MORE TIME was devoted to climate change than to any other subject at the General Synod in York. The whole of the final day was given over to it, beginning with facilitated small groups by Synod members in the morning, before debates on the Paris Summit and mission, and then in the afternoon on ethical-investment policies.
Moving the debate on the Paris Summit and the mission of the Church, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, described climate change as “the big issue”. The background paper for the debate had been prepared before the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’, which “addresses not just Roman Catholics, Christians, and people of faith”, he said, “but in the care of our common home it addresses everyone. Its Franciscan joy and delight in response to creation has caught the imagination. It is serious and hopeful. . .
“Our knowledge about future climate change is subject to a range of uncertainties. No one is able to predict exactly how the climate will develop. However, it is essential that we act now. It will certainly not be possible to establish that there is an alarmingly high temperature increase until it is too late to avoid it. Uncertainty about how the climate system reacts to emissions cannot therefore be used as an excuse for postponing powerful measures until we have more certain information.
“The only reasonable approach to the climate challenge is to act with caution. In the words of a placard on the recent climate-change lobby of Parliament: ‘There is no Planet B.’”
The Bishop spoke about a recent visit to Malawi with Christian Aid to see “the impact of climate change on development”. At the end of the visit. he went to see a group of the poorest people he had seen. They were “planting trees that will give them no reward and no fruit for years”, and were doing it because “trees will best prevent soil erosion and aid climate.
“The poor are often our teachers because they are less well protected and most vulnerable. They are forced to be realistic about what is happening to our common home. A similar commitment and sacrifice is asked of us now.”
Alexandra Podd (Youth Council) called for the Church’s practices to be more sustainable. “We can adapt our own lives as we call on the rest of the world to follow us,” she said. “This is an emergency on so many terms. There are almost 500 of us in this chamber, how long is it going to take us to call the environmental emergency services?”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, giving her first speech to the Synod since taking up the position vacated by Sir Tony Baldry at the General Election, said that she had often provided accommodation for Synod members when it met in London. This had caused her diary secretary “to challenge me over who General Synod was”.
Ms Spelman had previously served as Environment Secretary and was involved in the negotiations of two United Nations agreements on biodiversity in Nagoya in 2010 and on sustainable development in Rio in 2012. She gave the Synod an update on the progress towards a UN agreement on climate change.
“Previous attempts to reach agreement in Copenhagen ended in disaster with recriminations levelled at the hosts,” she said. “Since then, Europe has worked behind the scenes to encourage developing countries who were anxious about having their opportunity to develop choked off in all our interests to address the damaging consequences of climate change.
“The good news coming from the preparations is that countries like China and the US are serious about a deal,” she said.
“The preparations for December’s Paris conference requires in each country to forward its plans to the UN, detailing how they will help to meet the target of pegging global warming to two degrees.”
She said that 18 countries, covering 56 per cent of emissions, had so far sent in their plans. Submissions from Japan and Australia were expected this month, and from Brazil by the autumn.
“The offers received so far are not enough to hit the two-degree target, but more progress is likely to be made before the talks reach their final stage in December. There is nothing like a few all-night negotiations to bring out the last and best offers.”
She said that the UK’s plans were part of an EU-wide offer, but that “our own Climate Change Act binds us to higher targets than the rest of the EU. It is very significant that our carbon emissions are falling while our economy is growing, and the UK is seen in the vanguard of delivering the progress we need. . .
“The UK Government believes that the faith communities have a key role to play on climate change . . . In their view, the Church of England can help galvanise a response from wider faith communities, using its networks through the wider Anglican Communion and its reach across to other faiths. . .
“The Church must be seen to practise what it preaches, and in the short time I have been in this role, I have been heartened by the Commissioners’ decision to show leadership among institutional investors on the mitigation of climate change through its investment practice.”
The Revd Duncan Dormor (University of Cambridge) quoted a secular report that said that developing a sustainable relationship with nature required “moral leadership from religious institutions”. Without moral leadership, scientific research on this issue was unlikely to achieve very much. Also, it was impossible to tackle climate change without also tackling poverty, he argued. Accounting practice needed to begin to include natural resources, which would reveal the hidden costs of economic activity, such as pollution. It would also show that the most heavily indebted countries in terms of ecological debt were in the northern hemisphere. He challenged the Synod: could the Church change the global economic system for a second time, just as it did with the abolition of slavery?
The Archbishop of Canterbury said that all three communions of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox were deeply committed to action on the environment. The Church of England should seek to educate people through its networks on climate change, as well as to tackle this issue holistically — attacking poverty and conflict as well. He also warned against “deterministic or selfish nationalist policy”, which would “kick the ladder away from the rest of humankind which is struggling to find the prosperity which we enjoy”. The Church should be exemplary in how it did this, through better use of its buildings and its money, its use of energy, and even faculty legislation or paper at the Synod.
Canon Nigel Hand (Birmingham) said that conversations on this issue were happening across his diocese, which showed the urgency of the situation. An agreement in Paris would make a huge difference for those who were trying to encourage investment into renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. “I urge Synod to pass this motion, but to also act and pray on it.”
Margaret Swinson (Liverpool) spoke of a “powerful” meeting with a Polynesian community. One of those present told her husband: “Help us: we are desperate.” That message had stayed with them and had made them think seriously about their actions. “The world is in a mess, but there is tidying up that we can do.” She suggested that people could delete things from Cloud storage, which was not free from environmental costs and used energy that was not green. In the US, it came at a cost of 97 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The Revd Jonathan Frais (Chichester) put forward an amendment to replace the description of creation as “holy” with “good”, which was the term used in Genesis.
Bishop Holtam wanted to resist the amendment. The world “holy” was used by the Anglican Communion Eco Bishops’ statement, and it would be “tidy” to keep it. To make a theological point, holy meant “set apart. . . We need a reverence for creation and longing for new heaven and new earth.”
The Revd Professor Richard Burridge (University of London) urged resistance of the motion with reference to the Old Testament. It was because of the failure to keep the land holy that the Exodus had happened: “The land would vomit you out because you have defiled it.” Keeping this notion of holiness was important because “it is the presence of God that is in the land that makes it holy. We have defiled it.”
Madeleine Holmes (Europe) said: “I firmly believe that environment is an amazing mission tool where we can reach outside of the churches.” She praised the work of Shrinking the Footprint. She continued: “We need to get back to our grassroots because this is our responsibility, each and every one of us, and sometimes it’s fear that keeps us back. We must encourage one another to do whatever we can in whatever small way.”
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, spoke against the amendment. The motion did not refer to the world, but to creation. Whatever was brought out of God “cannot but be holy”. He referred to the holy ground of the burning bush. The word “holy” should not be limited. He spoke of the Jews who wore a kippah because they were walking on holy ground. Goodness could be “very subjective”.
The amendment was clearly lost.
Canon Christopher Sugden (Oxford) brought what he described as a “friendly” amendment. Getting rid of energy subsidies was important, and involved a “regressive tax” that hit the poor. He urged the Synod to add the clause “to encourage the direction of resources into other lower-carbon-energy options”.
Bishop Holtam was willing to accept the amendment, but wanted to make it clear that he did not accept the arguments. The issue was “much more complex” than it suggested.
The amendment was clearly carried.
The Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven. Jan MacFarlane (Norwich), was uneasy about the encouragement to fasting, because, without the background of the briefing paper, the call to fast “could set us up for failure. If I were a mischievous journalist, I would wait a month or two, then ring round a selection of bishops and synod members to check they were fasting. It has the potential to distract.
“I am uneasy because it looks as if we are using fasting to make a political statement, which I am not sure Jesus recommended.” She also questioned why this issue had been chosen for a fast, and not human trafficking or domestic abuse.
Bishop Holtam invited debate on the amendment. He did not mind if journalists telephoned to find out whether people were fasting. If they did, they would find that sometimes he was and at other times he wasn’t, because he was doing other things.
Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) explained the background to the Faith and Climate Network. It had been established by a Filipino diplomat who, at previous climate talks, had begun to fast. “He wanted to go on fasting until a meaningful agreement was reached, but in the end, he decided he wanted to stay alive. So he decided to fast on the first day of the month until a climate-change agreement was reached.”
The Revd Charles Razzall (Chester) resisted the amendment, and called for a discussion at the Business Committee about the amount of food provided for members at the York group of sessions.
Prudence Dailey (Oxford) supported the amendment, saying that there were “many other things for which we may wish to fast in addition to the climate issue.” She wanted the C of E’s traditional discipline of fasting, “which it chooses to ignore”, to be restored as an “important part of our Christian life”. She said that much could be learned from Muslims who “put us to shame during Ramadan”.
After a close vote, the Amendment was carried: 160 in favour, 147 against, and 13 abstentions.
The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, who chairs the Ministry Council, said that he supported the motion’s call for programmes and training to address the issue. He would carry out an audit of the way ordinands addressed this, and said he would be surprised if they were not already tackling it.
On the use of the phrase “eco-theology”, he commented that this was not a new thing. They needed to “rediscover the ecological imperative at the heart of all Christian theology and Christian ethics, and place it as the heart of all Christian teaching and spiritual formation”.
He said that the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”, was not a request “for God to give us something, but for us to learn contentment in our heart — that we ask only for enough for that day”.
The Revd John Plant (Leicester), quoted Nazmul Chowdhury, a Christian Aid partner in Bangladesh, who had said: “Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.”
On a more encouraging note, he said: “It is really important for us as Churches to remind ourselves that we can do so much more than we think we can.” Referring to the recent mass lobby of Parliament, he said that “organisations like Oxfam would give their right arm to have local networks like us and the ability to put thousands of people on the streets of London”.
The motion, and many speakers in the debate, had mentioned the climate talks in Paris. That wasn’t going to be the last stop, he said: “We need to be thinking beyond Paris, and be prepared to engage on this issue in the long term.”
Dr Elaine Storkey (Ely) said that she had heard three themes in the debate: “This isn’t our problem: we need to get on with preaching the gospel,” “We need a new theology,” and “We don’t need a new theology.”
She agreed with the latter point, and said that climate change was a “concern . . . that draws on every area of our theology”.
She had seen the effect of climate change, and gave a long list of its consequences, including homelessness, environmental refugees, swelling seas, salinisation of well water, shortage of fresh water everywhere, the disappearance of natural lakes, hunger, famine, the disappearance of pastures, forests, and flocks, and new diseases, including new strains of malaria.
The former national secretary of the Green Party, Martin Sewell (Rochester), said that “every debate needed a devil’s advocate.” He was not against moves to greener energy, but he questioned whether this was a “time to move rapidly out of a carbon economy”. He used the analogy of trapeze artists. “Working from one trapeze to the next is possible, but timing is crucial. You have got to be sure the next trapeze is on the way. Move too quickly, and you crash.”
The green movement, of which he had been a part, would win the “Nobel prize for failed apocalyptic warnings . . . every year by a country mile”, he said.
“Thirty years ago, I and others were predicting that human life would be impossible by 2015. Unfortunately, in the past 30 years, that pesky capitalism that we all despise has enabled more people to live longer, better-fed, better-medicated lives. Infant mortality has reduced.”
In that time period, “human welfare has increased, and the number of people living in absolute poverty has reduced since 1981 from 53 per cent to just 17 per cent today. That is astonishing.”
He acknowledged that “lifting the poor out of poverty is unfinished business,” but said that the progress that had happened to date had been made possible through “cheap energy and free trade”.
The Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury, the Ven. Christine Hardman (Southwark), said that she had achieved her ambition of cycling from her home in London to the Synod in York. Doing so, she had passed through the village of Drax, where the power station had been converted to run from wood pellets rather than coal; she had eaten her lunch in the power station’s social club.
As she had cycled through the village, she had been “struck so powerfully by the deprivation of facilities. There was no pub, no café, and just a Costcutter supermarket.”
She visited on the day of the government announcement that it was ending the subsidy for wood-pellet burning — an announcement that had caused shares in the Drax company to fall substantially. “It was quite clear that there were going to be job losses,” she said. “I personally think it was an incomprehensible decision by Chancellor.”
She warned that the cost of climate change and climate-change avoidance was being “disproportionately borne by people in poorer communities”, and asked the Synod to “be aware of those who carry the cost of our decisions”.
The Synod approved the amended motion 205-6 with 4 recorded abstentions. It read:
That this Synod, believing that God’s creation is holy, that we are called to protect the earth now and for the future, and that climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest, and welcoming the conver-gence of ecumenical partners and faith communities in demanding that the nations of the world urgently seek to limit the global rise in average temperatures to a maximum of 2°C as agreed by the United Nations in Cancun:
(a) urge all governments at the COP 21 meeting in Paris to agree long- term pathways to a low carbon future, supported by meaningful short to medium term national emissions pledges from all major carbon emitting nations;
(b) endorse the World Bank’s call for the ending of fossil fuel subsidies and the redirection of fossil fuel subsidies and the redirection of those resources into renewable energy options;
(c) encourage the redirection of resources into other lower carbon energy options;
(d) request the Environment Working Group to develop Shrinking the Footprint to enable the whole Church to address the issue of climate change, and to develop and promote new “ecotheological resources”, as proposed by the Anglican Communion Environmental Network in February 2015;
(e) request the Ministry Division to hear the call of the Anglican Communion Environmental Network bishops for programmes of ministerial formation and in-service training to include components on eco-justice and ecotheology; and
(f) encourage parishes and dioceses to draw attention to the Initiative supported by members of the Faith and Climate network encouraging Christians to pray and fast.