The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, located in New York City’s upper west side near Harlem, is the second largest gothic cathedral in world – and a lot more than that. Under its visionary Dean, James Parks Morton, the Cathedral has become the heart of a thriving community of cultural "evolutionaries" of many different types – from musicians like Paul Winter to thinkers like William Irwin Thompson. Besides being a leader in ecological issues in the city (and the world), the Cathedral is also the site of many social programs, such as an apprenticeship program that helps unemployed minority youth from surrounding ghetto areas become skilled stonecutters and artisans.
In this interview, Dean Morton tells some of the story of his own evolution, and describes some of the challenges facing all religious institutions. For more information about the Cathedral’s innovative programs, write to its public information office at 1047 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10025.
Alan: For some years now you’ve been affectionately known as "The Green Dean." Were you always interested in ecology?
Dean Morton: Well, the short answer is no. The focus of my ministry was always around issues of poverty and social justice, particularly urban poverty, in the tradition of the French worker-priests. My involvement with issues of the environment and ecology is comparatively recent. Earlier on – when I was working in the poor dock areas of Jersey City, or setting up ecumenical training programs for religious professionals in inner city Chicago – I didn’t even know the word "ecology."
Alan: What brought it to your attention?
Dean Morton: As soon as I became Dean of the Cathedral 1972, I got to know a group of people gravitating around the work of William Irwin Thompson. Bill asked me to come onto the board of the Lindisfarne Association, and that really was my introduction to "planetary thinking," as he called it. I also met Gregory Bateson, John and Nancy Todd, and others in those early years, and then a very major shift for me was meeting René Dubos, who wrote Beast or Angel? Choices That Make Us Human, in 1975. He was the one who really turned me upside down.
I also met Thomas Berry that same year, so in that period of the early 1970s, my mind got very changed in terms of understanding how one describes the universe. I went through some very serious reconceptualizing of man’s relation to the Earth as it had been spelled out in the Judeo-Christian traditions.
In Lindisfarne we were all slugging through questions like, how does science function? How do art and literature function? How does religion function? How do all of these disciplines and ways of ordering knowledge and action function in a context that is now planetary? My task has been trying to put flesh on that reconceptualization – to speak it, but also to act it out, to make it living and palpable, to make it experienced in what goes on in the cathedral.
A cathedral, by definition, is a sort of microcosm, as the great holy places of the world always are. A Parthenon, a mosque, a cathedral or whatever, by its scale and focus and what is involved in building it, is a center of thought, the arts, commerce – the whole community. Great temples and holy places always play that role; they’re related to everything that goes on in the society. The understanding of man’s place in the cosmos is always summarized and carried to its highest expression in a holy place, in a holy building. The French term René Dubos always used was haut lieu – a high place, whether it’s the mountain itself, or a temple on the mountain.
Obviously, then, the lexicon of the cathedral – its language and metaphors – had to be in sync with the most profound current understanding of the world, and where people fit in that world.
Alan: Wasn’t your cathedral a lone pioneer in reflecting that kind of ecological, or planetary, understanding?
Dean Morton: Well, that’s been fascinating. Ninety-nine percent of the people within the religious community and their leadership – and you can name the tradition – were simply not thinking that way. Ecological insights, new paradigms and the like were another language. When we would talk to our fellow religious types about these things, they would say, "What are you doing?" That’s not where the cutting edge was in terms of most of the religious institutions. Social action, social justice, peace issues – that was where the most advanced thought was.
Alan: How did these new ways of thinking begin to find expression in the cathedral?
Dean Morton: In the 1970s I had Dubos, Thompson, the Todds, Amory and Hunter Lovins, Thomas Berry and others – they were really a small group of colleagues working on the same issues – all preaching here at the cathedral. I was also trying to do some restructuring with the given seasons of the church. Lent, for example, is very much about penitence and suffering. I would say, "Let’s talk about the suffering of the Earth, the passion of water. Let’s talk about Jesus in Earth – God incarnate in the flesh of Earth, the flesh of water, the flesh of the elements of creation and how that creation is suffering – the passion of the creation." And that was very effective.
Then in 1979 we had the first Sun Day Celebration with speakers like Margaret Mead, Robert Redford, and Gus Speth, and thousands of people came. Again, that’s something a cathedral can do – have a big celebration. The issue is lifted up, and it’s sung and danced and spoken. That same year we also had a big fair on behalf of all the environmental groups in New York, and this is how New York started getting the message with respect to the cathedral’s activism in these issues.
Also in 1979, it was our turn to host the annual four-day meeting of all of the cathedral deans of North and South America, as well as half a dozen English deans who came too. And guess who spoke? Tom Berry, René Dubos, the Todds – we were kind of a traveling show.
Alan: So 1979 was really a watershed year.
Dean Morton: Yes. That was also the year that James Lovelock’s book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth was published by Oxford Press. We had the book party here at the cathedral, and his first public exposition of the Gaia Hypothesis was from our pulpit. He was the first in a series of ten preachers, then came the "traveling show," and I ended the series with a sermon called "Earth as God’s Body," which was my opportunity to reconstruct theology using St. Paul’s categories of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ. For Paul, the whole creation becomes the body of Christ. Doing that was a lot of fun, and it had very high visibility. Still, to most people in religious circles, we were just odd.
Alan: But now there seems to be an awakening to these issues in the world of the church and the other faith communities.
Dean Morton: I think the awakening is very recent, and I don’t think it’s very deep. At the gathering in Assisi in 1986 hosted by WWF International there were some significant leaders there from faith communities around the world – but it was in no sense a mass movement. Some of the establishment was touched, but the establishment by no means bought it. Within the Episcopal Church, for example, we wanted to create ecological ministries as priority ministries for the church. But it didn’t fly, even though the presiding bishop himself was behind it. He’s the top voice and he sang the song – but if the rank and file, the political processes of the church don’t catch on to the melody …
Alan: Then it doesn’t happen.
Dean Morton: Right. I think the churches are now scrambling to catch on, but it’s really thanks to Time and Newsweek. But even the media didn’t catch on for a long time! It took the disaster of two summers ago, the drought and the syringes washing up on the beaches of New York, for them to discover ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect – all of the stuff that’s been on page 37 of the newspapers for the last ten years.
Alan: How can this awareness get firmly implanted into the mainstream of the faith communities?
Dean Morton: One way is to get these ideas into the language. The language of the "Sacred Earth" has got to become mainline. In many ways science is ahead of us in dealing with the mystery of the creation. You see, once we see ourselves as stardust, and the creation itself as stardust, then we can understand that we’re all together in this reality. Berry sees us as the cosmos becoming consciousness. But we’re not just disincarnate consciousness – we’re conscious of the creation. And of the Creator. With that major conceptual shift come linguistic as well as liturgical shifts.
Alan: There seems to be a bursting forth of creativity now in creating liturgy and ritual. What’s fueling that?
Dean Morton: The old sacred/secular dichotomy is breaking down. Part of the ecological understanding is that nothing can be excluded. It’s all there. And if it’s all there, then you celebrate the totality, as opposed to something that is over against something else. Contrast – this versus that – is one modality of expression. Both/and is another, diversity inside of unity is yet another. These are concepts that you then create liturgy with. The stuff that you’re able to use to express your theological position will vary with the number of colors you’ve got on your theological palette. And here we’ve got a much richer palette, so more things get looked upon as sacred and worth celebrating. This is distinct from a kind of fortress mentality, where one sees a lot of stuff "out there" that we sacred people are escaping from – you know, "We’re clean and they’re dirty." If you bring garbage into the church and say that’s also sacred, you’re casting a much wider net.
Alan: Are you really bringing garbage into the church?
Dean Morton: Well, the cathedral is becoming the recycling center for the upper west side of New York, so people come to church with a lot of bottles.
Alan: What other ways is the cathedral getting its message out?
Dean Morton: For the last two years we’ve been doing a series of Easter-time sermons called "Green New York" – helping people to discover that New York is a green place as opposed to a concrete place – and we did a two hour radio show for ten weeks with the same name. Two springs ago we had all of the environmental leadership of New York preaching here Sunday after Sunday. And this past spring we became the center of a process for getting all the environmental groups in New York together – 200 of them, from Sierra Club down to very small block associations – to agree to a Green platform for the recent mayoral election.
Alan: That’s quite an achievement!
Dean Morton: Can you believe it? Then we got the candidates to endorse it, and David Dinkins asked us to write his environmental platform speech. And the guy won! So we’re really running with that now, because we’ve got the new administration committed. They look upon us as their allies and their constituents.
Alan: So you’ve integrated not only ecological thinking and recycling into your spirituality there at the cathedral, but political work as well.
Dean Morton: Yes, because this integration of all-in-all is the center of our spirituality.
Alan: Do you think there needs to be a "church of the Earth"? How important is the role of organized religion in bringing about the kind of changes we need?
Dean Morton: Well, there’s no way you can escape from institutionality, either in religion or government. Institutions may shift – some mayors are better than others, for example – but you’re going to have something institutional. We could all paint ourselves blue and dance in the forest. But the point is, we would be painting ourselves blue, not red. And we wouldn’t do it just any day, we would do it on certain lunar or solar festivals. Ditto in the Christian tradition – there are certain bedrock things that make it what it is, but those have got to be set into a new context.
The context now is a planetary context as opposed to a village context. It’s a global village. You’re still going to have differences between Christians and Muslims and Buddhists, which is fine; but those are going to be seen as part of a much larger palette of colors.
There’s just more stuff in our universe now, which means that your specificity – your identity – must still be there, but in a different way. I’m in no sense suggesting that the identities dissolve, because if that happens then the ball game’s up, so to speak. But these identities are perceived in relation to other identities, as part of a much bigger picture. We’ve got to be more inclusive, but the challenge at the same time is to make the specificity sharp and visible.
It’s as though we’re working in modules now that include everything else. So the structures will be different – there will be membranes as opposed to stone walls. Both stone walls and membranes are used to give definition, to contain, to keep things together – but membranes understand that stuff comes in and goes out. Stone walls prevent things from going in and out. That in itself is a paradigmatic shift for a lot of religious traditions, who generally say "We’re this and we’re not that!" Now they must say more in terms of their self-definition.
Alan: You sound very hopeful and excited about seeing this sort of change.
Dean Morton: Oh, I think it’s fabulous! We’re really getting back to what Christianity was supposed to be in the first place. I’m speaking out of a Christian tradition – but to me the gospels are very universal. And science, thank God, is validating many of those gospel insights.
Alan: Do you mean that we’re discovering empirical reasons for loving our neighbor as ourselves, and doing unto others as we would have others do unto us?
Dean Morton: Well, yes! Ecology is validating the reality of all things being linked together. It’s showing us that the human reality and the other realities of the Earth really are inseparable. And the basic gospel insight is its universality. What Christ teaches is so simple, so totally universal. He’s the good neighbor, doing the most natural thing in the world – and you find that naturalness in all traditions, all over the world. The very ordinariness of it is, in a sense, what is so astonishing.
by Alan AtKisson
Recently Dean James Parks Morton suggested to astronomer Carl Sagan that a letter be written appealing to religious leaders for help in facilitating the shift to a more ecologically sound way of life. The resulting letter, signed by 22 leading scientists, was sent to over 300 heads of denominations – and so far over 100 of them have responded.
"I am personally skeptical about many aspects of revealed religion," Dr. Sagan was quoted as saying in a New York Times article about the appeal. "But I am sure of the awe and reverence that the meticulously balanced nature of the global environment elicits in me."
The appeal acknowledges the religious dimension of our ecological problems, and notes that while some solutions to our many environmental problems are relatively easy, "other, more far-reaching, more long-term, more effective approaches will encounter widespread inertia, denial, resistance" – thus the call for assistance.
Signatories included Freeman Dyson of Princeton, Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, James Hansen of NASA, Stephen H. Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Jerome B. Wiesner, former President of MIT. For further information contact the Global Forum, 304 E. 45th St. (12th Fl.) New York, NY 10017.