Our Gospel reading for Sunday 1 June concludes with the words of Jesus: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one’ (John 17.11b). How appropriate this is, as we come to World Environment Day this week, in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity! For in words which resonate wonderfully with Jesus’ prayer, our UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, also calls out, saying: "Planet Earth is our shared island, let us join forces to protect it."
The UN Secretary-General’s call for global unity is not surprising. It is only recently that we heard of more catastrophic flooding in the Solomon Islands. Yet this is but the latest of a series of environmental disasters and challenges which are faced by the small island nations of our world. This year’s World Environment Day theme of Raise your voice – not the sea level is therefore a very fruitful one for enabling us to ponder the nature of and challenge of Christian unity. For it can lead us into a deeper awareness of our interconnectedness with all of God’s Creation, and, in particular, with the hurts and hopes of our brothers and sisters in the small island nations of our world...
How are we to understand and experience this? Well, as we are encouraged by World Environment Day to look to the needs of small island nations at this time, we might do worse than ponder some of the rich Christian spirituality which has been emerging from them. Not least, we might give thanks for Pacific Island insights which can lead us all into a deeper sense of God’s presence and unity with us. One leading figure is Winston Halapua, Archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Polynesia, which incorporates Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Polynesians in Aotearoa New Zealand. Reflecting on Pacific Islanders deep spiritual experiences, Archbishop Halapua has written and spoken evocatively of the rich diversity and dynamic unity which we can experience in the God who is present in the immensity and variety of the Pacific. Oceania, he has suggested, offers us powerful life-giving spiritual stories and metaphors which can help us better understand the nature and call of God’s unity among us. For to see God as Ocean, as ‘moana’, is to be invited into new relationships of unity, with one another, with the wider environment of which we are but a part, and with God in God-self. As Archbishop Halapua put it a few years ago, in his beautiful little book ‘Waves of God’s Embrace’: to understand God as Ocean, is ‘to express the world–encompassing, interconnecting nature of God.’ It ‘points to the God of flowing unity, whose being is ever life-giving, dynamic, and embracing.’
Does that make sense to you? Perhaps, as Australians, we do well to hear that wisdom. For whilst we, especially Aboriginal Australians, have rightly reflected deeply upon the presence and meaning of God in the features of our land, we have sometimes neglected the presence and meaning of God in the ocean. Perhaps we might also listen more closely to our Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters for that. Like other Melanesians, they speak a similar wisdom. Yet we know it too, don’t we? Even those of us who have spent most, or all, of our lives inland, we too know that the ocean also offers us wisdom and experiential pointers to the nature and meaning of God. We too feel something of the divine mystery and power when we contemplate the diversity and the depths, the waves and rhythms, of the ocean.
Archbishop Halapua’s spiritual insights, like those of other Pacific Christians, also come with challenge: the challenge of the God of the Ocean. For not all is well in the Pacific, any more than in many small islands in other oceans. This year’s World Environment Day is a reminder of this. Small island peoples typically face huge challenges of sustainability and development. Some of these are linked to poverty, to remoteness, to the sheer costs of addressing poverty and development. Above all however towers the environmental challenge of climate change and its increasingly disastrous impact on fragile landscapes and struggling communities. On the islands of Ontong Java in the Solomons for instance, just three hours by air north-east of Brisbane, time isn’t wasted arguing about climate change. For islanders have for years witnessed irreversible sea level rise. This has broken down sea walls, flooded villages, inundated food-producing land and contaminated freshwater wells. Houses have collapsed with coastline erosion. Tree cover has declined, increasing human and plant vulnerability to the intense tropical sun. Day by day, people’s energy is therefore consumed by basic survival. Satellite data shows the sea near the Solomon Islands has risen annually by 8mm over the past 20 years, compared to the global annual average of 3mm. Again and again therefore the Pacific Council of Churches has called on us, and the wider world, to respond to their needs, not least in relation to climate change. They urge us, in the words of this year’s World Environment Day theme, to ‘Raise our voices – not our sea levels’.
So what can we do about this, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? Firstly, we can pray, and reflect more deeply. We can join with Jesus in his great prayer: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one’ (John 17.11b). Secondly, as Christians in this divine unity with others, we can respond to the words of the United Nations Secretary-General. We can recall that "Planet Earth is our shared island, (so) let us join forces to protect it." On this very big island of Australia, we can join our voices with the very small islands of the world’s great oceans. We can continue to press our politicians, our business leaders, our community leaders, and one another, to do all we can to address our ecological challenges. And, thirdly, we must act. We can continue to respond to the needs of small islands, not least through our support for ABM and its work in disaster reduction, climate change and emergency relief. We can do what we can to live more gently on our shared planet. For as Archbishop Halapua puts it, understanding God as ocean is about advocating ‘a humility that honours the creation as God’s gift.’ It is a profound mystery, like the immensity of the ocean, and, like the waves of the ocean, we are invited to flow together in the dance of God’s all embracing, redeeming Love.