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Green shoots, not yet a lawn

27 February 2015

In the run-up to the UN summit, Huw Spanner charts the rise of the green Christian movement and asks: where is the Church's prophetic voice on climate change today?

eleanor Bentall/Tearfund

Protesting for change: church leaders on 5 December 2009 - including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Vincent Nichols - wear blue gloves as part of a wave of support for climate justice at Stop Climate Chaos's The Wave event in London

Protesting for change: church leaders on 5 December 2009 - including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Vincent Nicho...

"WE HAVE a responsibility to look after the earth, on behalf of God and of future generations, and to care for our neighbours as much in Bangladesh as in Britain. Christians not only must pray for wisdom and resolution in those in power, and encourage them, but must take a lead in changing the climate of opinion among ordinary people by their example of restraint."

It is nearly 20 years since that gauntlet was laid down by the meteorologist Sir John Houghton, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, writing in the magazine Third Way in May 1995. What have Christians in this country done to take it up, both individually and corporately?

"I don't think the Church has shown leadership," says Jonathan Bartley, director of the think tank Ekklesia. "In fact, it has rather brought up the rear."

Dr Martin Hodson, the operations manager at the John Ray Initiative (JRI), a think tank "connecting environment, science, and Christianity", recalls that, in 1990, when he was involved in a small ecologically minded group at St Aldate's, Oxford, "People asked us: 'Are you throwing out the gospel? Are you New Age?' It was rare in those days to hear anybody senior, in any sort of church, say anything about the environment."

Even when suspicions of neo-Paganism were not shared, churches were slow to show concern for what was happening to the natural world, Dr Hodson says. Some traditions, he says, had the dualistic notion that "the earth is not a good thing".

Dr David Atkinson was formerly the Bishop of Thetford in Norfolk. He sat on the board of Operation Noah from 2010 to 2014, and is now the convener of a theological working group. He says that many Christians had somehow lost any sense that "all things hold together in Christ", and had become focused exclusively on personal salvation. Moreover, most of the Church, no less than the rest of society, was "locked into a consumerist way of life, and most of us were simply not aware of how damaging it is".

There was, besides, in both the pulpit and the pew, a widespread ignorance of what was to become known as "the environmental crisis". Even now, the Bishop suggests, it is not always perceived to be a significant moral issue, and still gets little more than a nod in some theological-college curriculums.

"Recently, I gave my standard talk on it at a big meeting, with people from several different Churches, and the number of people who said to me afterwards, 'Why haven't we heard anything like this before?' was quite shocking," Dr Atkinson says.

In fact, the Church had its prophets, even if few people were listening. In 1975, the Bishop of Winchester, John V. Taylor, a liberal Evangelical, wrote his book Enough is Enough (SCM Press), which denounced the culture of excess and warned: "Enormous numbers of people of all ages and in many different countries have come to the conclusion that, unless we can discover a radically new style of living and can put it into practice, the delicate balance of life on this planet will be irretrievably deranged and we shall be plunged into chaos." His book was serialised over three weeks in the Church Times.

Another voice in the wilderness, from a high-church liberal tradition, was Hugh Montefiore's, both when he was a serving Bishop, and in retirement. "After 30 years of trying to relate the Christian gospel to our attitudes towards the environment," he recalled in his Church Times column in 1994, "I have been struck by the fact that, apart from one or two small pressure groups, there has only been lip-service paid to this matter within the institutional Churches.

"Here surely is an issue on which the Churches (and indeed other faiths) could all unite and pull together. Not a bit of it. In the Church of England the occasional reports issued by the Board for Social Responsibility have had little effect either at the top or at the grass roots."

Christian Ecology Link (CEL), now known as Green Christian, was founded in 1982. The General Synod unanimously commended a BSR report, Our Responsibility for the Living Environment, introduced by Montefiore, in 1986. The rally "Whose Earth?", in 1992, also helped to change perceptions. It was followed by a book of the same title, by Chris Seaton.

The Christian ecological response developed further with the founding of the JRI in 1997; and, in 2001, the British offshoot of A Rocha was planted, a charity "working to inspire and equip the Church to protect and restore the natural world".

In 1998, the Lambeth Conference adopted "four principles on the environment": that "the covenant of God's love embraces not only human beings, but all of creation; creation is everywhere filled with God's sacred presence; human beings are the priests of creation, seeing God's presence in it, and offering creation's worship; [and] the sabbath principle of 'enoughness' is a challenge to us to rest from unnecessary consumption."

In the new millennium, the ecumenical scheme Eco-Congregation emerged from a partnership between the charity the Tidy Britain Group, and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI). By the end of 2006, more than 100 churches in the British Isles had earned its eco-award.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres; the former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones; and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams were all active in public and behind the scenes, as the sense of a general ecological crisis became increasingly focused on the problem of global warming.

In 2004, CEL and CTBI launched Operation Noah to raise awareness of climate change and equip Christians to fight it.

A year later, the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council produced Sharing God's Planet: A Christian vision for a sustainable future, and the General Synod challenged itself, and the whole Church, "to make care for creation, and repentance for its exploitation, fundamental to their faith, practice, and mission".

The next year, the C of E launched the campaign "Shrinking the Footprint", which committed its 16,000 or so churches to cutting their total output of carbon dioxide by 42 per cent by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050. In 2007, the Church Times Green Church Awards were organised with leading agencies the environmental field.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which, in 1990, was about 354 parts per million, had risen to 387ppm by 2009, when the UN's Copenhagen conference took place. The "accord" that it produced, which several NGOs called "a death warrant", proved to be a huge reverse.

"Everyone pulled out all the stops for Copenhagen, and its failure knocked the stuffing out of us all," Dr Ruth Valerio, the churches and theology director at A Rocha UK, recalls. "For quite a few years after that, the environmental movement, both Christian and non-Christian, really lost its way. There had been a real sense that, if we pushed hard enough, we could save the planet - and then Copenhagen showed us that it wasn't going to happen."

Andy Atkins, who left Tearfund to become executive director of Friends of the Earth in 2008, agrees: "After Copenhagen, we lost momentum all round: in the churches, in the development sector, in business. People didn't know where to go next. It took a while for us to regather and decide that, while we couldn't ignore these international processes, we couldn't just wait for them to deliver. We had to deliver, domestically, on the ground."

Institutionally, the Church of England's attention had already begun to wander by then, Dr Atkinson says -diverted, perhaps, by the financial crash the previous year. A seven-year plan, "Church and Earth 2009-2016", proposed that the C of E should move towards a wholly low-carbon economy, but it was not presented to the Synod.A steady trickle of churches became "eco-congregations", Dr Valerio says, "but there was a general sense of drift."

WHERE do things stand now? As another UN conference approaches at the end of the year, this time in Paris; and as atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels now touch 400ppm, is anyone in the wider green movement looking to the Church for consistent support or leadership?

Dr Valerio senses that "historically, there has been frustration with us, but now there is increasingly a feeling that they need us [the Church] to get on board. In fact, the environment and conservation community has become disillusioned with itself and its own efforts and achievements, and there is a real willingness, now, to engage with faith groups, and a desire to help to get us mobilised."

"The secular green movement tends to think very positively of the faith communities," Dr Hodson insists. "They know that, whenever there's a march or a rally, there'll be all kinds of Christian organisations there. Richard Chartres was invited to speak at the People's Climate March in London last September, which shows the respect he is held in."

Mr Atkins says that Friends of the Earth knows that "We can rely on the big Christian development agencies - Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD - who are absolutely clear that climate is a massive issue." There will certainly be a large Christian presence at the "It's Time to Act!" march taking place in London on 7 March.

There are calls from outside the Church, however, for a much bigger Christian mobilisation on the issue. In 2007, the Environment Agency asked 25 leading environmentalists from business, NGOs, the media, and selected think tanks each to identify five things that would save the planet. Of the 50 things that they came up with in total, number two (after maximising energy efficiency) was that faith leaders needed to mobilise the faithful.

The broadcaster and writer Penney Poyzer, one of the 25, said: "Organised religion of all denominations, please get your congregations to make caring for our rapidly decomposing landfill site of a planet the utmost priority."

The environmental activist and consultant George Marshall, whose book Don't Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change was published last year, says: "The different Churches are recognised for their moral leadership, and I think their statements on climate change have been strong. But Churches also represent a huge network of people, and it's there, I suspect, that the greatest opportunity lies, if they can reach out to their memberships and find a way to talk about climate change that speaks to their shared values and concerns.

"There's much to be done to mobilise people in the Church, both to change their own lifestyles and to come out and take a moral stand."

So, what is holding the Church back? Of course, there are dissenting voices. The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, for example, is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the think tank set up by Nigel Lawson which has consistently cast doubt on any attempt to prevent (rather than adapt to) climate change.

Dr Forster set out in this newspaper his view that attempts to limit carbon-dioxide emissions would prove unnecessary or futile (Comment, 21 October 2011). "Global-warming alarmism has been driven forward in an emotive, even quasi-religious way, with the object of 'saving the planet'," he wrote. "Christians should be cautious before they make common cause with such utopian aspirations."

But most of the resistance is more prosaic, Dr Valerio says. "British Christians don't seem to be sceptical about the reality of human-induced climate change; but most of us are preoccupied with our own lives and keeping our own heads above water, and the problem just seems so huge it immobilises us from thinking we can do anything about it."

"People in the churches, like people everywhere, are encumbered with a million and one things to think and worry about, and climate doesn't get the attention it might, Mr Atkins says. "What is lacking is the leadership to change that. Probably the single most useful thing Justin Welby could do is simply to state that, even if the climate is not his personal priority, vicars must talk about it, and lead their flocks in action on it."

THEOLOGY, particularly among some Evangelicals, still stands in the way, although there is nothing in this country like the Cornwall Alliance in the United States, which calls the environmental movement "the Green Dragon", and says that it is "one of the greatest threats to society and the Church today".

But, Dr Valerio says, "Our basic theology is human-centred, and so, while we have been able to move away from a narrowly evangelistic agenda to embrace issues of social justice, we have failed to embrace wider creational issues to the same extent. That is why Christian aid agencies have had to present the threat of climate change in entirely human-centred terms. We stand up once a week and proclaim that we believe in God, the creator of heaven and earth, but we see it as a nice credal statement, not as something that has implications."

Part of the problem, Paul Bodenham, who chairs Green Christian, says, is that the Church has understood the environment as an ethical problem, when it is a spiritual one. "This is a crisis about the way we relate to each other - not just around the world, but across generations. In the green movement, in the protest camps, there is a rich practice of spirituality, and an understanding that spirituality is about relationships; but much of the Church has a privatised view of spirituality.

"The problem is that the application of theology to practice is quite superficial. The core business of the Church is to be salt for the earth, to be a preservative. The practice of care for creation has to grow out of faith and worship rather than be a project."

The founder of the virtual community EarthAbbey, Chris Sunderland, has a similar perspective: "I work very closely with radical environmentalists whose 'discipleship' can be far deeper and more transformative than that even of many 'green' Christians. They are showing that there are other ways to be a human being on this earth. It's not about superficial behavioural change.

"This crisis is, I would say, more than anything, a failure to feel our relationship with the earth and all that lives. It's an empathic failure. The issue is: Can we get a sense of ourselves as fellow creatures, and as part of this great living system, and therefore can we care about it deeply? That is the transformation we need, and that's a spiritual transformation."

Dr Hodson says that, although many of the key Christian environmentalists have been Evangelicals, Evangelical churches can be a different matter. "The big ones are really quite difficult to make an impact on," he says. "Quite a bit of that is theology: they're focused either on evangelism, or 'having spiritual experiences'."

Charismatic Evangelicals "have a lot of catching up to do", Dr Valerio says. "It would be fantastic to see groups like HTB and New Wine getting to grips with these issues."

Elsewhere, however, she finds an increasing desire to engage. "I now get invitations to speak at bog-standard churches around the country, wanting to know what the Christian response to climate change should be. This year, in the run-up to Paris, there has been an explosion of initiatives such as Pray and Fast for the Climate [prayandfastfortheclimate.org.uk].

"When I look at the Church, I see a sleeping giant that is just beginning to wake up. All around, I see encouraging signs."

Mr Bodenham, too, speaks of "a massive growth in awareness".

LAST year, a motion was put to the General Synod urging the Church to do more in response to climate change; it was carried by 274 votes to one. A new working group, chaired by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nick Holtam, is reporting to the Archbishops' Council, and a "Faith for the Climate Network" has been established (as well as an interfaith equivalent).

Canon Giles Goddard, Vicar of St John's, Waterloo, in London, and a member of the working group, says that there is "a lot going on behind the scenes. We are cranking things up now, trying to mobilise the churches in advance of the climate-change conference at the end of this year." There is talk of a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Paris.

Hope is growing in the wider environmental movement about the conference, much as it did before Copenhagen. But this time it may be better grounded.

"We are really clear", Mr Atkins says, "that, however good the outcome of Paris might be, it will not solve the problem of climate change on its own. We need a mass movement that is ready to campaign, and is doing the right things at home, with or without an international agreement."

The question is: can Christians take the lead, and set that example of restraint? From outside the faith community, Mr Marshall says: "Part of the problem we are dealing with, with climate change, is that responsibility becomes very diffused. Someone can just say: 'What's the point of me not flying, because all that happens is that someone else takes my place?' That's where we're losing the argument.

"We can win the large-scale argument that the world has to wean itself off fossil fuels, for example, but we're having a really hard time engaging with people's personal behaviours. That's where religious teaching is so powerful. Christianity teaches that an action is moral or immoral, regardless of whether the person next to you is doing it; you have to take personal responsibility.

"Also, people of faith understand that they should be a light in the world. It isn't like voting, or having some personal preference: you have to go out and declare your belief and say: 'This is important to me, and essential to who I am.' People of faith have these traditions of what Evangelicals call 'witnessing' and 'sharing', and this is one of the key things the environmental movement can learn from them."

Ruth Jarman, of Operation Noah, concludes: "The Church has a massive opportunity to witness to our belief in our creator God, and to be hugely relevant to the 21st century by acting sacrificially and speaking prophetically."

For an article on climate change and the gospel by Dr David Atkinson, see online: http://operationnoah.org/resources/climate-change-gospel.

For information on Green Christian's Lentcarbon fast, visit http://acen.anglicancommunion.org/resources/docs/Carbon%20fast%20calender%202015.pdf.

"POPE FRANCIS has already made a big difference, and his forthcoming encyclical [to be published this year] on the environment is going to be absolutely huge, and may shake up the Church of England as well," Martin Hodson, of the John Ray Initiative, says.

"There is a head of steam building up in the [Roman] Catholic Church worldwide; so the encyclical won't come out of the blue," the freelance RC journalist Ellen Teague says. "If it calls for institutional change, it will be a massive step. We hope it will call for new structures at each level of the Church, to address the issue of creation care, and dedicated staff to advise the bishops and the education system."

Is it also likely to call for disinvestment from fossil fuels? "Certainly, at the highest levels of the Vatican, they are looking into it," Mrs Teague says. "The Vatican has been put under pressure by 350.org, and I think the Pope himself is seriously interested in doing it. That may be the reason why the encyclical has been delayed until the summer: they need to find out where their own investments are."

MANY current campaigns are linked to the movement to disinvest from fossil fuels, which, since its emergence on United States college campuses in 2011, has grown more rapidly than any previous disinvestment campaign.

Operation Noah launched its own campaign, Bright Now ("Towards fossil-free churches"), in September 2013. The Church of England is now under pressure to follow the lead of the World Council of Churches, the Church of Sweden, Quakers in Britain, and others - not to mention the diocese of Oxford, and several other Anglican dioceses worldwide - and sell its shares in fossil fuels. Reportedly, it has about £92 million invested in BP, and about £100 million in Shell.

The veteran US environmentalist Bill McKibben, who founded the environmental organisation 350.org, remarked that, so far, the Church of England's response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's challenge to disinvest "has been to say that they'll study it until late 2015, which means they will have examined it for a period slightly longer than Jesus's public ministry".

"Our approach is to get stuck in on ethical issues, and try to have a positive influence," the head of responsible investment at the Church Commissioners, Edward Mason, was quoted as saying in the Financial Times last December.

After pressure in the General Synod, a motion has been filed for the annual meetings of BP and Shell this spring, asking them to take action to adapt their businesses for a low-carbon economy.

In January, however, Sir Jonathon Porritt said in The Guardian that he and his colleagues at Forum for the Future "[had come] to the conclusion that it was impossible for today's oil and gas majors to adapt in a timely and intelligent way to the imperative of radical decarbonisation. . .

"I so badly wanted to believe that the combination of reason, rigorous science, and good people would enable elegant transition strategies to emerge in those companies. But we learn as we go. And go those companies surely will."

The executive director of Friends of the Earth, Andy Atkins, says that he understands C of E reluctance to disinvest. "There are pension funds and all sorts of things depending on where it puts its money. How many of us are propping up fossil-fuel companies with our own pensions, without even knowing it? We all need to get our money out of fossil fuels, but we have to find a way that is best for everyone concerned. What we need first is a clear signal that the Church intends to get out as soon as it can."

"I think the Church's Ethical Investment Advisory Group is thinking hard about this," Canon Giles Goddard, a member of the new environmental working group, says. "They're aware now that they can't just do nothing. At least we should be leaning on BP and Shell to get out of the worst stuff first, like oil from tar sands, and coal."

"The aim of the disinvestment movement", the chair of Green Christian, Paul Bodenham, says, "is to gain recognition that investment in fossil fuels is as damaging as investing in arms manufacturers; but that's a huge shift in consciousness that affects the self-interest of every individual."

None the less, that shift appears to be gaining ground. "When we started talking about this two years ago, everybody said: 'Don't even think about it: it's incredibly naïve,' Canon Goddard says. "I think there has been a big shift behind the scenes. I hope it's now a question of 'when', not 'if'. But we're talking about refocusing our whole economy, and that can't be done in five minutes."

The director of Ekklesia, Jonathan Bartley, is less inclined to be patient: "The best indicator of where the values of the Church of England lie is where it puts its money. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The Church can talk all it likes about 'shrinking the footprint' of individual parish churches, but, as long as it's seeking to profit from fossil fuels - and that is its stated intention in investing in these firms - it can't really claim to be showing leadership in any way."

Hannah Martin, who took part in a recent prayer vigil outside Church House, urging the Church to disinvest, says: "The Church of England has an amazing opportunity to speak out on behalf of future generations and existing communities that will be affected by climate change. The young activists in Christian Climate Action are praying for our Church to show courageous leadership, and set an example to other institutions.

"We've been taking action to highlight the Church of England'smoral obligation to stop investing in fossil-fuel companies that are harming the planet. Sadly, they seem not to be paying attention, but we have hopes that this will change."

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