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The Church of England’s Lent challenge: give up plastic

What the Lent Plastic Challenge says about environmentalism and Christianity

The Church of England has launched a number of environmental initiatives in recent years
The Church of England has launched a number of environmental initiatives in recent years.
Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images

All over the Christian world, the faithful are making sacrifices for the penitential season of Lent, which began last week. Some are giving up chocolate; others are turning away from Twitter. But the Church of England has one slightly unconventional vice it wants its parishioners to give up: plastics.

The Church of England, which has about 25 million members worldwide, exhorted the faithful to participate in the Lent Plastic Challenge forgoing single-use plastic containers, such as plastic cups, and unnecessary plastic packaging, as part of a wider program of stewardship for the environment. The effort is part of the church’s wider environmental program, Shrinking the Footprint.

Ruth Knight, the environmental policy officer for the church, told the BBC: ”The Lent challenge is about raising our awareness of how much we rely on single-use plastics and challenging ourselves to see where we can reduce that use. ... It ties in closely with our calling as Christians to care for God’s creation.”

Lent, the approximately six-week lead-up to Easter, is a time of fasting, penance, and prayer meant to coincide with Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, arrest, and crucifixion. Catholics and some Protestants today typically give up a perceived “vice” (like alcohol or sweets) for the duration of the period.

To critics, the church’s actions may seem emblematic of a wider “secularization” of Lent: in which an originally spiritually focused religious observance becomes more about anodyne notions of “wellness” and “doing good.” It’s fair, too, to critique the movement as a bid for relevancy by a fading institution: A 2016 poll found that the number of Britons attending a weekly Church of England service fell for the first time to fewer than 1 million (or less than 2 percent of the UK’s population).

Those criticisms would be valid. But at the same time, the Church of England’s actions reflect a wider willingness among many mainline Protestant and Catholic Christian groups to focus on combating structural or global issues — from income inequality to environmental stewardship — alongside individual misdeeds.

For instance, Pope Francis has frequently made environmental issues a linchpin of his ministry. His 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, argued that caring for the environment was a fundamentally Christian obligation. To sin against the environment, in this paradigm, is to place individual convenience and instant gratification above cooperation and caring for the world God has made.

“This is our sin, exploiting the Earth,” Francis said in 2014, “this is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.”

Francis’s notion of sin as something collective and structural, not just individual, has informed much of his theology, from his environmentalism to his fervently anti-capitalist stance, a dynamic also at play in the way the Church of England is talking about its own initiatives.

It’s worth noting that these initiatives, which tend to be popular with Catholics and mainline Protestants, are not necessarily shared by all Christians. American evangelicals, in particular, have long been wary of environmental causes, seeing them as a threat to what they envision as man’s God-given dominion over the earth.

But for the Church of England, environmental stewardship has become a necessary part of the Christian mission.

By focusing on the shared call to care for what they see as God’s creation, the church isn’t just asking parishioners to recycle. It’s asking them to step up to their divinely mandated role as responsible “stewards” of creation. What could be more orthodox than that?

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