt Lectures and Doing Justice to the Land Conference.

The background

Increasingly, economic development has had to accommodate to the ‘sustainability process’ – using social, political, environmental and cultural measures to check whether meeting the present needs of people and their communities compromises their future welfare and existence. Recently, this concern has found expression in the notion of the ‘quality of life’ for which targets and indicators related to these various concerns are selected so as to measure the effectiveness of policy delivery and just how sustainable our human activities are.

In the now voluminous literature on the sustainability process, it is sometimes acknowledged that spiritual matters may also have a part to play in the quality of life, yet generally there is no dimension concerned with the human spirit within national and regional sustainability agendas. Faith communities have often been absent from early consultations and no guidelines or challenges have been specifically directed at believers or religious leaders. Sustainability targets and indicators have remained resolutely material and official surveys have us believe that public attitudes rank religion far below such things as money, good neighbours and access to the countryside as measures of the quality of life.

Among faith communities themselves, though the concept of sustainability has become a mark of respectable discourse about environmental concern, attention has often focused on the ethical implications for belief, individual behaviour and social action, rather than on a theological basis for a response to its challenge. Where a more integral engagement has taken place, 4 discussions have highlighted that the themes and targets of the sustainability process are indeed too narrow and compartmentalized, its underlying cultural assumptions and values unchallenged and its perspective technocratic rather than visionary.

The researcher

John Rodwell is a professional scientist and Anglican priest. As an ecologist, his work over the past 30 years has been concerned essentially with the audit and evaluation of environmental assets such as biodiversity, habitats and landscapes; and also with trying to understand how these assets are affected by the interventions and expectations of human communities – through agricultural and forestry activities, for example, in recreation and by nature conservation itself. He was Professor of Ecology at Lancaster University and now works as an independent consultant.

As a priest, he has been especially concerned with the notions of creation and environmental ethics: with whether or how humankind and nature can explore and celebrate a common dependency on God's creative generosity – in worship, theological thinking and in environmental stewardship.6 He is attached to the Priory of St Mary the Virgin in Lancaster and is a Canon of Blackburn Cathedral.

The aims of the project

This project will parallel-track the sustainability process to see how far, in various environmental agencies and planning bodies, among their staff and procedures, a spiritual dimension is acknowledged, how this is incorporated and what difference it makes – both to the integrity of the quality of life approach and for the engagement of those faith communities whose own concerns may not be articulated or heard.

Second, it will investigate whether particular areas subjected to the sustainability process actually have what might be called a spiritual functionality of their own, whether these patterns and processes are discerned in the sustainability process, and how they map on to our other ways of understanding and measuring functionality – the environmental, cultural, social, political and economic.

To give focus and impetus to the task, it will explore the notion of belonging – not in the sense of belonging to religious institutions or not,7 but rather belonging in terms of a confluence or mismatch between what can be discerned as spiritually functional and that which ‘works’ in other terms. In particular, the research will be concerned with the relationships between spiritual, cultural and environmental functionalities as expressed in ‘sense of place’.

This first year of the research will use the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire as a case-study. This is an area with the kind of post-industrial landscape where questions of sustainability are posed especially acutely. Here, communities have lost the social and economic cohesion that came from dominating industries like coal mining and are challenged with recovering identity, self-respect and sense of place in dramatically changed landscapes. A costly regeneration process has been applied site-by-site in single capital hits with no endowment funding, no sense of connectivity and in ways which have removed all signifiers of the recent past. In the second and third years, the work will shift to two other landscapes to test the approach in different situations and then summarize the generic findings of the research.

The methods of the work

The project is essentially reflective and prophetic. It will involve data gathering in the areas under study, by observation, interview and listening with individuals, communities and leaders. In particular, in this first year, it will work with environmental agencies, local authorities, non-governmental organizations and local people in the Dearne Valley and with the congregations and leaders of faith communities there. There will be close liaison with the Anglican dioceses of Sheffield and Wakefield, the Northern Ordination Course and the Mirfield Centre whose various training programmes can provide critical discussion and feedback of the approach and results.

The outcomes

  • In addition to narrative and financial reports to the Christendom Trust each year, the specific outcomes will be:
  • position papers for Christian faith communities, their leaders and decision makers in each of the 3 study areas (one for each case study)
  • an outline of a module on Discerning the Spirit in the Sustainability Process for use in theological learning (year 3)
  • a paper for conference presentation and publication in a peer-reviewed journal (year 2).
  • three charges to be delivered as Reckitt Lectures to express the prophetic aspect of the engagement (one each year).

Fulfilling the vision of the MB Reckitt Trust

This project fits the MB Reckitt Trust's general concern with developing a Christian critique of powerful social structures and a process that is central to the political life of the nation and with seeking to change influential attitudes and assumptions. In particular, the project is directed to understanding how a sense of belonging might equip people of faith to engage more fully with social and political questions (Current Priority 2), to bring focus to shared actions in plural settings (Priority 3) and so to build diverse and cohesive communities (Priority 4).

Reverend Professor John Rodwell, (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


  1. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2002). ‘A Better Quality of Life: a Strategy for Sustainable Development in the UK.’ At
  2. Government Office for the North-West (1999). ‘Action for Sustainability: towards a Regional Sustainability Action Plan for the North-West’.
  3. Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2002). ‘Survey of public attitudes to quality of life and to the environment.’ At statistics/pubatt
  4. Community Environment Associates (2004). ‘Faith Communities and Sustainable Development. A Report for the Government Office of London. At
  5. See, for example, Rodwell, J. S., Ling, C, and Hey, D. (2005). ‘Future Landscapes and Biodiversity for the Dearne Valley, Yorkshire.’ Report to English Nature.
  6. See, for example, Rodwell, J. S. (2001). ‘A Priest at Work’, in Faith in Science, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Gordy Slack, pp. 35–50. Routledge.
  7. As developed, for example, by Davie, G. (1994), Religion in Britain since 1945. Believing without Belonging, Blackwell; and Davie (2001) ‘The persistence of institutional religion in modern Europe’, in Peter Berger and the Study of Religion, ed. Linda Woodhead with Paul Heelas and David Martin, pp. 1–11, Routledge.

Forgetting The Land - Reckitt Lecture 2006

Remembering The Land - Reckitt Lecture 2007

Redeeming The Land - Keynote at Doing Justice to the Land in 2009

Doing Justice to the Land Conference



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