In preparation for the publication of a series of reflections, “The Wisdom of Trees” in Bible Reflections for Older People (BRF, September-December 2018) the editor, Eley McAinsh, came to interview us. A shortened and edited version appears in the booklet, but here is the full version, also slightly edited.
My name is Margot Hodson and I’m Rector of six churches in Buckinghamshire, quite near the Oxfordshire border. I’ve been involved in environmental things since I was a student. I went to university to study geography and to go into nature conversation. I had a call to Christian ministry there and the rest is history really, but I spend my time trying to combine the two.
My name is Martin Hodson. I’m married to Margot and I’m a scientist, originally a plant scientist. I did a degree in botany and then a doctorate in plant physiology, but I’ve worked on environment and faith for round about 25 years. Now I’m the Operations Director with the John Ray Initiative, which is a charity looking at combining faith and the environment. I’m also the Principal Tutor of Christian Rural and Environmental Studies, which is a distance learning course based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.
You’ve both written for BRF before and now you’re collaborating on a series for Bible Readings for Older People. Why did you decide to write about trees?
Margot: Trees are very important to the natural world – they’re whole little ecologies in their own right and lots of other things live on them. They’re important in the Bible – there are lots of places in the Bible where particular trees are mentioned and they also illustrate all sorts of spiritual truths. If you look at the way trees are used in the Bible you can find ways in which God is teaching us through them, so you can definitely learn from God through trees.
I’ve always loved trees and it was probably Dutch Elm Disease that really got me thinking about ecological problems back in the 1970s when I was at school. That’s something that has always stayed with me.
Martin: I actually wrote my first academic paper on trees, or a tree to be precise. It was a poor beech tree in mid-Wales that had a pile of salt dumped under it. Since then I’ve written a lot of scientific papers on trees.
Can you give me some examples of the ‘spiritual truths’ we can learn from trees?
Margot: We’ve written about the willow in Psalm 1, putting down deep roots to find water and putting roots deep down into faith; the almond tree in Jeremiah talks about ‘watching’; date palms are about ‘fruitfulness’ and the oak is about ‘righteousness’, so there are many different examples and we really can learn from them.
Martin: And I’ve just been writing about the mustard seed – is that a tree or not? – faith and the mustard seed.
On your various websites there’s quite a distinct division of labour: you, Martin, are the scientist and you’re the theologian Margot. But in reality, your work is much more closely integrated isn’t it? How has your collaboration evolved over the years?
Martin: As a scientist, obviously I specialize in the science, so when Margot and I work together, very often I will lead with the science. I’ll talk about climate change and other environmental issues, and then Margot will come in and talk about ethics and theology. But we both have enough knowledge of the other area to be able to both on our own. So, for example, on a recent trip to Sweden, I did whole lectures on theology as well as on the science and on what we can do, practically. I’ve had quite a lot of training in theology as well. I’ve done a lot of courses and I do a lot of reading on the subject. So we can switch around and we can take each other’s areas. But when we’re working together (as we did on ‘A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues’ (BRF, 2015)) I tend to write the first bit on the science and then Margot writes the theological reflection.
Margot: I came to committed Christian faith at university where I was studying in the geography department. We had a little Christian group which used to meet for lunch once a week and we talked about all sorts of things to do with global issues and tried to work out what the Bible, what the Christian faith, was saying about them. That was my foundation for thinking about both environmental questions and also theological and Christian responses. So although I’m more the theological lead these days, Martin has a lot of theological training behind him. Although he’s the science lead, I do have a science-based environmental degree, so we’re able to do each other’s thing. Occasionally if we’re doing something together we do the whole lot together, but usually Martin does the science and I do the theology.
So for both of you: how would you describe the way in which your faith drives and shapes your environmental work?
|Martin and Margot with a copy of Bible Reflections for|
Older People in Cornerstone Christian Centre, Grove
Martin: For me, of course, one of my main work roles is in the field of faith and environment. The John Ray Initiative is an organisation which was set up to look at the interaction between Christianity and the environment and environmental issues, so for me it’s a central part of my work. I do still do some secular work, teaching at Oxford University and at Oxford Brookes University, but a major part of my work is now directly to do with faith and the environment.
Margot: For me, my faith is very much informed by my understanding of the environment and my understanding of the environment is very much informed by my faith. It’s believing in God who is Creator, and who sees his creation as good. It is believing in the Holy Spirit who is Sustainer, and sustains this beautiful world that God has created. It is believing in Jesus who is Redeemer, who has redeemed the whole world through all that he did for us on the cross. We will one day see that redemption fully as we look towards a remade heaven and earth when all things will be renewed and creation will no longer be groaning, as it talks about in Romans 8. The leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations, as it talks about in Revelation 22. The idea that the whole Gospel is for the whole world, the whole universe, is something I find quite mind-blowing and that drives my understanding of nature. It also drives my understanding of the Gospel when I see the world that God has made.
So do you find that there are still arguments that have to be won in certain quarters?
Martin: Very definitely!
Margot: We’ve just had the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and are now able to read the Bible for ourselves and find out about our faith. It’s so mind-blowing to know that it’s by God’s grace that we are saved; that it’s not of ourselves but it’s God initiative. He longs for people to know him and give their lives to him, but I think it’s been very easy for Christians over the years to miss a wider picture of God’s redemption and that sense that God had something for the whole universe. God so loved the cosmos that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him… There is the sense that this is a much bigger thing than we ever imagined. But I think for many people that is such a new concept and for some people that can be quite a worrying concept. They might think it means that we don’t need to trust in God for ourselves any more, and what we do no longer matters if the whole world is going to be saved regardless. So what we’re saying is not that, but that in some sense God is going to renew and redeem the whole universe. It is something very big, and for some people it just seems too big. And in many places, the church is struggling with this. Something as new as that is hard for people to get their heads around.
Martin: I’d agree with all of that. I think things have improved, and improved very markedly, certainly in the time I’ve been involved in this whole area. When I started about 25 years ago, we set up a small group in St Aldate's, Oxford – the St Aldate's Group for the Environment, which became ‘SAGE’ – there were real worries about this group. People feared we were going the wrong way and chucking out evangelism, and there were all those kinds of arguments. Actually, things have improved across large parts of the church. Then there was hardly anybody in the churches who would speak about the environment but now there are quite a lot of the bishops, for example, who are speaking up about the environment and it has become more mainstream. It’s not enough, but it is a lot better than it was, say, 25 years ago.
You both have experience working across a wide range of age groups – with students in universities and across the whole gamut of church life. Can you generalise at all about how the different generations are dealing with environmental issues?
Margot: I think it’s not as straightforward as some people might say. Some people seem to have this stereotype that older people are carbon-guzzling, lets-forget-about-the-planet dinosaurs and young people are deep green, vegan, carrot-eaters. And it’s not like that at all. It’s much more of a broad range across the board. Just as post-modernism affected all age groups, not just the young, I think all age groups have been affected by the things people see happening in the environment. In this country, and in mainland Europe, there’s grown a general understanding that there are environmental problems, that climate change is real, and there are challenges in the environmental area. All generations are responding to that, sometimes in different ways. For example, on diet, we came across this expression ‘flexitarian’ which means you don’t give up meat altogether but you reduce your consumption. That’s an easier approach for older people to adopt, whereas I’ve got a nephew who has gone vegan and is absolutely passionate about that. So people deal with it in different ways: again, there are a few, not many, younger people who were perhaps a bit overcooked on the environmental message as they were growing up. They had it every year at school, and they get to 18 and say just give me a fast car and a burger. People are people, and people respond in different ways, in different age groups and different socio-economic groups, but the general pattern in this country is towards increasing awareness. There’s huge variation but I don’t think it’s necessarily age-related, though I do think the younger generations will take many more things as read, so they’ll expect housing to be sustainable, for example, and expect cars to be greener, but in general it’s mixed right across the age range.
Martin: When I did ‘The Hope for Planet Earth’ tours with Tearfund and A Rocha UK some years ago they were largely with 16-year-olds. A lot of them were really committed, but there was also quite a lot of apathy, and sadly, there were some, as Margot says, who seem to have been ‘over-cooked’ and were just saying ‘we’re all going to die, it’s too late to do anything about it, so let’s just live and be merry and all that’. So in my experience, it isn’t as clear-cut as saying older people aren’t environmentally friendly and young people are. It’s doesn’t work like that.
More institutionally, what do you see going on at local church level, diocesan level?
Margot: I think in our churches we’ve had some really good goes at doing some green things. In our biggest church, St Mary’s, Haddenham, a few years back we needed to change the boiler and a group got together to look at sustainable options. We were really committed to a renewable energy option, but one by one each option fell by the wayside for a Grade 1 listed building. We wanted solar panels on the back of the church, the south side, which wouldn’t have been seen from the front but at that time the advice from the diocese was that we would not be given permission. It wasn’t even worth trying. I think that might be different now. We looked into a wood pellet boiler and that led us down a crazy road of potentially having to underpin the Grade 1 listed tower if we did it because we would have had to build an extra big boiler house. Eventually, we found a very, very efficient gas boiler, but we are thinking of trying again in the 2020s, and we might try again for solar power in the not-too-distant future because we’ve been told there has been a change of thinking on that.
We once had a great time when some of our secular friends thermal imaged the church on a very cold carol service night. It did show up the main problems, which are the windows because the building is medieval and you can’t put additional glazing onto medieval glass because it causes condensation and that damages the glass.
Martin: When we arrived here in Haddenham we thought we shouldn’t go too heavy on the green thing, because that’s what we were known for and the last thing you want is for the new vicar to bang on every week about the same topic – their favourite topic. But the write-up in the local Thame newspaper when we arrived had the headline ‘Green Vicar Appointed’ and within a couple of weeks we were contacted by this couple who said ‘We’re thinking about setting up a ‘Transition’ group in the village, can we come round and talk to you?’ We had a really good conversation and I think they were genuinely amazed that the church was interested. ‘Transition’ is a secular organisation which started down in the south-west. Totnes was the first but it’s now spread out from there and become international: it’s basically about making communities more sustainable. So they were wanting to start up a Transition group and we said ‘Yes, we’ll help you.’ They started by putting on showings of the film ‘The Age of Stupid’, the climate change disaster movie. When they realised I was a scientist got me to take the questions-and-answers after the showings. Because I’d been on these tours with Tearfund and A Rocha, basically nowadays people can fire almost anything they like at me and I can give them some kind of answer. Then after the film shows we did all kinds of things, like a campaign around the village with the thermal imaging camera.
Margot: We borrowed a camera first and then we got a grant to buy our own for the village.
Martin: Then we did something called ‘airtightness testing’, where you put a fan on the front door and you extract air out of the house. That produces a slight vacuum in the house and you can work out where all the drafts are.
Margot: We got a grant for that as well!
Martin: We’ve done lots on local food …
Margot: And the community orchard which has just had its official opening.
Martin: So all kinds of initiatives. It’s not all to do with the church, but as it happens, quite a few people from the church have been involved in Transition. We did have one event in the church when they had a bicycle-powered film so they had people cycling like mad to keep the power going.
Margot: They did it in relays…
Martin: So it’s all been very good in itself but it’s also been very good for church/community relations.
Margot: And one thing leads to another so we used the money we raised from ‘The Age of Stupid’ to buy an apple press and pressed all these apples, but at that point we hadn’t got the pasteuriser so the only thing we could do with the apple juice was inevitable: we made cider! When it came to the New Year’s Eve party they decided to have a cider competition and because I come from Somerset they thought I ought to be the judge – not because I was the vicar but because I came from Somerset. So I’ve been landed with this every year since: it’s a real ‘Vicar of Dibley role’ – I judge the village cider competition. It’s actually very good cider and for us it’s been a really nice way of making friends in the wider community.
In one of your publications, you explore the twin themes of interconnectedness and (eschatological) hope. I wonder how you would unpack those concepts, particularly for an older reader?
Margot: I think interconnectedness is something you recognise more as you get older. You realise more and more that everything is interconnected. You see the generations pass, the younger generations grow up and your connection to those generations and to the generations who have passed on or who are passing on. That sense of being part of a living planet is something that people become more and more aware of, simply through being part of their own families.
I started The Hope project with Ruth Valerio, a friend of mine, because at the beginning of the century we were both often brought in to be the platform speaker after a scientist. So the scientist would give the climate change Armageddon talk and then Ruth or I would be brought on to say ‘It’s alright, we have hope.’ Early on we felt that hope was about saying ‘It’s OK, we’ve got time to put things right. There’s still time to do something about climate change.’ But as time wore on, and particularly after the Copenhagen Agreement, which failed, we were less hopeful in the present and we each found ourselves moving more into the future and saying, ‘Don’t worry, Jesus will be coming back again. It’s all going to be alright.’ But that wasn’t a very realistic hope – it’s more of a fatalistic hope and it didn’t give hope to people when that was all you were offering. And yet I think for many older people that is the nature of their hope; they know that eventually they’ll be going to heaven, and that they’re a bit nearer to heaven than they may have been 30 years ago, but actually it doesn’t give them anything for the present. Somehow it paralyses them rather than resources them.
So as Ruth and I worked on the project we brought people together to think about it and pray about it and we came up with the concept of what we called a ‘robust’ hope or a ‘resilient’ hope, which was a hope that gave us hope in the present because of that hope for the future. It is best summed up probably in Romans 5, where Paul says that suffering brings perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. That sense of persevering, perhaps when things aren’t so easy, and that hope is there in the present and not just out there in the future, almost like a deposit, if you like, given to us through the spirit. It’s a concept that has given us a lot of hope in relation to environmental things, but I think it also offers hope to older people as they think through their lives because it has something for today, not just tomorrow.
Anything else either of you would like to add?
Margot: We have a U3A in the village and also some older clubs which are much more traditional, the kind of clubs that people in their 60s used to join. Things have changed enormously since those sort of clubs were set up and people in their 60s and 70s and even into their 80s are very much more active even than they used to be even a generation ago. They join cycling clubs rather than lunch clubs, and we joke that there’s probably a U3A whitewater rafting group. We’ve seen a huge change in the activity levels and energy levels of older people.
Martin: I’m on the U3A speaker circuit and I speak quite often to them. In Haddenham, there are so many people attached to U3A that there’s nowhere big enough to hold them all so they have to run all the meetings twice. The questions you get after a talk are always very sharp: thoughtful and well-informed.
Margot: And we hear similar stories from all over the area.