Rocks, stars, and souls

Today the Guardian reported that “Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.” The complete article is well worth reading.

What are the practical implications of this? It means things are very bad indeed. It means that the people whose knowledge we trust the most, sensible scientists, reaching the most balanced conclusions, are making predictions which make the preachings of the crazier apocolyptic religions appear mild. It means your grandchildren’s lives will almost certainly be badly blighted. Your own life probably will be too.

What are the moral implications of this? It is that we (you and I) are collectively colluding in a holocaust many times worse than that of Nazi Germany. Like the people of Nazi Germany, we did not consciously choose it, but we bear the guilt nevertheless. Unlike them, we have no wicked leader to blame: it is a truly collective crime. It is a horror so enormous that almost the only option is to ignore it: the courage required to face it is, I think, almost too great for human strength. People say to me, ‘If you feel so strongly, why don’t you spend all your time protesting and stuff?’ The answer is, because I don’t have the strength. It would literally send me mad, and that would be messy.

What are the spiritual implications of this? Belief-systems promise happiness. Evangelical Christianity promises heaven when you die if you put your faith in Jesus. Secular liberal democracy promises happiness through freedom and prosperity. The liberal Christianity I have grown up in promises happiness through the promotion social justice, ‘God’s kingdom on earth’. All of these belief systems had much that was valuable in them. But the situation we face today shows all these belief-systems are now utterly bankrupt. If there is a ‘heaven’, our utter failure to even to face what our ‘sins’ are, let alone ‘repent’ of them or ‘turn to Christ’ ensures none of us will be going there. The secular utopia of liberal democracy has failed, because its own prophets, the scientists, are warning that the future holds not wealth and freedom, but poverty and war. The liberal Christianity, which preached that with God’s help we could build a fairer, more sustainable world, has proved itself to be the biggest pie in the sky of all. God hasn’t helped (I leave it to you to decide why!) and we were too weak.

Are there any glimmers of comfort? Well — if you take the perspective of geological time, the catastrophic climate change and mass extinction of the 21st century will be a very minor event. If you take the perspective of the universe, the events on one small planet is equally trivial. And if you look candidly at your own life or any other individual’s, with their days and years, joys and sorrows, there are in fact a million things which add or subtract to its happiness other than health, wealth or security, and the one certainty is that it will come to an end.

But if you value your soul, if the poor derided citizens of Nazi Germany have taught us anything, don’t hide. Most of us don’t want to be heroes or villains, we want to be ordinary members of the chorus, living little quiet lives (I want to write history books and novels, and sing and draw. The last thing I want to be is an environmental campaigner. For one thing, I’m dreadful at it.) But living quietly isn’t an option: not to be a hero, is to be a villain, like all those other villains of history who kept quiet in the face of gas chambers, guillotines, African slavery, or whatever it was. So screw up your courage, and find your way to be heroic.

Open your eyes. Find out the facts and face the reality of our situation. Look at the rocks and look at the stars. Understand what happiness really is. Act accordingly.

The Sad Story of James Lundin Cooper: A Charlotte Chapel Biography

You are most welcome to reproduce this article in Church magazines. You may edit it for length but please include the information and contact details at the end. I’d also love to know if you are using it.

The Charlotte Chapel Biographies is an occasional column dedicated to the subjects of my PhD, the 420 identifiable members of Charlotte Episcopal Chapel, 1794-1818, who subsequently built St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh.

In 1816, twenty-five-year-old James Lundin Cooper brought his bride Sarah Brown to Edinburgh to be married by Bishop Daniel Sandford in the stylish Charlotte Chapel. He was a writer in Kirkcaldy and she was the daughter of a local merchant. He appears a few years later practising his profession, administering the estate of a bankrupt businessman in Kirkcaldy.

Cooper was an ambitious man, and not content to remain merely a provincial lawyer he sought his fortune in business. By 1830 he was manager of the Kirkcaldy and London Shipping Company, which ran three ships and employed three Captains, rejoicing in the names of Moir, Morison and Mann. As the leading Manager (or vestryman) of the Episcopal Chapel in Kirkcaldy, he successfully charmed the energetic, young and dedicated priest Mr Marshall into replacing their decrepit old incumbent, even though the chapel could only offer a paltry £20 stipend. Meanwhile his family prospered: Sarah bore him three chidren, Elizabeth, Michael and Mary.

It quickly became clear to Rev Marshall, however, that Cooper and his fellow managers were running a racket, giving themselves huge discounts on seat-rents, keeping Marshall’s salary low, and ‘finding it convenient that the clause should fall into disuse’ which stipulated that the whole congregation should choose their managers annually, preferring instead to appoint themselves for life.

When the priest tried to rectify the situation, the managers went to the bishop, accusing Marshall of immorality, neglect of duty, and (when this didn’t work), insanity. This was a great mistake: Marshall was well-respected, and eloquent clergy weighed in to defend his character from this evident nonsense. Cooper, one of them reported, ‘had the modesty to offer evidence to Bishop Torry that Mr Marshall is (or was) insane, and in his hand writing came forth a document in which that gentleman was charged with going to a theatre and dining out.’ Cooper, who had been the man of education and status amongst the merchants and shoemakers on the vestry, was made to look very foolish by being represented in the lead actor in this farce.

Whereas other managers left the Episcopal Church altogether and began attending the Kirk — although they still made a point of turning up to collect the contents of the collection plate, and chattering and laughing in the porch during Mr Marshall’s service — James does appear to have put his head down and attempted to make amends with the priest.

But it was too late. Whether it was divine judgement, the discrediting of his character, bad luck or similarly bad judgement in his business dealings, Cooper went bankrupt  in 1836. In 1838 his daughters Elizabeth and Mary died, and the following year James himself went to his grave. His teenage son Michael only outlived him by two years. I don’t know what happened to Sarah. Perhaps she remarried.

One could take various morals from this story. I suppose the first might be, don’t accuse your priest of insanity if you meet him at the theatre.

Eleanor Harris.

Please let me know if you would like to be informed of future talks or publications connected with this project. You can email me at eleanormharris@gmail.com or find me on twitter @eleanormharris