plant confession

September 18, 2019

Uprooted: Union Seminary Chapel Hosts Plant Confessional

These aren’t the church plants you were thinking of, but students at New York’s Union Theological Seminary held a chapel service on Tuesday during which participants confessed to plants.

“Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor,” Union tweeted on its official account. “What do you confess to the plants in your life?”

Rather than confess transgressions against an endangered grove or old growth forest, the student-led September 17 service featured what appeared to be a collection of houseplants and herbs.

A photo accompanying the tweet shows a young seminarian seated on the floor facing an assortment of cattails, a peace lily, a majesty palm, and potted basil.

Union is among the most theologically progressive U.S. seminaries, known for political activism and various liberation theology expressions tied to identity. Originally established by Presbyterians, the independent seminary is officially non-denominational.

The Episcopal Divinity School merged into Union as an Anglican studies program following the shuttering of its Cambridge, Massachusetts campus in 2017. Union also educates Unitarian Universalists and has Muslim faculty, among other religious traditions.

Union mirrors the decline of other storied Religious Left institutions on Manhattan’s upper west side: the National Council of Churches abandoned the “God Box” interchurch center for smaller quarters in Washington, D.C. years ago, and Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous Riverside Church has dwindled to about 600 attendees on a Sunday, down from 3,600 in the 1950s. Union itself has dropped from 330 fulltime enrolled students in 2003-2004 to 218 in 2018.

Twitter had a field day of its own poking fun at the plant confessional:

Jesus Christ speaks about plants on multiple occasions, noting in Matthew chapter 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

Later in Matthew chapter 21 verses 18–22, Jesus curses a fig tree, but it is unclear what theology informed the chapel service.

The Sacrament of Penance (confession) is one of seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism. In liturgical Christian traditions, including Catholicism, Orthodoxy and some forms of Anglicanism, a priest hearing confession provides absolution for the remission of sin and adherents are reconciled with the church community. It is unclear if the Union chapel service sought absolution from the plants themselves, or with what community (eco-system?) the participants were reconciled.

I reached out to the communications office at Union to ask about the inspiration for the plant confessional. I will update this blog entry with further information when I receive a response.

Update: Union Seminary on its Twitter feed explains that the chapel was conducted as part of Union Professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class, “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response.”

More here:

“In worship, our community confessed the harm we’ve done to plants, speaking directly in repentance. This is a beautiful ritual. We are in the throes of a climate emergency, a crisis created by humanity’s arrogance, our disregard for Creation. Far too often, we see the natural world only as resources to be extracted for our use, not divinely created in their own right—worthy of honor, thanks and care.

We need to unlearn habits of sin and death. And part of that work must be building new bridges to the natural world. And that means creating new spiritual and intellectual frameworks by which we understand and relate to the plants and animals with whom we share the planet.

Churches have a huge role to play in this endeavor. Theologies that encourage humans to dominate and master the Earth have played a deplorable role in degrading God’s creation. We must birth new theology, new liturgy to heal and sow, replacing ones that reap and destroy.

When Robin Wall Kimmerer spoke at Union last year, she concluded her lecture by tasking us—and all faith communities—to develop new liturgies by which to mourn, grieve, heal and change in response to our climate emergency. We couldn’t be prouder to participate in this work.

And here’s the thing: At first, this work will seem weird. It won’t feel normal. It won’t look like how we’re used to worship looking and sounding. And that’s exactly the point. We don’t just need new wine, we need new wineskins.

But it’s also important to note that this isn’t, really, that radical a break from tradition. Many faiths and denoms have liturgy through which we express and atone for the harm we’ve caused. No one would have blinked if our chapel featured students apologizing to each other.

What’s different (and the source of so much derision) is that we’re treating plants as fully created beings, divine Creation in its own right—not just something to be consumed. Because plants aren’t capable of verbal response, does that mean we shouldn’t engage with them?

So, if you’re poking fun, we’d ask only that you also spend a couple moments asking: Do I treat plants and animals as divinely created beings? What harm do I cause without thinking? How can I enter into new relationship with the natural world?

Change isn’t easy: It’s no simple business to break free from comfortable habits and thoughts. But if we do not change, we will perish. And so will plants and animals God created and called “good.” We must lean into this discomfort; God waits for us there.”


29 Responses to Uprooted: Union Seminary Chapel Hosts Plant Confessional

  1. JR says:

    I think Crowley (Good Omens) would slow clap this one.

    I think practicing confession by using plants, pets, or the mirror isn’t a bad idea. “…treating plants as fully created beings…” seems to be a step too far.

    I didn’t harm that particular ficus – is it representing ALL ficus [ficuses? Fici?] – and if so we’re not treating it as a ‘being’.

    I think I’ll file this under ‘That’s just weird’. 🙂

  2. brandon says:

    is this a step towards church sanctioned gaia worship?

    its so weird that this should be something practiced by future pastors.

  3. TexasBill says:

    Pagan animism…pure and simple.

  4. Rev. Nancy Mayes says:

    This makes me almost regret that I spent those 6 plus years I spent earning my M.Div and the 28 years I have spent as a minister. The creation is now trying to become God.

  5. “Originally established by Presbyterians, the independent seminary is officially non-denominational.”
     
    What is missing here is the story behind that statement:
     
    In 1876, Union Theological Seminary in New York (UTS), which was then affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA; a predecessor denomination of the current Presbyterian Church (USA), or PC(USA) for short), called as its chair of Hebrew and cognate languages Charles Augustus Briggs, who had been educated at the University of Virginia, UTS, and the University of Berlin.  Briggs quickly became known as a champion of literary and historical criticism of the Bible and a fierce opponent of Biblical Inerrancy, especially as taught by the faculty of the PCUSA’s Princeton Theological Seminary at the time.
     
    In 1891, UTS appointed him to the chair of Biblical Studies.  In his inaugural address, titled “The Authority of Holy Scripture”, Briggs asserted, “There are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they were not in the original text is sheer assumption.”  He proceeded to deny that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, that the Prophet Isaiah wrote the entire book ascribed to his authorship, and the understanding of prophecy as foretelling the future.  His truculent assault on the foundations of Presbyterian theology resulted in charges of heresy—although these were dismissed that fall by the Presbytery of New York City—and prompted the PCUSA General Assembly that year to deny UTS permission to install Briggs in the chair to which they had appointed him.
     
    In 1892, as a result of the mounting controversy over Briggs, the PCUSA General Assembly, meeting that year in Portland Oregon, published a “Deliverance” (later known popularly as the “Portland Deliverance”), formally declaring, “Our church holds that the inspired Word, as it came from God, is without error,” and required all candidates for ordination in the PCUSA to affirm the doctrine.  The Assembly also brought eight charges against Briggs, reigniting his heresy trial.
     
    Nevertheless, UTS continued to stand by Briggs, and in October 1892 UTS revoked the PCUSA General Assembly the authority it had granted in 1870 to veto appointments, while still professing steadfast allegiance to the PCUSA, and installed him in the chair of Biblical Studies, escalating the controversy in the denomination.  The following year, the General Assembly tried and convicted Briggs for heresy by an overwhelming majority.  Subsequently, UTS severed its ties with the PCUSA, and Briggs was reordained in the Episcopal Church.
     
    And so, Union Theological Seminary has continued down that self-destructive road ever since.  Although it thrived during the heyday of Theologically Liberal Protestantism through most of the 20th Century, it has fallen with it, proving once again the famous words of William Ralph Inge, the Anglican Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1911 until 1934, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”
     
    “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (II Tim. 4.3-4)

    • Sources:
       
      Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford, 1991), pp. 22-23,81
       
      Presbyterian Historical Society, Portland Deliverance (https://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/2015/10/portland-deliverance)

      • Robert Munday says:

        Loren, Thank you very much for that informative overview of the history of UTS’ relationship with the PCUSA and the whole Briggs affair. I did not realize that, following the breach in the relationship between UTS and the PCUSA that Briggs was reordained in the Episcopal Church. That probably reveals a great deal more than was apparent at the time.

      • Paul Zesewitz says:

        This seminary was on the liberal side long before Dr. Briggs came along. It was founded in 1836 by a liberal wing of the Presbyterian Church, probably as their answer to Princeton Seminary, which, back then, was much more conservative. Just an FYI.

        • Not really.  Theological Liberalism, as taught in Europe by such individuals as Schleiermacher and Ritschl, did not gain a foothold in America until after the Civil War.  Union did not begin its drift into Theological Liberalism until then.  Also, don’t forget that conservative stalwart William Greenough Thayer Shedd (1820-1894) labored at Union Theological Seminary in New York, first as Professor of Sacred Literature (1863-1874), and later as Chair of Systematic Theology (1874-1890).

          • Rebecca says:

            We’ve had theological liberalism in America from colonial days. The liberals were busy taking over universities, and churches, but behind the scenes and undercover…They were outlawed until after the Revolution. They are the Unitarians. They continued their takeover and nearly all liberal churches have closet and not so closet Unitarians running them. Not so long ago, the Emergent Church Movement was started by Unitarians.

  6. David says:

    I once heard of a sort of retreat day in a private house where participants were encouraged to write their sins on toilet paper and then flush them as a sign of forgiveness. I have not forgiven some poison ivy I had accidentally brushed in the distance past.

  7. MikeS says:

    Goody, now I have a theological reason not to eat brussel sprouts, who are my plant-brethren.

  8. Don Lingerfelt says:

    The first commandment forbids this. What kind of seminary is this anyway?

  9. G. Hogue says:

    Finally, they find a higher life-form that they can confess to. How will they battle against those demon caterpillars that don’t believe in confessing, but rather in munching, since they probably don’t believe in pesticides? Instruments of war are now lawn mowers? A new flag of liberation will feature the old words, “Don’t tread on me.” Hmmm. It seems as if the seed of there Gospel has literally fallen among the weeds and thistles.

  10. Tmatt says:

    Has anyone seen an actual liturgical text?

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Hi Terry, I have not yet located the liturgical text. The Union communications office took my message requesting more information about the theological resources used, but they simply released a statement on Twitter and didn’t directly respond to my request.

  11. Anneke says:

    “Theologies that encourage humans to dominate and master the Earth have played a deplorable role in degrading God’s creation.” Well, they’ve just let everyone know how they truly feel about Christian biblical theology–they don’t like it. Can we stop referring to these folks as “Christian” now?

  12. bob says:

    So the new oppressed alphabet minority is LGBTQIA-W? “W” as in ‘weed,” the oppressed and rejected plant so long misunderstand and whose practice of incineration only recently has been legalized and affirmed in several states…Dude! And I guess Italian dressing, like Columbus, is just another oppressor?

  13. Jim Radford says:

    To the student body at Union: “Everybody sing! “Nature loves me, this I know, for Charles Darwin told me so….”

    As many are aware, in chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes the wry observation that, “…this generation…is like children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, ‘We have piped unto you, and you have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and you have not lamented.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a devil.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man, a winebibber, friend of publicans and sinners.’ But wisdom is justified of her children.” I always thought that the last line, ‘But wisdom is justified of her children,’ was a cryptic comment about how hypocritical (“hypocrisy” literally meaning giving exaggerated importance to relatively unimportant things) practices, i.e. praying to plants, eventually will prove to be what it actually is: ridiculous. I’m all for praying for the creation, but with regard to what the seminary is teaching their students, Shakespeare was correct: “Lord, what fools these mortals be….”

  14. Kurt Ritch says:

    UTS, the T is silent.

  15. Walt Jeffers says:

    hmmm. ‘oh holy priestess of the microgreens — i ask forgiveness for what i’m about to do (add you to my avocado toast)’ …oh snap (beans).

  16. Joan Sibbald says:

    Progressives seek to destroy the past. How else to progress, they say?
    By definition, Progressives deny History, thus, they deny the Bible.
    Here we are, America, a seminary that purports to educate Christian ministers denies Christianity and confesses and bows to “nature.”
    Satan smiles!

  17. Glen Kissel says:

    But wait…you can hear the “progressive” critique of this endeavor:
    (1) Shouldn’t the plants be “drought resistant”?
    (2) Shouldn’t allergy-inducing plants be avoided?
    (3) How many third world peoples had to be exploited to obtain these plants?

  18. Dudley Sharp says:

    It appears that they have found a new deity with a higher IQ.

  19. Donald says:

    Conventional Wisdom says “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Theologies that inspire seminarians and their professors to opine on ‘Extractivism’ in 435 words only reinforce the folly of confessing anything to plants

  20. Shirley says:

    Well, if these progressive Union students are vegans (since we must treat our animals as brothers and sisters of creation with equal value, I am wondering what these ridiculous seminarians are going to eat for nourishment? Rather than pray over their plant based meal on their plate, will they repent before eating? Silly stuff that goes on in the name of “Christianity.”

  21. Tim Parker says:

    “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭1:25‬

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *