1 Jun 2021 • General news
Thomas Pollock wrote “If I breathe bad air, or live in dirt willingly, I am a suicide, if I force others to do this, or do not do my best to help them, I am a murderer” in The Birmingham Daily Post for 24th September 1874. Fr Pollock’s understanding of pollution was different from ours because science has made huge advances since then. Nevertheless, Thomas Pollock had a clear grasp of the importance of clean ground, water and air and how what we would (today) call pollution affected public health.
Thomas and James Pollock burned with the desire to improve the lives of the people. Fr Thomas saw the pollution in this area as an affront to the Gospel and an injustice against the people who lived here. What then might he have made of the clean air zone?
I think we can assume that Thomas Pollock would have been in favour of the clean air zone. Just as the insanitary conditions of 1874 were “murdering” the people of Highgate, pollution from vehicle exhausts is killing people every year. In fact, I suspect Fr Thomas would have said the clean air zone doesn’t go far enough. That doesn’t mean that the clean air zone is not a challenge to our church. It is a real problem because not everyone in our congregation will be able to change their car for one that is less polluting. I believe that Fr Thomas would point out to us that the Christian life is a calling to face many difficulties and that we need to work together to overcome those difficulties: that Christ calls our church to stand up for justice for the poor who are disproportionally affected by air pollution.
One way we can have our cake and eat it is to make sure that those who want to come to our church and can’t drive into the clean air zone are able to get lifts from those of us who have compliant cars. Yes, it is difficult, but we can work together to overcome our difficulties.
I’m sat writing this in Ark St Alban’s Academy, and this is another expression of the Pollock brothers work of bringing justice to the people of Highgate. They saw education as a key way of empowering the disadvantaged. Fr Thomas makes it clear that the same principles that make “schools, and churches, and science classes” a good thing compel us to secure “healthy homes and fresh air” for working people. That zeal for justice is also the reason there are no pews in St Alban’s church. The Pollock brothers didn’t want special pews that could be rented by rich families. No! Everyone should be equal in St Alban’s Church.
Interestingly Fr Pollock’s letter also touches on the subject of epidemics. Expanding the quote at the beginning of this letter.
“One word more. When epidemic breaks out, people turn up their eyes and talk about Providence. I have no patience with this sort of ignorant slander against the Almighty. Men lay to the charge of God what is done by their own greed or dullness. If I lay down powder, and put a match to it, I have no right to say that Providence blows my eyes out or maims my neighbour. I know what powder will do when lighted. So, if I breathe bad air, or live in dirt willingly, I am a suicide, if I force others to do this, or do not do my best to help them, I am a murderer”.
I think Fr Thomas would have much to say about the world’s (and our own country’s) response to the Covid-19. Edward Jenner was born over 100 years before Fr Thomas’ letter and vaccinations are providing a route out of the current pandemic in a way Fr Thomas would not have known. He would undoubtedly point out that while the vaccine has saved many lives, many more would have been saved if our government had acted in accordance with scientific principles. If Fr Thomas’ words, “We found and support great hospitals. Most of the outlay of these ought, I solemnly believe, to be spent on prevention. We knock a man down with one hand, and hold out sticking-plaster with the other. We poison men, and then buy them costly antidotes.”
Today, we need to look at the issues of pollution, global warming and injustice from the ethical standpoint as the Pollock brothers. The Church of St Alban the Martyr was not meant to be a chaplaincy to the few, but a dynamic force for social justice. We definitely have the echoes of that in our church, but do we still have the zeal and commitment to follow Jesus like Frs Thomas and James did?