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Ecology’s Anglican Forerunners

By David Goodhew

If the Nobel Prize had been around in the 18th century, the Anglican priest, Gilbert White, would have won it. He, alongside two other Anglicans who pioneered environmentalism, are the subject of this article. And as Biden, Obama, and even the Pope travel to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, these Anglicans have much to teach us.

Gilbert White

Gilbert White spent much of his life as a priest in the hugely obscure rural English parish of Selbourne. White mixed his clerical duties with stunningly insightful observation of the natural world. The modern disciplines of zoology, botany, and ecology owe him a huge amount. White’s classic work “A Natural History of Selbourne” has never been out of print since its publication. It is brimful of intricate detail on the birds and ecology around him — notably his beloved swallows. He models a love of the whole cosmos, earthworms and all.

White frequently prayed that “The heavens declare the glory of God,” and by his painstaking investigations he showed that this was so.

White is widely lauded as a scientist, but few recognize that faith fueled his scholarship. He wrote as an Anglican priest. White saw the world as charged with the goodness of God. He saw no contradiction between his scientific explorations and parish ministry. Rather, they flowed out of each other.

It is truth widely ignored that huge chunks of scientific discovery were made by Christians, and more than a few were Anglicans, of whom White is one of the most significant. White is a reminder that Christian faith feeds scientific discovery, and that a vocation to the top-notch science that makes ecological work possible can be married with a vocation to the priesthood.

Eliza Phillips

Eliza Phillips set up the fabulously named Fur, Fin and Feather Folk in the late 19th century. But whilst the name was quirky, the aim was entirely serious. British birds were being decimated by Victorian hunters on an industrial scale to extract a few tail feathers to adorn ladies’ hats. Against them, Phillips went into battle.

It is women’s vanity that stimulates the greed of commerce, and women’s money that tempts bird-slaughterers to continue their cruel work at home and abroad.

And it was women like Phillips who blasted back at this cruel trade.

In 1891 Phillips’s Fur, Fin and Feather Folk joined forces with other bodies to form the Society for the Protection of Birds, renamed in 1904 as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Phillips was central to the foundation of this body, which now has millions of members, is one of the most effective conservation bodies in Europe, and has offered a model for conservation that has been copied worldwide.

Widow of an Anglican priest, Eliza was described as possessing “strong religious sensibilities.” She is one of the many women who illustrate that 19th century women behaved with huge agency and energy, notwithstanding their limited civil rights — and her Anglican faith was key to her actions.

Hardwicke Rawnsley

In 1883, speculators tried to drive railroads through the heart of England’s Lake District. Imagine someone trying to site a nuclear reactor in the middle of Yosemite and you have a sense of the destruction planned.

That they failed was due to the campaigning zeal of Canon Hardwick Rawnsley.

Hadwicke Rawnsley was a local parish priest and a non-resident canon of Carlisle Cathedral. Rawnsley was a hugely energetic man who combined zeal for the spiritual and bodily needs of his parishioners with a zeal for conservation. A few years later he was a key leader in the foundation of the National Trust. This charity has been central to the preservation of England’s countryside and built heritage over the last 125 years. Without the Trust, England would have long since have ceased to be green and pleasant to any significant degree. The National Trust was one of the earliest and most effective conservation bodies in the world. Anglican Rawnsley was at its heart (and its other founders were fellow Anglicans).


COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, runs from October 31 to  November 12, 2021. Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Pope Francis will be present. They gather at a time of eco-anxiety. Many, especially young Westerners, are deeply fearful of a looming eco-Armageddon. Alongside them, others (including not a few Christians) express skepticism. What are Anglicans to do?

A start would be to look back in order to look forward. Anglicanism has a fertile tradition when it comes to green discipleship. It is commonplace to draw on St. Francis, Cuthbert, and the Celts. But there are Anglicans from recent centuries who have much to teach us. White, Phillips, and Rawnsley were Anglican pioneers of the modern ecological movement. In a world fearful and fretting, they offer us signposts as to how to work for the redemption of all creation.

Christian thinking on ecology has tended to go one of two ways. There are those who say “Eat, drink, and burn fossil fuels, for tomorrow we die.” For such people, climate change is a distraction, at best. Then there are those who believe in eco-Armageddon and act like hyper-Calvinists. The end is nigh, they say, and humans are utterly to blame.

The three Anglicans explored above offer a different, more hopeful, path. Gilbert White was a faithful parish priest and a fantastic scientist. Eliza Phillips and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley respectively model love of the animal kingdom and the landscape, flowing out of a love of God. They remind us that ours is not the first generation to face profound ecological challenges and give us models for how to act hopefully in the face of those challenges.


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