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Issue No.117
17 December 2018

Talking Justice: ‘Altared’ behaviour

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Tim Harberd challenges us to wake up and smell the flowers - as he looks at the ethics behind our floral displays



However well-intentioned they are and however beautiful they look, are they sourced responsibly and sustainably?

At one time they would have come almost exclusively from the gardens of worshippers. Perhaps, given its size, often as not the vicarage garden! As such, the floral tribute mirrored Old Testament ideas about giving from the bounty God has given us and a portion of the harvest. The offering represented both the effort of the giver and the abundance of God. A century ago, most flowers displayed in church would have been 'seasonal, local and organic' - words that have recently appeared in the menus of trendy restaurants as a mark of wholesomeness!

Is this still the case? I assume that most of the flowers now displayed in churches are 'bought' - from supermarkets or even garage forecourts. How does that change the dynamic? 'Buying on price' is clearly a different transaction to 'bringing from the garden'. But is dragging money into the equation the only change? Does it matter if the flowers on the altar came from the supermarket or the allotment (let's not mention the petrol station!)?

Do our church flowers represent an offering at all? Or are they simply a customary ritual, to show that we are doing things properly? Who benefits? Is God honoured? Is God impressed?

The organic food sector has flourished in recent years, partly because people have become concerned about the possible negative effects of ingesting residual chemicals/pesticides. Organic shoppers are prepared to buy less than perfect looking produce in the belief that it is better for them. Is our own self interest the primary driver? Suggestions that organic production is better for the soil, for other life forms and for the health of agricultural workers, may be secondary considerations.

So what about the cut flower trade? How often do we see organically cultivated flowers on sale? When it comes to selling flowers, visual 'perfection' is a prime consideration. After all, flowers are intended to be looked at and admired. Yet chemicals that are limited or banned in food production can still be applied to non-food crops. This makes the working environment potentially unsafe for agricultural labourers, particularly in countries where the enforcement of regulations may be less rigorous. There can also be serious ecological damage. In Kenya, water levels in Lake Naivasha, home to over 400 bird species and herds of hippos, have been seriously depleted by unregulated irrigation for the floral industry on its banks.

Flowers from warmer climes are often air-freighted to Europe to satisfy our appetite for unseasonal flowers. Think of the air-miles, the fuel costs. Surely seasonal, locally or ethically cultivated flowers are both more wholesome and more fitting as an 'offering' in our worship? Placing those blooms on God's table would be both part of our worship and an act of defiance.

Consider the lilies of the field! Is it possible that the flowers we display in church are actually what Christ called "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27)? However lovely they appear outwardly, do they represent systems that are morally rotten and corrupt? Instead of a fragrant offering as part of our worship, are they a floral testimony to our disregard of the natural order, our indifference to the welfare of low paid workers, our ignorance of the rest of creation? In the Old Testament we find the prophets repeatedly reminding Israel of the need for justice and mercy alongside the system of sacrifices and Temple worship. Is it the case that our fragrant offerings have actually become a stench in God's nostrils (Isaiah 1:11-14)?

Can we redress the balance?

I do what I can to limit the amount of food I buy or grow that has been exposed to chemicals and defoliant. Whilst I was happy to grow fourteen varieties of gooseberry and four types of raspberry on my allotment, I was reluctant to grow potatoes. Why do so when you could buy them so cheaply down the market? Then, one day a friend explained why a field of potatoes we were passing looked so sickly. There was no early frost but the field had been sprayed with defoliant to make lifting the potatoes easier. I have grown them every year since.

We cannot all grow our own crops, of course, or even our own flowers, but similar principles apply. Buying flowers more responsibly may not address all the issues raised in this article, but is certainly a step in the right direction. We may think long and hard about other aspects of our worship. Let's also give consideration to the ethical and environmental background of the flowers we use to adorn our buildings. Perhaps then we may more truly present a fragrant offering in our worship of the God of all justice.


Useful contacts

Agri-business deliberately makes our environment more toxic to force it to do what we want. The Pesticide Action Network has some good information on this, on crops like cotton as well as food. w:

If we do have the space to grow flowers, we can grow them in an environmentally-friendly way. Garden Organic, formerly known as the Henry Doubleday Research Association, has plenty of helpful information. w:

There are specialist suppliers around, such as Organic Blooms. w:

The Green Christian organisation has lots of resources. w: