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Greening the church: a reluctant sacrifice or a new lease of life?

Tamsin Omond

8th September, 2009

Taking responsibility for our actions, fighting for justice and living in harmony with the rest of creation are among the founding principles of every religion. So why is there is no interfaith, or even inter-Christian statement on climate change?

In the highest echelons of the Church of England it seems that everyone is talking about climate change

On May 31st 2007, as thousands of Londoners poured out of Hatton Cross tube, a message arrived from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was addressed to Father Amatu, priest to the villages of Sipson and Harmondsworth, and to the five thousand people assembling outside to protest against the third runway.

The march, which was to wind round Heathrow's perimeter fence before arriving at the villages threatened by the expansion plans, was launched by Fr. Amatu with Rowan Williams' words:

'Concern for our environment is a clear imperative arising from the respect we owe to creation and to each other.

'It is about securing justice for each other and for the generations to come. So questions of airport expansion, like all developments that risk increasing the damage we do to our global environment - which still impact hardest on the poorest - cannot be considered uncritically, or to be in a morality-free zone.'

Forgive us our carbon sins

The message went unreported by the media, and seemed hardly noticed by the crowd. Yet the implications of the statement were, and remain, profound. The head of the Anglican church had to all intents and purposes labelled airport expansion sinful.

The BAA lobbyists who doctored government reports, and the ministers who designed sham 'consultation' documents, were - in the eyes of the Church of England - in danger of suffering spiritual consequences.

There is nothing, of course, in the Bible about climate change; but the respect for creation and care for the poor and weak that it commands make cutting carbon emissions integral to a moral twenty-first century life.

What about Rowan's statement on an individual level? If airport expansion is not a morality-free zone, what about the choices people make over whether to travel by train or by plane? Or how much meat they consume, given that animal husbandry accounts for 22 per cent of global carbon emissions?

And what about the church office that leaves its equipment on standby all week long? Christians who see themselves as witnesses of Christ, of God and of His creation should - according to the Archbishop - make low-carbon decisions, as act of faith. That's pretty huge. It places concern about climate change at the heart of everyone's actions. It could be truly transformative.

No green comment...

Yet there is no interfaith, or even inter-Christian statement on climate change, and there is no sense that Christians are the ones to turn to if you want to cut your carbon footprint.

The lack of religious engagement with climate change is odd. In the west, environmentalism is about making difficult choices in a milieu where those choices can seem pointless. It can be hard to feel that your not flying shorthaul has any real value when you know a plane takes off from Heathrow every 90 seconds.

So the value is a moral one, and the compulsion to stick to your values is a social one - things that faith groups should, at least, excel in. Economists will talk about financial incentives. Make the train cheaper than the plane. Marketing execs will talk about advertising. Make holidaying at home seem more fun than holidaying abroad. Environmentalists talk about morals. Don't take a plane because it's the right thing to do. You will feel good about yourself if you take the train.

It squares so well with religion it's bizarre that faith groups haven't been jumping all over it.

This is particularly strange in the context of the Church of England, for at the highest levels our national church is doing a great deal. On December 5th the Archbishop will talk at the Stop Climate Chaos march, and later that month he will address the international delegates at the COP 15 talks.

Guiding the way

The church that he leads has a carbon cutting campaign, ‘Shrinking the Footprint', and a number of officers whose job it is to help the transition to a low carbon church.

In the highest echelons of the Church of England it seems that everyone is talking about climate change, and the most senior advisor is not a man of the cloth, but a celebrated conservationist: David Shreeve, environmental advisor to the Archbishop's Council and founder of the Conservation Society.

It shows an admirable humility that a faith organisation has sought out scientific expertise for advice on their latest challenge.

 David Shreeve is highly aware of the positive effects that would ensue if the church could put its house in order.

He tells me that the Church of England has over 16,200 church buildings, not including the church schools, offices or vicarages. The combined footprint is around 1.3 million tonnes a year, the same as the UK's leading supermarket chain.

If the church were to announce a plan to become carbon neutral then not only would it lead to a noticeable reduction on the national scale, it would also be an act of moral leadership.

A global mass movement?

In a world increasingly deaf to its influence, it could make the church seem relevant again; and it would frame the climate debate in terms of ethics, revitalizing the debates over the ‘morality-free zones' of consumerism and waste.

As David Shreeve says: ‘There are over 70 million Anglicans in 160 countries - this is bigger than any environmental or political body. If it stood up and said 'we are concerned' - well... some people don't have lightbulbs to switch off - but such a statement, made together, would represent a global concern.'

Seventy million people is a good start for a global mass movement - which is what everyone from Al Gore to Ed Miliband seem to be saying is necessary to tackle climate change. And a faith group is particularly well placed to transform mere concern into concrete action, because shaping behaviour through moral pressure is what religion does.

Oxfam can encourage its membership to buy fair trade, but it doesn't see them every week to check up on them, it doesn't ask them to search their hearts and confess their supermarket sins to the Lord, and it can't promise spiritual rewards with their coffee.

Yet this statement of global concern has not been made publicly even by Anglicans, and the Catholic Church, with its 1 billion members and enormous international influence, still has no official environmental initiative.

I touched on this fact with David Shreeve and he sounded despondent: ‘we had hoped that other denominations would announce that they were adopting the Shrinking the Footprint campaign.' It seems that even the catastrophic threat of climate change cannot bridge the divides within Christianity.

The Catholics on climate change

When I spoke to Celia Dean-Drummond, spirituality advisor to CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), about the apparent unwillingness of the Catholic church to either walk the walk or talk the talk, she sighed and said: ‘I think the new pope wants to build something distinctive from his predecessor - he isn't really a nature mystic in the same way as Pope John.'

When I asked about the English Catholic church there was even less to say: ‘Unfortunately some of the interpreters of the Catholic social team haven't interpreted it or accepted [environmental problems'] centrality to the Catholic church... I would like it to be more official within the leadership of the Catholic church in Britain.'

When I suggested that perhaps it was difficult for a church that consumed so much to preach sustainability from the pulpit (silently reminding myself of the recently launched Vatican Airlines) she steered the conversation back to CAFOD and their focused climate campaign:

'In the Global South, such as Cambodia, they know the devastating effects of climate change - even if they don't use those western terms, they are aware of the changes in the patterns of their weather, that something is going on and going wrong. CAFOD is a partnership organization, we work in dialogue and partnership with the people in South America, Africa and China.'

Dark and cold churches

Such partnerships are to be applauded, but CAFOD is a charity, not the church's official leadership, and there's no shortage of Christian charities focussing on climate change: Christian Aid, Tearfund, Operation Noah, A Rocha... And considering how active many congregations are in supporting them, why is there silence on an institutional level?

Well, they are saddled with one particular difficulty, a refrain I heard time and time again from every level and every denomination of Christianity: 'People complain that their churches are dark and cold.'

Harangued priests would sound severely fed up about having to explain this to me, and while I'd want to talk about the loss of the arctic sea ice, shrinking glaciers, drought and war, I couldn't deny the fact that churches patently are dark and cold. They can be majestic and full of gravity, but a rheumatic congregation are even less likely to make it out to church if they know they can't even have the radiators on.

So here's the crunch. Meaningful emission cuts, at least in the short term, are going to involve turning our back on things we've taken for granted for the last thirty years. Less consumption, less travel, less security, less self-absorbtion. They will involve a different view of human progress, a different value system, a different way of life.

For those of us who've grown up with supermarkets, high street shops and Easyjet it will feel like a massive loss of freedom.

A new lease of life

The church is understandably afraid of sticking its neck out and alienating its dwindling (and aging) membership. But it could also see it as an opportunity, to reclaim the world of the early gospels, of Christianity in its most vital and inspiring form.

Enter the Church of England's most outspoken environmentalist, the Bishop of London. He says that climate change need not paralyse action but inspire it; that it need not paralyse faith but recognise it. There is a role for a humble church to play, accepting the West's responsibility for climate change and acknowledging the sacrifices we must make to secure a future:

'It's the truth. We're called to do it [...] It's something that is right, a responsibility that we must accept.'

Yet in accepting the responsibility we don't necessarily have to accept the consquences. Climate change is happening now, but it is not too late for radical action that will make it much severe. And as such it is both our biggest threat and our greatest hope.

If we delay, if we allow ourselves to enter a world of 'catastrophe first', then the future is too horrible to contemplate; if we react in time, and make the necessary changes before we are forced to, there is the very real possibility of a transformation - of a loving and co-operative community on earth.

The Bishop says that we can be ‘communicants (or participants) in a web of life, rather than relentless consumers of matter.' It is when he speaks of communion that his message is most mystical and his faith most exciting.

The environmental movement is often criticised for being holier-than-thou, moralising and quasi-religious. Environmentalists themselves are generally resistant to the comparison, disliking formal institutions and not wanting to dilute the scientific base of their message.

It's less clear why faith groups don't want to be compared to environmentalists. Surely taking responsibility for our actions, fighting for justice and living in harmony with the rest of creation are among the founding principles of every religion? And the continued importance of religion, even in the west, says that those principles still have resonance.

There are those who say that you can't build a mass movement on sacrifice - if the changes you look for are difficult and life-altering and done purely because they're the right thing to do. I guess someone should have told that to Jesus.

Tamsin Omond is a climate activist and founder of the protest group Climate Rush

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Users Comments

Re: Greening the church: a reluctant sacrifice or a new lease of life?
Posted By EC019144 1 September 8, 2009 08:42:33 PM

Kia Ora from NZ. We Quakers may be in a minority and certainly don't aspire to be 'holier than thou', but we have been considering and acting on sustainability issues for a while. Two examples - a new book Right relationship: building a whole earth economy by Peter G Brown and Geoffrey Garver (and others). 2009. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Fransisco. ISBN 978-1-57675-762-8 Also the Aotearoa/NZ Friends 2000 statement on the environment which can be found at www.quaker.org.nz/publications/yearly-meeting-statements Helen Kingston

Re: Greening the church: a reluctant sacrifice or a new lease of life?
Posted By EC006645 1 September 10, 2009 12:50:30 PM

The comments about Christianity and the environment here seem to suffer from a certain degree of cultural bias. The (theoretical) head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Barholomew, is well known for his commitment to ecological causes and has decreed that the Church should begin its liturgical year with prayers for the environment. If The Ecologist is concerned about Christian attitudes to the environment, perhaps it should look more carefully at the Orthodox Church's position on this issue

Re: Greening the church: a reluctant sacrifice or a new lease of life?
Posted By EC019638 1 September 25, 2009 09:17:56 AM

The author of the article seems to have a higly biased opinion about the church and environment. I am an environmental scientist, who has been called to teach a course on ecophilosophy in a Catholic Seminary in India. Most Catholic Seminaries in India offer a course on Ecophilosophy and Ecotheology. Also the author doesn't seem to be aware of the latest encyclical of Pope Benedict before criticising him, named Caritas in Veritate which devotes several pages on environmental conservation, which he personally gave to the leaders of the G8 when they met in Italy.
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