In 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I declared September 1 a day of prayer for creation, corresponding with the beginning of the Orthodox church year. The World Council of Churches caught onto this idea and someone—I don’t know who, but stars in your crown, whoever you are—came up with the idea of a whole Season of Creation, beginning on September 1 and ending on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis. Naturally, the current Pope was a fan of this idea, and in 2015 he made the Season of Creation official for Roman Catholics. Now it’s a whole ecumenical thing, with a website and everything.
Never heard of it? Well, new liturgical seasons take a long time to catch on. But in this case, we might want to hurry up. After all, 2020 was tied with 2016 as one of the hottest years on record, species extinction proceeds apace, the ocean continues to warm, rise, and sour, plus fires, storms, plastic pollution—you know the drill. There’s no overstating the urgent need to repair our human impact on the planet. So it seems like an excellent idea for worshiping communities to give some high-level liturgical-year attention to the more-than-human creation.
This past year, despite pandemic limitations, Roman Catholics, Orthodox folk, Anglicans, Lutherans, and others all around the world commemorated the Season of Creation with prayer services, garden plantings, climate action events, and other activities particular to their place on the planet. People are figuring it out. But if we’re going to continue to observe this season and let it help re-form us in faith, we are going to need more worship resources. Fortunately, we’re starting to see such resources emerge.
For instance, I’ve just spent some pleasant hours working through the songs and supporting materials released last summer by a UK group called Resound Worship. They are a “collective of British worship songwriters” founded in 2006, equipping and inspiring worship leaders and composers. Such folk often “plough a lone furrow” in their churches, so Resound Worship has created a community of support. They have created a culture where writers can critique, revise, workshop and publish new songs in the service of the church. They have a podcast, composing challenges, retreat events—the whole works.
Last summer, they released an album titled doxecology. It’s a collection of thirteen new worship songs by a variety of composers, with song materials supported by a nicely assembled study guide, fully developed sheet music book, and videos that provide congregations with the lyrics. The study guide contains meditations on the songs and relevant scripture as well as some sample service plans.
The album’s “ecologically themed worship songs” have a three-fold purpose: to “celebrate the wonder of creation, acknowledge our failures, and anticipate a glorious restoration in Christ.” In the introduction to the study guide, one of Resound Worship’s leaders, Joel Payne, wisely notes the crucial role of worship songs in faith formation:
“In the contemporary church we absorb much of our theology from worship songs. Those are the words we repeat, with melodies to aid memorisation, and they become ingrained truths. The core of our worship repertoire becomes the core of our theology. The core of our theology becomes the impetus of our activity. And on issues of creation and ecology the substance of our repertoire is thin, to say the least.”
The doxecology project is intentionally designed to help thicken that substance. Suited best for churches worshiping in a praise-and-worship idiom, some of the songs are more successful than others—at least in my opinion—but the whole project is a welcome contribution to ecology-themed resources.
One of my favorites of the thirteen new songs is “Let All Creation Sing” (based on Psalm 148 and other similar texts) with its playful country twang and concluding “la la la” section. I can imagine whole congregations grooving to this one, including children. And extra points for softly rhyming “supernova” with “hallelujah,” “otter” with “daughter.” Also for mentioning narwhals and armadillos.
Another excellent offering is “Where Are You in the Storm,” one of several songs in the lament-and-repentance category. This one has a slightly 1980s R&B feel, some welcome harmonic interest, and fitting allusions to the story of Jesus asleep in the boat: “Water rising, / are you sleeping: / are you Lord after all?” The refrain shifts to assurance: “In the storm, you’re the anchor / … all of creation will be healed.”
“Why Are You Downcast,” with notes of Psalm 42, is another winner in lament/assurance mode, a simple expression of faith amid what we might describe as climate anxiety: “Beneath the shadow of each storm, / in all the sorrow and despair, / remember God still loves the world.”
Of course, developing worship resources focused on the more-than-human creation brings numerous challenges. One is cliché. Do we need more songs naming God as king, for example? It’s almost impossible to resist that metaphor system—especially since “king” rhymes so happily with “sing.” And one can always argue that this is a biblical name for God.
But staying in that king metaphor system all the time reinforces a reductive image of God up there in the sky, distant from the world, just soaking up the praise coming from down below. We could use some more songs imagining God active in creation (remember “in the rustling grass I hear him pass / he speaks to me everywhere”?), and we could use a lot more songs imagining humans getting busy, healing and caring for creation. After all, restorative action is praise, too.
Fortunately, human action is emphasized throughout the doxecology collection. Lines like “make us partners in your mission” and “use our hands to heal creation: / you are making all things new” strike a nice balance between God’s purposes and human action. In one of the lament songs, the line “Lead us in your Eden call to live as those who bear your name” offers a neat encapsulation of the Genesis accounts, combining the image-bearing responsibility (Gen. 1) with the originary human vocation of “serving and protecting” the earth (Gen. 2).
The song “As the Seeds are Planted” is another winner, with the welcome refrain “Let the earth find rest.” How often do we sing about letting the earth rest from all our human striving and disruption?
While this collection does offer some appropriate new themes and emphases to the church’s collection of ecology-themed songs, we still have some growing edges. In the English-speaking world anyway, we have plenty of songs that call us to a kind of aesthetic appreciation of the earth and the universe. Lots of spinning planets and pretty flowers and “rocks and trees and skies and seas” in our repertoire. All good. We should indeed wonder and rejoice in the beauty of creation and respond with praise to the Creator. Of course.
However, this aesthetic posture does render the rest of the living world somewhat inert: it’s a beautiful backdrop for the drama of our human lives. OK, fair, we sing all the time about the creation praising God and, in a few songs, groaning in longing a la Romans 8. But anything else?
How about some songs that acknowledge our interdependence with other creatures, the way plants and water are the means through which God gives us life? This give and take between humans and other creatures—this “reciprocity” as Robin Wall Kimmerer describes it—we rarely speak of that in our worship life. At best, we talk about stewardship, imagining ourselves as the caretakers of the earth, usually with little specificity about what that might actually demand of us, and certainly without making vivid in our imaginations how much the earth provides to us.
So yes, the other creatures give praise to God, but they also keep us alive. And biologically speaking, we’re not even separate from “creation”—we are holobionts, basically walking ecosystems of microbes on and within us.
Hmm. I hereby challenge the worship-songwriting world to mention microbes in a song. Maybe you could rhyme it with “spinning globes” or something.
Anyway, I’m grateful for people like the Resound Worship group, who are taking seriously the need to continually renew and refresh our worship lives, rooting their work in tradition but also giving discerning attention to our current blind spots and growing edges.
There’s still much to do to make the Season of Creation a viable liturgical season. For instance, what to do about liturgical colors? Green is already taken. (My suggestion: rainbow.) The longer-range goal, of course, is to let the Season of Creation spread its seeds throughout the church year, lifting up and emphasizing ecology themes in all seasons of the church’s life.
You can find full lyrics and recordings of all the doxecology songs on the website. Just search for the song title and then click on the video to hear the song. I also note gratefully that in the study guide, Joel Payne kindly credits an essay I wrote for this blog in March of 2019, in which I separately “discovered” the word doxecology.