A Matter of Faith — Land&People

Why do people work to conserve land and protect the environment? Episcopal priest Carla Pryne says that at least some of them do so as an expression of faith. Holder of a master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, Pryne has served five parishes in the Seattle area. In 1992, she turned her attention to environmental organizing and education, co-founding Earth Ministry, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and serving for four years as its first executive director. Currently she is interim rector at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington, and a consultant to an upcoming television documentary on American religious communities engaging in environmental activism. In 2005, Reverend Pryne joined TPL's national board of directors to further cooperation between religious groups and mainline conservation organizations.

How far back can you trace your interest in the environment and conservation? Can you tell us a little about your youth and your first experiences with nature?

My earliest experience of Creation was in New York's Central Park. My father was a scientist, a Jewish refugee from Bulgaria. We spent a lot of time in the park, and he taught me how to look closely at the natural world. For our purposes, Central Park could have been Mount Rainier or Yosemite or any other wild and remote place. He taught me how to peer under rocks to discover what might be hiding there, how to observe the birds and mammals of the park—even the weather. He never used the word God, but through him I came to see nature as something unutterably beautiful, and always beyond containment within scientific knowing alone. I remember he always used to say, pointing to the land and sky around us, "All this could so easily never have been." I also spent many summers at my uncle's farm in Michigan. My older cousin, Freda, knew the crops so well, she could show me how much the corn had changed over 24 hours; she observed the stalks in that detail! Looking back, I recognize how these formative experiences never could have happened without a mentor teaching me how to be curious, to observe, and most of all, to be filled with awe at the intricate perfection of the natural world. This is why mentoring is so important: you love the land because somebody showed you how. And you love the land because there is land for you to experience. I think that's one reason conservationists do the work we do—to teach others the wonders of nature and to be sure there are places where those lessons can be taught, including farms and city parks.

What is Earth Ministry and how did it get started?

In 1988 I was a priest at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle. That winter there was a terrible oil spill off the Washington coast. Thousands of seabirds were poisoned by floating black, sticky oil, and I was so moved by the newspaper's pictures of those suffering birds. For some time before this incident, I had been praying for guidance as to what I could do to make a difference for our planet. Along with 13 parishioners from the cathedral, I joined the bird rescue operation. And I made the conscious choice that joining the rescue was not separate from my religious vocation but part of my work as a priest. After it was over, I joined two parishioners, Jim and Ruth Mulligan, in inviting cathedral members to a discussion about the connection between spirituality and the Earth. To our surprise, 68 people showed up. It seemed that we were all longing for a conversation about the state of the Earth and how that related to the practice of our faith.

Eventually Jim, Ruth, and I launched Earth Ministry to promote the idea that care of the Earth and all its creatures is a genuine and urgent part of the church's calling. Today, Earth Ministry works with over 150 congregations in the Puget Sound area, and 1,500 members across the country. It publishes a newsletter—Earth Letter—makes presentations to parishes, organizes conferences, and offers leadership and training on the intersection of religious practice and environmental protection.

Not many people were attuned to the connection between faith, conservation, and environmentalism when you got started in 1992. What was the reaction when you began this work?

Most of the reaction was favorable, although our bishop did receive a letter from one conservative priest asking for my removal from St. Mark's because I was teaching "New Age heresies." The bishop himself was supportive. One thing I found remarkable is how many people who were not church members began attending meetings and events of our group, which became known as the Ecology/Spirituality Group. Many of these were environmental professionals or volunteers drawn by our discussions of earth spirituality and ethics. People also attended worship services we organized for the wider community.

Since then, there has come to be a viable and growing movement of people of all faiths who see care of the earth as central to their calling as people of faith. Promoting stewardship of the planet in the context of Christianity or other religions is rarely seen as heresy or beyond the pale of legitimate ministry. More congregations are acting on stewardship issues, and several seminaries have included a focus on environmental ethics in their curriculums. Earth Ministry is now one of many groups within many denominations promoting a relationship between faith, ministry, and care of the earth.

Where do you think this interest is coming from?

For the last 30 years, many mainline churches have been in turmoil—divided internally, losing membership. Yet, over the same time period, there has been an immense flowering of interest in spirituality, both in the church and in the wider culture. This interest stretches across all denominations. Some Christians have been drawn to wonderful, older spiritual traditions—Franciscan, Benedictine, Celtic Christendom, in particular. These traditions offer two things that many modern religious people seem to long for—a grounding in contemplative practices and a focus on the spirituality of the Earth. Many people are upset about what's happening to the Earth, and they are drawn to the church as a place both to grieve and to practice deep hope. I think of this segment of the Christian family as the "eco-church." They are asking for worship services that emphasize gratitude to God for Creation and a confession of sins against the earth. They use the word "relationship" a lot: relationship to God, relationship to place, relationship to one another—especially to the poor, whom environmental degradation hits hardest. Effectively, they are saying that we need to talk about God as being present in nature—not above or beyond nature—and we need an ethics and spirituality that grounds and empowers our activism on behalf of the earth. Above all, they see Creation as a gift from God, a dimension of God's selfexpression in the universe. As Martin Luther famously said, "God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

This is a departure from some of the traditional ways the church has seen humans and nature, isn't it?

Yes, in a way these Christians are redefining Christianity. In the past, the church has talked a lot about "salvation history," as if God's work of creation and salvation included only the human realm. But this group is extending the reach of that salvation—with good biblical warrant, I might add—and reminding us all that the love of God is a very big tent, extending to all Creation and to all beings. The question most often asked in this regard is: "Doesn't the book of Genesis say that human beings are given dominion over the Earth?" The short answer is: If this phrase is interpreted to mean that one species, the human, has the right to destroy the divine Creation, then that interpretation is simply wrong. If you look at the entire book of Genesis, its principal concern is not the subjugation of Creation by one species, but rather the gift from God of Creation. It's like my father said, all this could so easily not be, yet is!

You mention that promoters of the eco-church use the word "relationship" a lot. TPL is absolutely a secular organization, but we also use the word "relationship" a lot when we talk about our mission—promoting and supporting the relationship of people to the land. Is that one reason you joined TPL's board?

Well, it does seem like a good fit. I know of no other organization in the environmental movement that includes the word spirituality in its strategic plan, that uses storytelling as part of its marketing program, and that publishes books on the importance of land in people's spiritual lives. The Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner penned a lovely definition of the word vocation: "the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." I think that's why I, and a lot of other people, are involved with TPL—they see it as a place where their deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. The point I'd like TPL— and all conservation groups—to understand is that there is a growing, energetic, and creative group of people from across the Christian denominations—and in other faith traditions as well—who see earth stewardship as a central part of their calling as people of faith; and who are ready and eager to engage in conversation with committed organizations like TPL to figure out how we can work together.

You have said that making connections between churches and secular conservation groups is one of the reasons you joined TPL's board. But there are obstacles to making these connections, aren't there?

You're absolutely right. There is a language associated with land protection that some people of faith find obscure, and the theological language of faith communities can make some conservationists uneasy. But the basic values correlate well in so many ways, and most important, the conservation goals are often identical: making the land whole and safe for future generations. So we have to translate our dreams for each other, and find ways wherein our respective gifts and skill sets are used. We must build the trust and relationships that can produce conservation results—in which Creation is protected in a sacred trust for future generations.

William Poole is editor of Land&People. For more information on Earth Ministry, go to www.earthministry.org.