"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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:
For information on Green Christian's Lentcarbon fast, visit
"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
"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
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
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,
"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."