Taking the ash out of Ash Wednesday

An Australian writer flagellates the green-leaning CofE bishops who want to turn Lent into 40 days and 40 nights of conserving energy.

Ash Wednesday was something special when I was a child. You exited church with a huge carbon smut on your forehead. Woe betide the coward who furtively wiped it off. Our nun teacher, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the Penguin of The Blues Brothers fame, told us that those ashes were a poke in the eye of a godless world.

So when I read that the Church of England (CofE) bishops of London and Liverpool, Dr Richard Chartres and James Jones, have declared a carbon-free Lent, I could just imagine the Penguin unsheathing her wooden yardstick to xylophone their knuckles. ‘How dare those brazen things take the ash out of Ash Wednesday?’ she would be muttering.

Amen to that. Just how will a carbon-free Lent make Britain more Christian? Even to an unbeliever, the bishops’ initiative seems just a bit daft. As the non plus ultra of Lenten self-denial, participants in the Carbon Fast are to remove one prominent light bulb and live without it for 40 excruciating days. On Easter, they will screw in a low-energy bulb, thus saving 60kg of carbon (1).

The symbolism of this is perfect, if inadvertent. Why the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead should be symbolised by Easter Bunnies and chocolate Easter eggs has never been clear to me. But replacing high-energy light bulbs with dimmer low-energy ones seems a perfect image of the slow extinction of Christianity in England.

Instead of fasting for Lent, the bishops are urging their faithful to reduce their carbon footprint a fraction each day. Instead of giving up snacking on chocolates, they are told to avoid using plastic bags. Instead of giving up lolly-gobbling, they are told to unplug their mobile phone charger. Instead of giving up alcohol, they are told to check the house for draughts (2).

Along with God, the bishops seem to have lost their common sense. Obesity has been linked to global warming (3). Chocoholic lolly-gobblers walk less, consume more McDonald’s and use more electric appliances. Have they calculated how much the carbon footprint of their flock would shrink if they gave up sweets for Lent? And the idea that reusing old envelopes is superior to teetotalling as a way of reducing carbon emissions is risible. The conversion of the legions of Britain’s alleged binge drinkers would be a great environmental, as well as spiritual, achievement.

As the bishops rightly point out, however, Lent is not only about penitential practices like fasting, going temporarily vegan and taking cold showers. It is also about concern for one’s neighbour. The sample sermon in the promotions kit for their Carbon Fast includes the touching story of Andrew Maglasey’s young family. Their life has apparently been ruined by climate change.

But bishops in Britain should be concerned about the global impact of a warmer world - and the fact that it might potentially be a good thing. Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg claims that deaths attributable to excessively hot weather are typically an order of magnitude lower than that for excessively cold weather. In Europe, the figures are 1.5million cold deaths versus 200,000 heat deaths. Overall, claims Lomborg, by 2050 a warmer planet might actually save 1.4million lives a year.

I realise that in the eyes of environmentally aware bishops, Lomborg is a heretic - not just a scientific heretic, but a stack-the-faggots-dry-and-high sort of heretic. The theologian du jour is Al Gore, whose documentary An Inconvenient Truth is a recommended resource for the Carbon Fast campaign. Perhaps they are thinking of adding it to the Bible as a multimedia appendix to the Book of the Apocalypse.

Nonetheless, their eco-friendly Lenten resolutions would benefit from Lomborg’s rigorous scrutiny of the impact on developing countries. If less petrol is consumed, won’t that put Nigerians out of work? If you use low-energy lightbulbs made in Holland, will that put out of work Indonesians who make the high-energy ones? Are Bishop Chartres and Bishop Jones willing to take responsibility for the deaths that a cooler world may cause?

Chesterton is reported to have said that those who stop believing in Christianity don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. This is not an epigram which the readers of spiked, a generally godless publication, are likely to assent to. But it does seem to apply to certain clerics. Having abandoned traditional practices of Christian piety in a desperate search for relevance and fuller pews, the bishops have resorted to touting an activities list which treats the environment with the respect they once paid to God.

The problem with sprinkling holy water over 40 sensible ways of being thrifty is that they don’t express an interior conversion to anything, much less God. You don’t need to be a Christian to want to save money by using less electricity. The old ways of living Lent were senseless, in a way. But they symbolised a sturdy desire to amend one’s life, which was hopefully reflected in more upright behaviour and greater devotion to religious practice. The new Carbon-free Lent is nothing of the sort: it lacks any sense of transcendence whatsoever.

Above all, the privations of Lent were supposed to be an imitation of the 40 days Christ spent in the desert fasting before beginning his ministry. Fasting and penance are essential to Christianity because its founder commanded them: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’ It is a strange sales pitch in the Penguin’s godless world, but at least it is a distinctive one - unlike the bishops’ commonsense message of thrift, which appears to have been cribbed from a list of handy household hints by Tesco’s public relations department.

However, one of the bishops’ suggestions is more demanding than anything the Penguin would ever have recommended to us. On the thirty-ninth day of Lent, Good Friday, the day when Christendom contemplates the betrayal, the scourging, the crucifixion and agonising death of Christ, they want their flock to talk to church leaders about making their churches greener.

Only a saint could possibly do that. Give me a hairshirt any day.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet and BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi said many religious people seem to be in search of eco-salvation. He asked if last year’s floods were punishment for our eco-sins. Brendan O’Neill argued that mankind is more than the janitor of planet Earth. Nathalie Rothschild was not impressed by Virgin’s attempt to absolve us of our eco-sins. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Religion.

(1) Christians told: Give up carbon for Lent, Daily Telegraph, 5 February 2008

(2) Carbon Fast downloads and resources, Tearfund

(3) How the obesity epidemic is aggravating global warming, New Scientist, 27 June 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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