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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Living on Earth Profile Series #16: Reverend James Parks Morton

Air Date: Week of October 20, 1995

As part of Living on Earth's continued series on 25 changemakers on the environment, Living on Earth's Jan Nunley examines the work of the Dean of the largest Episcopal cathedral in the country, St. John the Divine in New York City. Morton believes an environmental ethic is at the heart of Christian teachings.

Transcript

CURWOOD: For more than 20 years, New York's giant cathedral of St. John the Divine has been a hotbed of environmental activism for people of all faiths. The man behind this green cathedral is its dean, James Parks Morton, and this week we meet him as part of our series on environmental pioneers. Living on Earth's Jan Nunley, who was recently ordained as an Episcopal priest, has our story.

(Traffic sounds)

NUNLEY: Outside the cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue at West 112th, it's typically New York. Traffic, the sound of passing sirens, the sound of hammer on stone.

(More traffic and ambient noise, fading)

NUNLEY: But when these great doors open and you step inside, it's as if you've walked into a living thing. As if you've been swallowed, like Jonah, by a great creature, and you can feel its heart. The creators of the cathedral of St. John the Divine wanted it to be a house of prayer for all nations, in the words of the prophet Isaiah. But since 1972, the cathedral's dean, the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, has worked to imbue this house with a new spirit, to be a house of prayer for all creation.

MORTON: To be a house of prayer for all nations still is very important, and it's still true and it's something one still has to work at. But all of these still rest on air and on water and on the earth.

NUNLEY: Dean Morton's office is more like the wizard Merlin's workshop, filled with a jumble of paintings and blueprints and rocks and feathers and plants and books. The accumulation of two decades as the Episcopal church's environmental prophet. From preaching about global climate change and polluted water and air to envisioning a sustainable urban environment, Morton maintains his commitment to the Earth is a part of the cathedral's commitment to the community which surrounds it.

MORTON: These global issues and problems are very much New York's problems. And therefore, they're the problems that have got to be lifted up in this cathedral.

(Running water from a sink)

NUNLEY: Morton's vision of the cathedral has made its grounds a kind of inner city ark: a place of harbor and refuge for beings and ideas. Inside, there's a real live blue crab in a fish tank, and a statue of the wolf of Gubio, St. Francis's canine friend.

(Hammering sounds)

NUNLEY: Outside, master stone carver Simon Verite's hammer gently taps the faces of saints at the Portal of Paradise.

(Loud bird calls)

NUNLEY: Peacocks roam about and there's a Biblical garden with flowers and plants of the Holy Land just steps away from the cathedral's community recycling center, one of the first in New York. And the cathedral is an intellectual greenhouse for environmental thinking. It's helped germinate groups like the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a coalition of Christians and Jews, and the Lindis Farm Association, linking theologians and scientists. Artists like Paul Winter and scientists like the inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, James Lovelock, appear regularly at St. John's. Both the Winter Solstice and St. Francis Day are celebrated as environmental holy days.

(Footfalls echoing, voices)

NUNLEY: Morton started on his personal blueprint for this environmental ark in the 60s and early 70s. His ministry and civil rights and poverty work took an unexpected turn when he became deal of the cathedral.

MORTON: I met a whole slew of people who were environmentalists. John and Nancy Todd, and Rennie DeBose, and Father Tom Berry, Amory Lovins. And it was clear, instantly, that all of my seminary training and really all of my stuff in civil rights and community development simply didn't include the most fundamental thing, which was the priority of the earth. So, the notion of a green cathedral was very simply, I mean it couldn't be any other color.

NUNLEY: Green theology has spread through other mainline Christian groups. Still, Morton meets resistance to the Cathedral's environmental emphasis. He's even accused of opening the sanctuary door to paganism and Earth-worship.

MORTON: The short answer, is those people are wrong. And they're not preaching the Gospel; they're preaching some other truncated version of it. The Sermon on the Mount is about the most environmental thing in the whole world, because all of the images that Jesus himself used were based, were kind of land images. I mean, creation theology is Biblical theology. I mean you're not having to jump out of your skin.

NUNLEY: Dean Morton doesn't take credit for the green cathedral, and he doesn't think of it as unusual, either. To him, a church that reminds its people that we're all connected " to God, to one another, and to all creation " is just a church that's doing its job. For Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley.

 

 

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