This, roughly speaking, is the text of an address given at a workshop of the 23rd Conference of the Vergers’ Guild of the Episcopal Church at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, on September 30th, 2011, explaining the existence of recycled plastic vestments and altar hangings at the cathedral. More about the project can be found at https://rosalindhughes.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/a-plastic-story/ :
In a timely release, as though they knew this day was coming, the House of Bishops issued a pastoral teaching in the past week which talks about our environmental responsibilities as a church.1 Some of you will already have seen it, but let me just read to you a little bit from it:
They begin with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah, always a hint that a hard challenge is to follow:
We, your bishops, believe these words of Jeremiah describe these times and call us to repentance as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth: How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways.” (Jeremiah 12:4) The mounting urgency of our environmental crisis challenges us at this time to confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” “our waste and pollution of God’s creation,” and “our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268). It also challenges us to amend our lives and to work for environmental justice and for more environmentally sustainable practices.
And two of the five commitments that the bishops make on behalf of all Episcopalians are particularly relevant to this ministry:
To lift up prayers in personal and public worship for environmental justice, for sustainable development, and for help in restoring right relations both among humankind and between humankind and the rest of creation;
To take steps in our individual lives, and in community, public policy, business, and other forms of corporate decision-making, to practice environmental stewardship and justice, including (1) a commitment to energy conservation and the use of clean, renewable sources of energy; and (2) efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and whenever possible to buy products made from recycled materials.
It is just that call to repentance and sustainability that made us here at Trinity think that using recycled plastic bags was a good idea for liturgical vestments.
I’ll be honest, not everyone agrees. When I was making our chasuble, I was hauling around bags of grocery bags, reels of cut plastic, and rustling wherever I went. It didn’t look pretty or tidy or sacred. It didn’t sound genteel. There were those whom I met who asked about the project and were horrified, just plain appalled, at the idea of vestments made out of recycled plastic.
Do they have sufficient dignity, sufficient fineness and integrity to stand as aids to our worship of the Most High God?
My bottom line, if you like, is that vestments are part of the fabric of our worship. They are not there simply to look pretty, although if they are truly beautiful they may move us in the same way that any art does. They are not there to make the officers of the liturgy look good, although if they make us look silly and become a distraction, that’s a problem. They are not designed to separate the presider from the people. Like the physical environment of the space, like the music and the silence and the use of different voices and people to bring the liturgy to the heart of the life of the people and the life of the people to the heart of the liturgy, vestments – well, they are just the same.2
We are often told that “praying shapes believing;” that how we pray and what we pray not only reflects but influences our core values and the actions that flow from them.
So, returning to the Bishops’ letter, if our worship is to include repentance for our sinfulness in wasting the world’s resources, using the recycled plastic is appropriate. As a material, plastic is a wonder of modern science. Almost infinitely variable in its presentation and uses, it has unfortunately come to represent the one-way, single-use culture which has come to be recognized as a plague of modern consumptionist society.*
If our worship is to raise thanksgiving for the gifts of creation, including the oil under the earth and the talents and imaginations of the scientists who developed plastic out of it, using the recycled plastic is appropriate. Recycling the plastic bags is one way of reclaiming the dignity of the creativity of science and technology represented in them, gifts of God given to human minds. It is one way to repent of our casual attitude towards our own gifts of creativity and the resources of creation.
If our worship is to be an expression of our selves, our imaginations and creativity, our coming together as a faithful community, then using the recycled plastic is appropriate. The things that we created came from dozens of people working together: Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, Jewish, and agnostic friends, drawn into worship of the one Living God together.
If our worship is an offering, well, one of our members has described the knitting of the vestments as sacrificial giving. Although they cost nothing in monetary terms, they are hard and trying to knit. The joy that went into their creation was not the joy of light-hearted comfort but the joy of determination and the overcoming of obstacles.
The[se] vestments were presented to Trinity Cathedral as part of that congregation’s acknowledgement of our responsibilities to our Creator and creation, as an act of repentance for our abuse, neglect and sheer carelessness of the gift within which we live, as an act of praise for the variety and inventiveness of creation and the gift of creativity, and as an offering. (rosalindhughes.wordpress.com: A plastic story)
“All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee”
(1 Ch 29:14)
1The pastoral teaching is available at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/newsline_12891_ENG_HTM.htm
2Cf Patrick Malloy, Celebrating the Eucharist (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), chapter 5
* For further discussion of the practicality and the plague of plastic, see my review of Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story at https://rosalindhughes.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/book-review-plastic-a-toxic-love-story-by-susan-freinkel/