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Working from the spiritual roots upward: COP26 as a ritual space

Working from the spiritual roots upward: COP26 as a ritual space

Alastair McIntosh frames COP26 as a ritual space, looking at the possibilities such a framing opens for change. 4/11/2021

To have COP26 – the United Nations’ 26th climate change summit – coming to Glasgow is astonishing for those of us who live here. For me personally, the proximity is additionally provocative because the summit will be hosted just a mile away from where I live and wrote my book Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. Today, I saw waste ground being manicured in our area. Letter boxes are being washed. And as I started to draft this article, two massive Chinook military helicopters flew low right past my window. The last time I saw those was in 2005, during rehearsals for the G8 summit hosted in Scotland. You could say that they left a sense that “something’s in the air”. 

But what might be that something?  

A “demanding common task” 

I can only see from my window on reality. I’m involved with several local groups, all within about a mile of where the COP is to take place. There is the Centre for Human Ecology, which has booked rooms to hold events. The Glasgow Quakers plan to use the Meeting House as a space that is hospitable to the soul, and my wife and I will offer training workshops for activists in the Quaker process of “Meetings for Clearness”. And just round the corner from the COP is the GalGael Trust, a community–led heritage project, which will hold a series of sessions bringing together diverse indigenous traditions with those of Glasgow itself. [1] In the indigenous Gaelic language of Scotland, gal means the stranger and gael the heartland people. There is a little of each – stranger and local – in most of us. As we seek to recover the indigenous spirit in a part of Glasgow that has been hard–pressed by poverty (even as an international summit descends on the neighbourhood), the GalGael seeks to offer safe space, simple kindness, and some fiery inspiration. 

There was a minister here in Govan in the 1930s, George MacLeod, who responded to the Great Depression by spearheading the rebuilding of Iona Abbey and starting the Iona Community. It aimed then, as it does now, to open out the future of the Christian faith and to do so with the marginalised. One of his best–known sayings is that “only a demanding common cause builds community.” He became a member of the House of Lords as Lord MacLeod of Fuinary. As its first Green Party member, he would certainly have approved of the application of his quote to climate change.  

I believe that our “demanding common task” is to reconnect with one another and with the Earth. That means responding to dangerous global heating in ways that combine practicality with building community, and understanding such community as resting in our profound spiritual interconnection to one another. As Christ’s branches of the vine of life. As Buddha nature. As atman, the individual soul, being one in brahman, the universal soul.  

What might it mean at COP26?  

If we are to dig from where we stand, and stand alongside others, we should start by recognising that most people are not in that sort of space. Most would see little immediate connection between climate change and our spiritual condition – until, perhaps, they reflect upon consumerism, and the idolatry of what it means to try and fill our inner emptiness in this way: “buying the stairway to heaven” with what “can’t give no satisfaction”. To see these things can take a change in consciousness; a transformative insight; what psychologists might call a “peak experience”, or theologians, a spiritual experience.  

COP26 As A Ritual Space

This sounds like a tall order – but hold on a moment.  

I’ve noticed that when large events are well held, within a simple framework, people can experience a widening of their worldview. Such events create a cyclical rhythm of departure, initiation and return. In departure, we set out (perhaps unwittingly) on a journey of discovery. Through initiation, we hit the rapids of life, having to face near–crushing challenges – and, whether we succeed or fail, deepening in the heart. Finally, we return to where we started, but this time with new qualities that help us free up the blocked flows of life into our community.  

This process is more than just a “contact high” or social buzz. It can feel as if it comes from opening to the ground of being. I’ve seen it happening at festivals, at outings into nature for several days, at funerals and seasonal celebrations, and even at large conferences when there’s just that “something in the air” again.  

Let me give a concrete example.  

Around the turn of the millennium, I visited the annual Bread and Puppet Festival in Vermont. At first, the giant puppets looked like just a bit of fun for the kids. I slightly wondered why my host, a fellow teacher of human ecology, had taken me there. But by day two I noticed a shift in my attitude. I started to “feel” the puppets, from a different level in my consciousness. This was more than simply seeing them. It was a tuning in to how they represented the depth psychological and spiritual dynamics that, arguably, are part of what drives the spirit of the times. The puppets made these visible. In the language of theologian Walter Wink, they “unmasked the Powers that Be”. There was a flock of puppet sheep stationary on a hillside. Very slowly, I noticed them starting to move down. They moved like a grazing herd, so slow that I was aware they played tricks with my sense of time. Theirs became a collective presence that was more than merely people dressed as sheep, crawling on all fours. These became a wave. Their force, building up into a groundswell, until at last it crashed in on the scene of ‘Powers that Be’ and swept aside the bygone order.  

Each of us responds differently to such performances, but for me, it was a light–switch moment. I suddenly saw what these artists were about. Sticks, paint and fabric were their outer reality. But what they opened up in the participants’ consciousness was the inner reality.  

Now, I don’t know what most of the artists interacting with protestors, scientists and policy makers at COP 26 might be planning. But I do think spaces that invite a new perspective – a shift in consciousness, even – will emerge over these twelve days. We might consider COP, at least in part, as a ritual space that enables this. 

This opening of inner space is the purpose of ritual. If well held, it opens doors to higher consciousness, and to deeper ways of seeing, being and doing. This is why in 1977, when the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations Iroquois confederacy addressed the NGOs of the United Nations in Geneva, their call was for “a basic call to consciousness”. An awakening. Similarly, today, our basic call is towards One World – and that in three ways: socially, in our relationships to one another, environmentally, towards right relationship with the Earth, and spiritually, in the deepening of our humanity.  

A deeper grounding for activism 

There is a growing realisation that action for social and environmental change needs such deeper grounding. As the African American activist (and co–founder of Occupy Wall Street) Micah White writes:  

Activism is at a crossroads. We can stick to the old paradigm, keep protesting in the same ways and hope for the best. Or we can acknowledge the crisis [and] embark on… a spiritual insurrection… a shift away from materialist theories of social change towards a spiritual understanding of revolution. [2]  

I wrestled with what this might mean when writing Riders on the Storm. Many of us come into activism at the splashy, shouty, shallow end of the pool. That is important. Some even get thrown in! But, as our commitment and experience grows, the chance is there to deepen. To wade out further. To learn to swim. To dive and discover how to breathe underwater. As an Alice Walker poem has it, our call is “to gather blossoms under fire”. 

Climate change is big; it is the end of some parts of the world as we have known them. And precisely because it’s so big, it requires an equally big shift in human consciousness. But we are not alone. Outwardly, we have one another – but even more powerfully, we are not alone inwardly either. As one song from the Greenham Common songbook reminds us:  

You can’t kill the Spirit She is like a mountain Old and strong She goes on an’ on and on She is like a mountain… 

Creeping down that mountain, imperceptibly at first, is a rolling wave of consciousness.  

COP26 as a revelation 

I hope this is what opens in our hearts, spurred by the ritual space and spaces of COP26. Let it be an “apotheosis” or revelation of the “gods” of our times. A learning space to deepen in our spirituality, and understand the way it builds community with the Earth and one another, and starts to tilt the very axis on which we live.  

I don’t want to see a COP that’s dominated by cops and Chinook helicopters.  I want to see Glasgow like a huge, free university, where as the late Bernard Narakobi, a human rights lawyer of Papua New Guinea put it, “courses are offered in living.” This is what it means for being – the essence of our human beingness – to survive and thrive.  

Of course, some will say such thinking is a cop–out (no pun intended). But how else, short of vain recourse to violence, can we start to shift towards governments elected by popular consent that have sufficient mandate to tackle climate change? Working from the spiritual roots upward activates human agency. The buck stops here – or rather, let it start here, in Glasgow, at COP26. 

If you enjoyed this blog, you can find our COP26 series here.


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Alastair McIntosh is the author of books including Soil and Soul, Poacher’s Pilgrimage and most recently, Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. An honorary professor at the University of Glasgow, his talks and trainings for COP 26 are at 

http://bit.ly/Alastair-Itinerary.

 Photo by Severin Candrian on Unsplash

[1] The GalGael Trust was featured as a case study in Theos’ recent research on faith and social cohesion, commissioned by the Faith and Belief Forum and the British Academy. See Madeleine Pennington, Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief (London: British Academy, 2020), pp. 59–60.

[2] Micah White, The End of Protest: a new Playbook for Revolution, pp. 241–243.

Alastair McIntosh

Alastair McIntosh

Alastair McIntosh is the author of books including Soil and Soul, Poacher’s Pilgrimage and most recently, Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. An honorary professor at the University of Glasgow, his talks and trainings for COP 26 are at http://bit.ly/Alastair-Itinerary.

Posted 4 November 2021

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