Cathedral Thinking & Nature

Scottish Nature Notes

Original Source:

Have you ever sent one of your mates a text or email and then got really annoyed because they didn’t reply immediately? Or skipped a track on your playlist because you couldn’t wait the three minutes it would take to get to the one that you wanted to hear right now? Yep, me too – we can be a pretty impatient bunch.

I got thinking about this last week when I was down in York – it was a nice summer evening so I decided that the pubs by the river could wait and strolled up to the Minster to have a wee sit outside. No matter what your religious beliefs (or lack of) are, it’s an impressive building and a bit of an understatement to say that a lot of work went into it. 250 years of work, in fact.

York Minster (

This is worth repeating – it took 250 years to build York Minster. So, the people who wanted a cathedral and designed it never got to see it finished. Nobody they ever knew got to see it finished. Neither their grandchildren nor their great-grandchildren got to see it finished. Yet they still went ahead and started the events that led to the building we see today. This needed vision and foresight, and it was all done with the absolute knowledge that they wouldn’t see the finished product. It is as far from instant gratification as you can get. Imagining and starting long-term projects that you will never see finished – there’s a name for it, Cathedral Thinking.

I think it’s brilliant that people are willing to do things that they know they won’t see come to fruition but it requires you to believe in two things. You need to believe that there is a future. Ducking back quickly to York Minster, one hundred years into the build the Black Death hit and by some accounts over half of the entire population of England was killed by bubonic plague. It must have seemed like the world was ending but they carried on.

And it also requires you to believe that the people in that future will continue what you started – that they will still be driven by the same emotions and feelings as we are, that they will share the same values and be inspired by the same things.

I blogged recently about the ‘State of Nature’ report and how we all need to start doing our bit for wildlife, to start putting something back. And we need some quick hits – helping create a pond which newts will soon make home, planting flowers for bees and butterflies.

Good for nature, good for you.

But as I looked out the train on the way back to Inverness at the passing countryside, I thought we need Cathedral Thinking for nature too. Just as someone once looked at a flat, empty spot in Yorkshire and could think of it being filled with a magnificent cathedral, we can imagine a different kind of countryside. One of old forests, of animals now extinct in Britain that we can bring back, of large areas connected together and not just poor fragments.

None of us will live to see all of it happen but we can make a start. And the millions of people whose lives will be enriched by these places and who we will never know will be so glad we did.

Cathedral Thinking: Can Houses of Worship Become Beacons of Sustainability?


Notre Dame de Paris took 182 years to build. No less than 140 years of construction passed before the Duomo in Florence was finally complete. Accordingly, “cathedral thinking” refers to deep dedication to a complex endeavor that will outlive its architects. Today, it’s imperative to apply this philosophy to the global crisis of climate change — a threat that has taken centuries to create and will require unprecedented, strategic engagement of mankind to resolve.

With the science of climate change no longer up for debate, the call to action is immediate. Leaders from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates have pushed for government, industry, and civil society to combat climate change as its impact on our nation begins to intensify. One of the most direct ways to affect climate change is to choose clean energy sources, including solar power, over ones that emit greenhouse gases.

As they have across the centuries, houses of worship stand ready to heal our wounds. Decades ago in America, we witnessed African-American churches stand valiantly at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Today, we face a crisis that threatens the success of all civil and spiritual missions, regardless of color or creed. Using solar power, the more than 300,000 houses of worship across America can empower both their rooftops and their communities through sustainability.

Cathedral thinking calls for collaborations between diverse partners. The Solar Foundation, a charitable research and education nonprofit, has joined forces with Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, one of the most prominent religious networks in the country, to raise awareness and use of clean, affordable solar energy within faith-based communities. With the help of Clinton Global Initiative America, the new Solar Faith and Empowerment Initiative will provide assistance to religious leaders in understanding the benefits of solar energy to their communities and the earth.

There are strong economic benefits for religious communities to become more sustainable. As energy bills rise — and houses of worship, like other facilities, struggle to keep the doors open — solar energy can reduce costs. As corporations such as IKEA and Walmart, known for shrewd business models, and the U.S. Defense Department, with its needed security and reliability, rapidly adopt solar energy solutions, why can’t houses of worship?

While some faith-based communities are moving on solar, the speed of action needs to match the urgency of the climate challenge. Champions such as BlocPower founder Donnel Baird, carrying out a commitment through Clinton Global Initiative University to retrofit churches and other buildings in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., are leading the way. In fact, after working with BlocPower, six Catholic schools are now hiring three teachers with the money saved from lower energy bills.

Some faith leaders have imbued this call to climate action with a biblical obligation of good stewardship of the earth. With its “Carbon Covenant,” Interfaith Power and Light exemplifies the deep connection between the sacred and profane in the fight against global warming. Sadly, most religious communities lack the resources, capacity or understanding of a viable path to sustainability that doesn’t require sacrificing core missions of faith. In truth, sustainability enables enhancement of such missions, not their sacrifice. The Solar Faith and Empowerment Initiative seeks to make the path to success in both missions of faith and overcoming climate change easier to follow. The road must be more understandable, but also self-sustaining — which is why, with the help of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, we’re strategically building relationships with those communities of faith that can inspire others to take action.

Reversing the consequences of climate change won’t happen overnight. But then again, cathedral thinking, like spiritual leadership, is not about instant rewards. It’s about giving future generations the opportunity to lead sustainable, spiritual lives — and the chance to care for the earth centuries from now, when dirty energy is in the history books, alongside Michelangelo and Wren.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter’s fourth meeting of CGI America (June 23-25, 2014, in Denver). CGI America convenes business, government, and civil society leaders each year to make commitments boosting the economic recovery and long-term competitiveness of the United States. For more information, click here.




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