Time for a new Reformation

mainzsmFor Martin Luther, it was a life changing moment. For Europe, at the time, it was the prelude to a tortuous process of change. But, for us, five hundred years later, the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation passed like a damp squib with church leaders engaging in predictable conversations about church unity.

Am I alone in thinking that we should mark this anniversary with something altogether more courageous, like a new Reformation? We live in days when the church worldwide is in a parlous condition, with its function reduced to being an agent of comfort, having lost touch with the society in which it is placed and unable to address the most pressing issues of our time. This is a tragedy.

Tom Wright, one of the most distinguished and influential theologians of our time, has dared to restate that the church’s authentic mission is to transform society in accordance with the vision of God given to us in Christ. His book ‘The Day the Revolution Began’ shows how the ‘gospel’ has been terribly misinterpreted by those churches that would most pride themselves on their relationship to the Bible and to Martin Luther. He calls Christians to rediscover their vocation as agents of change in society.

Why is this important? It is important, not just for the church, but for the wider culture. We have lost our way, big time. The neo-liberal economic dream is in tatters. We have organised society around ever more efficient production of goods and services, without due regard for our well-being  or our relationship with the natural world. We have plundered and polluted our way through the earth, disrupted our cultures through the individualism implicit in marketisation, so that we are now so weak we cannot respond to the most serious challenges we have ever faced as human beings.[1]

In this process we have attempted to replace moral aspects of religion with a new rationalism. Most notable were the utilitarians, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who would encourage us to embrace the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number; then there was Kierkegaard, Rawls’ theory of justice, Alasdair MacIntyre and others, who have all explored the realm of morality, apart from religious commitment. And the conclusion has to be that we have failed to provide good reason for morality. Morality exists in a different sphere, the realm of empathy and narrative. It appeals to people rather than commands and it naturally works with religious commitments.

The other notable feature about these rational attempts to tell us what to do is that they have almost universally failed to engage with our nature as creatures and our responsibilities to the natural world. They are constructs focused only on human society and thereby tragically deficient.

So, is it time for a restatement of the Christian faith, a new search to uncover the authentic good news as meant for this day, a good news that will radically change the church’s relationship with the cultures in which it is situated? I believe it might be.

Instead of 95 theses, I think that today we need just two.

  • The Church should understand itself as a transformative agent in society
  • The Church should accept a new commandment to live in harmony with the earth.

These two theses alone could produce a radical transformation of both church and society.

Chris Sunderland Nov 6th 2017

[1] See Rise up with wings like eagles by Chris Sunderland, Earth Books 2016

Lessons from the Garfagnana valley













This year, I was fortunate to go on a guided walking tour of the mountains in the Garfagnana national park in North West Tuscany. I was fascinated to hear from our local guide Pierreluigi about how the development of this valley has been managed, because of its potential importance to our current debates about the Lake District and Snowdonia.

Back in the 50s and 60s the Garfagnana valley was covered in sheep. The hillsides were close-cropped grass and there was an ongoing serious concern about floods and landslides with the public authorities under constant pressure to assign more money to schemes to protect the people. The economy at the time was under pressure with the traditional shepherding life resulting in a very poor existence and many people leaving the area.

As I understand it, three things happened that were of significance. Firstly the hillsides were reforested. Douglas Fir was then the tree of choice, but these are now being replaced by broad-leafed trees. As a result the area is now green and diverse. With the forests came the animals. There are now deer all over, wild boar in abundance, golden eagles and some wolves have been reintroduced. One day in our tour we passed a herd of around twenty wild boar with their young and saw a pair of golden eagles soaring. The pictures here tell the tale.

















The second development was to recruit the farmers to help manage the water and landslide protection scheme. The farmers were inspecting the hillsides regularly anyway and cared about floods, so why not ask them to keep an eye on the flood protection measures? The farmers were paid for this task, which helped them and the public bill for flood protection was significantly reduced.

So they produced a reforested area, gave new work to farmers and the third development was that they introduced tourism with many farms registering as agriturismo, taking in tourists at the same time as running their farm, producing wine, chestnuts, olives etc. The local economy is now resilient and sustainable though it supports less numbers of people.

I wondered at our own Lake District, Snowdonia and other national parks. What would reforestation do? Could it achieve similar outcomes?


The Alliance – a new localism

tressmIt is now obvious that only one party stands any chance of being elected in June this year. Traditional party loyalties have dissolved in the face of Brexit and our opposition now lacks coherence. Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens each have their own ‘tribe’ of supporters backing a particular agenda and, bar a little inconsequential horse trading, they are incapable of meaningful collaboration.

So where is the future of British politics? I believe there may be a future in a renewed localism. This would take the form of an alliance that calls together all who are concerned to work together in practical action towards becoming a welcoming, earth-friendly city region.

In Bristol we already have thousands of committed people daring to say ‘there is an alternative’ and working as co-operatives in initiatives around food, finance, energy, housing and land. It would take just a spark for these people to become a movement that could ultimately form a new political reality. This alliance would be committed to localising those parts of the economy that, in an earth-friendly world, should be localised. It would be committed to an openness to a rich diversity of people, welcoming those who are fleeing persecution and hardship abroad and including humanity in all its vibrant complexity.

City regions are the place to do this. Many have just elected their first Metro Mayor, but the local political processes otherwise remain moribund. This movement would begin below the radar. It would not try to be part of conventional politics, but would be open to everyone to join. It could include all political parties, religious groups and social enterprises that wanted to affiliate, because it would cut across the old invisible barriers. The focus would always be practice, creating new expressions of co-operation, like community food systems, local finance and renewable energy. Political discussion would then focus on politics in practice. Things that could be achieved and which have a substantial track record would be persuasive. Idealisms would fall away. That is part of the magic of the city. It forces a certain pragmatism that can duck the dogmatism. A new spirit of co-operation would emerge as more and more people found meaningful lives working with others to achieve things that everyone could see were good and worthwhile. No longer would we be content to be ‘consumers’. We would be citizens, forming powerful communities across the city region, creating new avenues of co-operation and creating a city region we can genuinely be proud of.

I think it could happen. And now might be the moment to start.

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