Houghton on A Christian Response to Climate Change

March 21, 2007 at 5:23 am | Posted in BBC, Christian music, Christianity, Climate change, Climate science, Education & Thought Leadership, Environment, Ethics, Faith, Global warming, IPCC, Jesus Christ, Jesus College, Jesus' life, Oxford, Oxford University, Radio 4, Religion, Science Education, Sir John Houghton | 1 Comment

Dear Kitty,

Sir John Houghton is an Old Member of Jesus College, Oxford (as am I) and he spoke in Jesus College Chapel on Sunday 11th February, 2007 on “A Christian Response to Climate Change”. He is President of the John Ray Initiative, connecting Environment, Science and Christianity. I feel these strands are being woven more tightly together now, which is a good thing.

Sunday Worship was recorded and broadcast live from our college chapel by BBC Radio 4 on that day. This service was nine days after the release of the first of several Summaries for Policymakers (SPM) due to be published this year. These are the high level documents that, combined with detailed technical reports comprise the most comprehensive document on climate science, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) entitled Climate Change 2007.

Using this audio link you can listen to the entire service, or read this transcript*.

Richard Cizik, Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals also spoke.

It was lovely to spend time with you today.


* Instead of a single address, Sir John Houghton spoke at several points in the service, in response to the texts for the day:

Reading: Verses from Genesis one and two.
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Sir John Houghton

It is commonly believed that science and religion are opposed to each other. But that is quite wrong. Since God is the Creator, science is the way we find out how God’s creation works. It is, in fact, God’s science and science can help in our worship of God for his great creation.

Early on in the Bible we are told to take care of God’s creation. We are also told that humans are made in the image of God – that means we can be creative too. Science and technology, for instance as in the report of the UN climate change panel, are vital to the exercise of our stewardship of the Earth.


Reading: Isaiah Chapter 24 beginning at Verse 4:
The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left. The new wine dries up and the vine withers; all the merrymakers groan.

Sir John Houghton

Isaiah presents a story of environmental destruction. In our time, climate change is beginning to provide similar bad news. In the summer of 2003, a completely unprecedented heat wave in central Europe killed at least 20,000 people. It is that sort of event that backs up the statement that climate change is a weapon of mass destruction. As the world warms, by 2050 it is expected that will be a normal summer in Europe.

Each year 25 thousand million tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and gas. This acts like a blanket over the earth’s surface – leading to the global warming and climate change we are all talking about. Pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere means that this century the climate on average will change faster than for at least 10,000 years. It will be impossible for many ecosystems and humans to adapt to such rapid change.

We all know about the threat to polar bears. But millions of the world’s smaller species are also at risk of extinction because of climate change.

As the world warms, the hydrological cycle will increase in intensity. That means more floods and more droughts. They are the worst disasters the world knows, causing more deaths, misery and economic loss than any other disasters. Recent years have seen very damaging ones in Africa, Asia, Australia and America – and even in Europe and the UK. Careful scientific projections indicate the risk of such events will increase by factors of 5 or even more by the year 2050. Extreme droughts that now last for months will tend to last for years – all extremely bad news for many in the world’s poorer countries. Hundreds of millions of environmental refugees will be looking for new homes. But where?

The big impacts on people will come from sea level rise. Coping with half a metre or more of sea level rise will be a big and expensive problem for many in the Fens of East Anglia, but in Bangladesh, 10 million people who live and farm below the one metre contour will be displaced. So will many more millions in other large river deltas, in low lying islands in the world’s oceans and in many other places. In our increasingly crowded world where do these people go?

The reality of these likely impacts brings a stark moral imperative. Over the last century or more, much of our wealth in the rich world has come through cheap energy from coal, oil and gas – without our realizing the damage to the climate that is only now beginning to show up. It is those in the poorer parts of the world who will suffer a disproportionate share of this damage. It is they also that are now looking for their share of cheap energy for their development.

Care for the poor is a large and recurring theme in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. The moral imperative for us to act is inescapable.


Reading: A reading from Luke Chapter 12 beginning at verse 16:
Jesus told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Sir John Houghton

Given the inescapable imperative to act, what action can we take? There are lots of things we can and must do but what we need most to learn is to share with the poorer parts of the world much more of our wealth, resources and skills. If we don’t we will be rich fools.

His land produced far more crops than he needed. So he built bigger barns to store his grain and his goods and looked forward to a life of ease and luxury. But his life was cut short and he could not take his goods with him.

We are like the rich fool. Greed is dominant in our wealthy western world. Economic growth is top of the political agenda. Our use of resources is unsustainable. We are becoming increasingly aware of the real threat of climate change but are in no hurry to do what is necessary to halt it.

In the next section of Luke 12, Jesus instructed his disciples not to worry so much about material goods but to sell their possessions and give to the poor. That way brings treasure in heaven that does not get exhausted.

Sharing is something we all do. We share within our families, we share in our local communities And through our social programmes we share on a national scale. But internationally we are very bad at sharing. Yes, we give aid to poor countries. But if we take account of the benefits to us from trade with poorer countries, adding aid and trade together tips the scales overwhelmingly in our favour. The net flow of money is from the poor to the rich. Loving our neighbour as well as loving God demands a lot more sharing.

So how do we share regarding climate change? In the developed world our emissions of carbon dioxide are on average about 5 times larger per person that in the developing world – a very unequal situation. First, we must work harder and more urgently to reduce our emissions. We must also assist developing countries as they work to provide carbon free energy. Money, technology and skills that we can provide can help to make this happen.

Will it cost a great deal for us to do this? Nick Stern’s recent Review demonstrates a cost to the world’s nations that is small – less than 1% of GDP on average. What is most important is that our attitudes and priorities change. Less on material goods and gain, much more on caring for the Earth and the poor. As Jesus constantly emphasized, that in any case is the way to a more fulfilled life. We need to take heed of Jesus’ words in Luke 12 v 28. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.


Reading: A reading from Colossians Chapter 1, beginning at verse 15:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Sir John Houghton

I am often asked if I am optimistic for the future. I reply Yes for three reasons. First, as I chaired the UN’s scientific panel from 1988-2002, I experienced the commitment of the world’s scientists from a wide range of backgrounds to understanding climate change and tackling it responsibly. Secondly I know the necessary technology is available. Thirdly, I believe God is committed to his creation. The passage from Colossians we have just heard, tells us that in Jesus all things hold together. This commitment by God, means that we don’t have to work on our own. God is there to help us with it. In the Genesis creation story God walked with Adam in the garden in the late afternoon. I imagine they talked about the garden and how well Adam was coping with it. Jesus also talked to his disciples about the partnership that comes through his continued presence with us. I can personally pay tribute to the strength that God provides as people pray. There is a tremendous challenge to churches and to the Christian community to provide the leadership for which the world is waiting – in service, in sharing, in caring for the whole of His world.

Miserere mei, Deus – Psalm 51

February 23, 2007 at 6:29 am | Posted in 2007, Britain, British History, Choral music, Christian music, Christianity, England, Latin, St. George's Chapel, Windsor, Windsor Castle | 15 Comments

This evening I was carried to Heaven on the wings of angelic voices: I attended the special Evensong service for Ash Wednesday in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Special is an understatement. I expected to be sitting in the nave, as usual. Instead, pupils from Years 7 and 8, school staff, a dozen or so parents and two dozen “Chapel regulars” were ushered quietly into the choir enclosure, seen from above here:

Sketch of Choir Enclosure, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

See the corner of the red carpet leading to the altar? Well, I sat in the fourth seat from the altar on the South Side (i.e. the right-hand side facing the altar) in Stall S24, in place of one of the Knights of the Garter. I noticed the largest plaque behind me had belonged to:

Stall S24

  • 1868 (757) John Winston (Spencer-Churchill), 7th Duke of Marlborough.
  • 1869 (759) Stratford (Canning), Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe. Diplomatist.
  • 1899 (810) Victor Alexander (Bruce), 9th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine.
  • 1928 (872) Alexander Augustus Frederick William Alfred George Cambridge, Earl of Athlone. Formerly known as Prince Alexander of Teck. Married the Princess Alice, daughter of Prince Leopold, 4th son of Queen Victoria. Governor-General of the Union of South Africa. Governor of Windsor Castle.

The complete list of the Stall-Plates of the Knights of the Garter (1348—present) is here.
The complete list of the Knights of the Garter (1348—present) is here.

The ceiling itself is worthy of years’ study:

Ceiling of Choir Enclosure, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

and I sat directly beneath that red-and-yellow quartered flag in the lower left corner of this photograph.

We sat and contemplated in silence. Then the Chapel clergy and choir arrived in silence.

The old language of the prayer book brought back childhood memories, and it was hard to resist joining in the singing of prayers and psalms, so I consciously tried to live as fully as I could in the moment: absorbing as much as possible visually and aurally.

The entire service was memorable, but one particular piece of music sent shivers down my spine and caused tears to well up in my eyes as the daylight waned and night fell to wrap around our low-lit choral experience in that unique choir enclosure. Here are the first three pages of a 17-page piece written by Gregorio Allegri:

Gregorio Allegri Miserere mei, Deus sheet music page 1 Arrangement Copyright © Christopher Moore 2001

Gregorio Allegri Miserere mei, Deus sheet music page 2 Arrangement Copyright © Christopher Moore 2001

Gregorio Allegri Miserere mei, Deus sheet music page 3 Arrangement Copyright © Christopher Moore 2001

See the two choirs?

  • Choir I has five voices: Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto, Tenor and Bass.
  • Choir II has four voices: Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto and Bass

It was Soprano 1 (Alex) in Choir II that sent shivers down many spines!

His older brother (Lawrence) sang Soprano 2. (The girls told me after the service they had heard the boys practising earlier in the week at school.)

For this piece, Choir II sang from outside the choir enclosure—distant sopranoes from the nave floated in while Choir I remained with us in the choir enclosure. The spatial separation was a powerful element.

Am – pli-us la-va me ab in – i – qui – ta – te me – – – – – – – a:

et a pec – ca – to me – o mun – – – – – – – – da_ me._

That second line was spine-tingling in the extreme ~ ~ ~ and the soprano sang these lines as a chorus after each pair of lines.

As far as I can translate, these three pages cover these first two lines in the Revised Standard Version of Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin!

Listen to a 1-minute clip on this page. Unfortunately, so far, every single clip I have found online cuts out before the piece I’d like to share with you 😦

After the service, walking down the back steps, parents compared thoughts:

There is no way anyone could experience this and believe God does not exist.

I had tears in my eyes, and goosebumps!

Amazing. That is the closest to Heaven I can imagine.

Angel voices.

P.S. Wikipedia has plenty more information on this music …

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