Peter Harris is the Founder and President of A Rocha International, an organisation which, inspired by God’s love, engages in scientific research, environmental education and community-based conservation projects in 20 countries to date.
After studying theology and English at Cambridge University, he taught English at Christ Hospital, Horsham and then trained for ordination, completing his curacy on the Merseyside. He is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the Christian Evangelical movement.
He is also my father. I had the great privilege of growing up in the first A Rocha project, founded in 1983 near the Alvor estuary on the Algarve, and the challenge of trying to explain to baffled school friends what my parents did – something to do with birds and God and fighting off developers, as far as my childish mind could grasp. It all led for a colourful childhood, and as time has gone on and I’ve come to a personal understanding of the triune creator God, what they were doing with A Rocha has made more and more sense.
JS When you went forward for ordination in the late 1970s, what connections did you see between faith and your vocation and your love of bird watching and the great outdoors?
PH I didn’t see any connections. I felt I was in front of a clear choice between an ornithological job – running a bird observatory – and what I thought then was spiritual work, which was inevitably going to be with people primarily and also to do with what I understood to be the spiritual part of people. At that point, I suspect I thought the spiritual was a non-material reality.
JS How did A Rocha come about? If that was your attitude, how did you come to change your mind?
PH During my theological training at Trinity College Bristol, I had the chance to read people like Jürgen Moltmann and for many people in the late 70s, Moltmann was someone who was speaking very directly out of his faith to these issues. I also discovered the Old Testament: the Hebrew Scriptures are full of the creation relevance of God’s love for the world. And then in practical terms, many of my friends who were birders never went near a church; in the early 80s the ‘eco crisis’ as it was then called was becoming recognised as critically important for all of us, but I never heard about that in the church. At a personal level I was trying to integrate my passion for landscape and for nature and for the migration of birds within my Christian life, and all of those three things, the theological, the practical and the personal, came together.
Miranda and I had been looking at jobs in Africa with what was then called The Bible Churchman’s Missionary Society (now Crosslinks), but nothing was coming together so we proposed a project – a Christian Field Study Centre in a mission context.
JS What kinds of response did you have when you went to Portugal to set up A Rocha as a ‘missionary’?
PH A mixed response is the truth. We had always been passionate about seeing our friends and neighbours and people in the parish becoming Christians and people knew we had that passion. There was a fear we were abandoning that focus in favour of what friends used to say was ‘preaching to the birds’. There was a fear we were losing the plot.[JS1] And there was a deep suspicion of what had become known as the ‘social gospel’ in the 1930s, which had seemed to divert the church’s concern for people’s salvation to a social reform movement. There was concern we were launching a kind of ecological reform movement that would cause people to abandon their concern for people’s salvation. And it has taken a long time for that fear to diminish.
JS I remember our periodic trips back to England to visit supporting churches. We’d always sing ‘How Great Thou Art’ which was one of the only songs around that mentioned nature. Are there similarly few Bible passages to choose from when preaching on the environment?
PH I usually say to churches we visit that I would like to continue the series that they are currently doing. It is always possible to show the creational consequences of the gospel from any passage of scripture and it is really important that we don’t read into scripture a particular cause we have, however important. The job of a preacher is to be subjected to the text, and then to expound that text.
I love it when I’m not asked to propose a passage; I like the discipline of preaching on the passage I’m given. I think this is a very important discipline for anyone who works in a particular area of interest, such as creation care or the arts or finance or whatever it should be, because it’s very dangerous if we start riding out our hobby horses and picking our favourite texts.
JS How important is it for church leaders and preachers to have a theology that acknowledges the relationship between God and the earth, and people and the earth as well as between God and people?
PH What is important for church leaders is to learn what God cares about. And our task is to gain the mind of Christ. As I’m persuaded that Christ is the Lord of creation, that redemption is as Colossians says, for all things, and as Romans tells us, the whole creation is being drawn into the glorious freedom of the children of God, therefore I think it is vitally important. It is important because it relates to our understanding of who God is, and our ‘ortho-doxy’: our true worship.
JS Can you tell us about any signs you have seen lately that the local church is waking up to its responsibilities to steward the earth?
PH There are signs of hope all over the world. Progress in this area is being led by the church leaders of the poor world because it is the poor who are most directly suffering the consequences of our environmental irresponsibility. If you look at the A Rocha website (arocha.org) you will see examples which are deeply heartening. I also think it is a generational thing. I think it’s instinctive for younger Christian leaders to understand what’s happening not just in their personal lives but in the wider world.
JS You travel the world speaking and teaching on the subject of creation care. How would you say you are received now, as compared with the early days of A Rocha when perhaps your message was more controversial? Do you feel you are now speaking to a converted audience, or do you sense you still have a prophetic voice?
PH To be honest, because life is short, we’ve tended to work increasingly with those who are hungry and welcome this message. I have found my early conviction, that it would be enough to read the Bible carefully with church leaders for them to have a kind of Damascus Road experience about creation care, was misjudged. It should humble us all that we can be so deeply rooted in our convictions and culture. But in general these days from a strategic point of view – because we are overwhelmed with requests for help from all around the world – we tend to respond to those who want to be on this journey, rather than trying to persuade those who are very unconvinced or who regard creation care as a dangerous side show.
JS What advice would you give to preachers who want to preach on the environment?
PH Well, of course we have to examine our own lives first. We all have a long way to go to live faithfully the renewed relationship with creation, which is the vision of scripture. So the first thing we need to do is to repent. We need to live first what we are going to preach. But then I would just say that we should be faithful to the text and that will do the job for us. From beginning to end, this is such a deeply biblical message. The job of the preacher is to be faithful to the text and the text will do the job for you.
To hear Peter preach ‘All things reconciled – Christ and creation’ at Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon, go to vimeo.com/109542957.
Peter’s book, Kingfisher’s Fire (Monarch, 2008), which tells the story of A Rocha, is available through your local Christian bookshop and online.
A Rocha UK is a Christian charity working for the protection and restoration of the natural world, as a demonstration of the Christian hope for God’s world. @ARochaUK