Tim Harberd challenges us to wake up and smell the flowers -
as he looks at the ethics behind our floral displays
HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT THE FLOWERS we place on God's
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
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
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: www.gardenorganic.org.uk
There are specialist suppliers around, such as Organic Blooms.
The Green Christian organisation has lots of resources. w: www.greenchristian.org.uk