The three finalists (from left): Hannah Barr, Hannah Malcolm (the winner), and Sara Prats

By Zachary Guiliano

“Climate change will create unavoidable homesickness,” Hannah Malcolm said in the first Theology Slam. “This is the world in which the image bearers of God reside. … This is the world where God himself died. … This is the world whose renewal we seek.”

St. John’s Hoxton, an evangelical church near London’s Silicon Roundabout, hosted the event, “a search for new engaging voices thinking theologically about the contemporary world.”

Rapt audience members, many in their 20s and 30s, had braved wet and windy weather for the live final round on March 7, while others participated through Facebook Live. (Video is available online.)

The project was sponsored by SCM Press, Church Times, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and Lambeth Palace’s Community of St. Anselm.

“All of us are theologians,” Archbishop Justin Welby said in endorsing the contest. “The minute we say something about God, we are speaking theology. Young voices, unheard voices, need to be nurtured in the practice of reflecting on faith and the wider world, and this event will do just that. I encourage applications, and look forward to reading the winning entries.”

The contest was open to anyone age 18 to 30, lay or ordained, and applicants were invited to write 500 words on one of 12 contemporary topics and to prepare 90-second videos introducing themselves. The winner received a collection of books worth £200 and publication in the Church Times.

David Shervington, senior commissioning editor for SCM Press, and Madeleine Davies, deputy news and features editor for the Church Times, were emcees for the final round.

The judges were Mark Greene, executive director of the institute, founded by the Rev. John Stott in 1982; the Rev. Isabelle Hamley, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury; Eve Poole, a theologian and the third Church Estate’s Commissioner; and John Swinton, chair in divinity and religious studies at the University of Aberdeen and master of Christ’s College.

The competition received nearly 75 entries during its six-month search, from which the judges drew three finalists:

  • Hannah Barr, 27, a first-year ordinand and PhD student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, addressed the MeToo and ChurchToo movements;
  • Hannah Malcolm, 26, a graduate of Cambridge and Yale and project coordinator at God and the Big Bang, which runs workshops for young people on science and religion, spoke on theology and climate change;
  • Sara Prats, 23, of Spain, who is studying for a bachelor’s in divinity at the University of London and for a master’s degree at the University of Birmingham, spoke of social media’s effects on personal anxiety and depression.

Each of the finalists delivered a short TED-style talk and responded to questions from the audience. Two judges delivered short talks as well: Poole  on and Swinton on disability.

Samuel P.S. Williams, founder and lead storyteller at Hodos Consultancy Co., gave the competitors coaching on presentation and delivery. The three finalists’ talks drew considerable praise from the judges.

Eve Poole complimented Barr on her “word perfect” delivery and use of language, particularly the phrase “unfatiguing pneumatology.”

Isabelle Hamley noted “the poetic nature” of Prats’s introduction, while Mark Greene admired how her passion drew the attention of the audience, noting that he had “felt it in the room when [she] talked about the beauty and character of God.” There was, he said, “an anointed radiance” about her talk.

Malcolm took the prize with “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn? Climate Chaos and Grief,” addressing “the new normal” and opening with a series of quotations related to recent extreme weather events.

Her talk centered on the idea of solastalgia, “this feeling of homesickness when you are still at home.” This, she said, is “the right response” to the wrong that is taking place, a “collective grief” for damage to God’s creation.

She urged the audience to “engage with this solastalgic grief for what it is … the emptiness and decay that follows as a result of our sin.” Rather than providing “a list of things to do,” she instead advised mourning: “sit amidst the grief you may already feel about our dying planet and mourn the brilliant, beautiful lives, both human and non-human, extinguished by our violence and greed.”

After her talk, one audience member asked Malcolm what the Church might look like if it made the mourning of climate chaos a priority. She suggested “liturgies to express solastalgia,” along with “a Christian presence in places where this is already being expressed,” citing the practices of various climate activists.

Quoting the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, who said there is “no salvation outside the poor,” she suggested drawing near to the people most harmed by climate change.

Another audience member admitted to feeling no grief about “how my city was 50 years ago” or losing “something I’ve never met,” a world before climate change.

Malcolm responded by suggesting there is room for “grief felt on behalf of other people,” but robustly challenged the audience on whether a lack of grief about climate change might primarily result from living a protected, affluent life.

The event closed with final praise and feedback for all of the speakers. Hamley urged the speakers to continue developing their thinking, speaking, and writing, before announcing that Malcolm’s talk had won. She described it as “a really creative response of entering into grief together.”

The organizers anticipate another Theology Slam next year that welcomes international partners.

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