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Rather more than a hosepipe ban

24 February 2017

The international links between dioceses are raising awareness of the effects of climate change overseas, says Huw Spanner

Danna Dykstra-Coy/Danna Joy Images

Moment of respite: St Benedict’s Episcopal Church, in California, currently battered by storms

Moment of respite: St Benedict’s Episcopal Church, in California, currently battered by storms

IN CINEMAS around the country, a short film has lately been urging audiences to “show the love” and “share the magnificence”. It is part of a campaign by the Climate Coalition during February which is pressing the line: “Don’t lose what you love to climate change, just be­­cause no one knew you cared.”

It is evocative and enigmatic, vaguely spiritual and elegiac — but also vaguely triumphal. “I’ve heard talk of a quiet violence waiting at the water’s edge,” Charles Dance mutters darkly, before Jason Isaacs affirms, with uplifted face: “But there’s still time to rescue the tranquillity, the cosmos in all its wonderment, and us, a blink in its starry eye.”

For Christians, it might prompt the question: do we, too, who claim to love God and our neighbours, need to be wooed in this way to live less destructively? In the past, believers responded strongly to the maxim “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” Is it possible to challenge people today in a similarly bold way to live sustainably?

Andrew Leake, an environmental scientist seconded by the Church Mission Society to work in northern Argentina, says that one problem is that, for Christians as much as anyone else, the climate crisis is a bit like the “phoney war” in the early months of the Second World War.

”Everyone in Britain knows that something terrible is supposed to be happening, but, as no one can see any evidence of it around them, it all seems totally unreal. Perhaps we can see some small signs of climate change — some unusual weather, some flowers appearing out of season — but so far the real devasta­tion is happening far away.”


SOMETIMES, of course, the impact is already felt in this country. For example, in December 2015, to­­wards the end of the wettest month in Britain since records began in 1910, the River Calder burst its banks and inundated the West Yorkshire village of Myth­olmroyd.

“The valley floods every so often, but the locals say that it’s getting more frequent, and more severe,” the Vicar, the Revd Cathy Reardon, says. “This was excep­tional. The church was under three or four feet of river water, with an inch of silt; in the vestry, there was sewage as well.”

If this was hard evidence of climate change, has it driven home the message that we need to live more sustainably? “I don’t know whether people in the village have yet started joining the dots,” Mrs Reardon says. “Obviously there are environmental activists here, but I haven’t heard anyone saying, ‘We’ve got to reduce our carbon footprint’ or whatever.”

Would she go that far herself? “I think I probably would in the fu­­ture, but, at the moment, there are other concerns. People were traum­at­ised by the flood: I can’t overstate the psychological damage it did. Recently we had a couple of days of heavy rain, and there was real panic. People are seriously frightened.”


MORE generally, when people hear of the impact of climate change overseas, it can be hard to take in.

The diocese of York has links with three dioceses in South Africa’s Western Cape that have been rav­aged by prolonged drought and bush fires, but Canon John Ford, who chairs its link committee, ob­­serves: “I would have to say that these challenges have not really been digested by most congrega­tions here. I suspect that most people see the drought as little more than being like a hosepipe ban in the UK.”

The diocese of Worcester has a partnership with Morogoro in central Tanzania, where, over the past few years, climate change has resulted in crop failure. Last Lent, an appeal across the diocese raised £8000 for famine relief, but the issue of climate change, its mission-development officer, the Revd Doug Chaplin, says, was “not significantly foregrounded”.

Leeds is also running an urgent appeal for famine relief in Tanzania, in the diocese of Mara, with which it has been linked for some 28 years. Until ten or 15 years ago, the dio­cesan link officer, Canon Stephen Spencer, says, the patterns of rain­fall there were predictable, which is essential for subsistence farmers. But no longer.

”Last year, they had almost too much rain,” he explains. “This year, the short rains didn’t happen, and the place is just bone dry.”

A letter to the diocese from the Bishop of Mara, the Rt Revd George Okoth, makes reference to global warming, but asks only that Chris­tians here give money and offer prayers for “reliable rainfall”.


THE diocese of Winchester has a relationship of even longer standing with the province of Uganda. There, too, in recent years the rains have become unpredictable.

“People are starving, basically,” Andrew Taylor says. He maintains the link between St James’s by the Park in Shirley, Southampton, and the Anglican church in Bupadhengo. “The farmers now wait until it actually starts raining before they plant — but sometimes the rain then stops. Last year, they planted three times, and still got no harvest.”

This change in Uganda’s climate is probably caused chiefly by local factors, not least the loss of tree cover. One practical response that Winchester has made is to work with its partners there to set up a commercial tree nursery, to sell seedlings to churches and indi­viduals. Clergy in the diocese, Mr Taylor says, “are receptive to the message that we in Britain need to live more sustainably, but it isn’t top of their list. There isn’t a particu­larly strong move at St James’s to become an ‘eco-church’, for ex­­ample.”

To the south, Malawi, too, is “suffering grievously” from famine, the Revd Richard Tucker, Malawi partnership officer for the diocese of Birmingham, says.

“The farmers tell you they used to be able almost to set their clocks by the start of the rainy season, but all that has changed. In 2015, the rains not only came late, they also came cata­stroph­ically, and washed the soil away. I went to the south of the country last year, and it was an arid wilderness. It was heart­breaking.”

He believes that Christians in Birmingham are “beginning to join the dots” between what is happen­ing in the global South and how we live in the North, although “con­sciousness spreads gradually.”

In his deanery, Sutton Coldfield, there are “people with awareness and good hearts, who are starting to say that we need to draw the atten­tion of the diocese more system­atically to the issue of climate change. Some of that stirring cer­tainly comes from the Malawi part­nership.”


SIX thousand miles away, the clim­ate is also changing in the diocese of Northern Argentina.

“I never saw tornadoes as a kid, but they are now becoming normal in this region,” the diocesan envir­on­­mental officer, Dr David Leake, who grew up there, says. There is much more hot weather now. “A car­penter told me recently he now starts work much earlier each day. He works under a tin roof, and he now has to take a far longer siesta because of the heat.”

There, too, deforestation is a significant factor, as global demand for soya bean displaces beef cattle from the pampas northwards into the semi-arid chaco. Nevertheless, Dr Leake believes that what he is witnessing in Argentina is “the local manifestation of a worldwide phe­nom­­enon”.

The diocese is linked with Car­lisle. When he goes there on fur­lough, he says, “I find that the stories we bring from the field are hitting home among those church­goers who are already concerned about climate change.

”The key thing is to educate people, and my first-hand ex­­perience gives them a lot more to get their teeth into. You meet so many people who couldn’t care less, and sometimes you wonder if you are ever going to make an impact, but I have been quite pleasantly surprised at the growth of interest in ‘creation care’ in congregations in Britain.”


OF COURSE, climate change is not only affecting the global South.

Gloucester, which in 2007 suf­fered some of the worst flooding in recorded British history, is linked with the diocese of El Camino Real, in California, which, after four years of severe drought, is now being hammered by a succession of in­­tense storms.

Julie Fay, the link officer, says that “the Anglican Church is a learn­­ing community, and we are learning from each other how to respond to the global challenge of climate change, and what our role as stewards of God’s creation should be.”

This process of learning is, as Dr Leake puts it, “facilitated by the structure of the worldwide Anglican Church”.

The diocese of Oxford, for one, has been eager to explore the chal­lenge of climate change through its links overseas, says its world-develop­ment adviser, Maranda St John Nicolle. “We’ve discussed climate issues with our partners in the diocese of Växjö, in Sweden, which is active in this area, and recently one of our parishes brought over an amazing group of women from Boegoeberg, in South Africa, in the diocese of Kimberley & Kuruman, who helped us consider how we can grow sus­­tain­­able com­mun­ities.

“In India, our link diocese of Nandyal has suffered in recent heat­waves connected with climate change. The Church of South India is very active on environmental issues, and is urging Christians there to undertake a 40-day ‘carbon fast’ for Lent, ‘not only to repent our ecological sins, but also to restore eco-justice’.”


IN ONE sense, the most shocking and urgent illustration of the effects of climate change is found in the South Pacific, where rising sea levels and increasing storm surges are threatening many low-lying islands. On Walande, in the Solomons, a thriving village of some 1200 people was recently lost to the ocean, and all that remains — for a little while longer — is one house. Throughout the Solomons, other villages and islands are being abandoned.

The Rt Revd Willie Pwaisiho, who grew up on the neighbouring island of Malaita, but is now Rector of Gawsworth, in Cheshire, made a ten-minute film there last year with Alex Leger, a former producer of Blue Peter. He says that he talks about the plight of the Solomons all the time in the diocese, which is linked with the Anglican Church of Melanesia. “The people of the First World don’t realise that, while they are living in luxury, people in other parts of the world are suffering as a result.

“We in the North are forcing climate change because we are so anxious to be successful, to have the latest gadgets, to maximise our speed and comfort, and nobody realises the impact it is having 12,000 miles away. We need to change our attitudes and our ways to look after the planet.”

More than two decades have passed since Lionel Hurst, then ambassador to the United Nations from Antigua and Barbuda, told the UN on behalf of the Solomon Islanders: “Our countries should not be sacrificed on the altar of higher standards of living. It’s a moral question.”

Confronted with the growing devastation that climate change is causing, should Christians in Britain be content with what Mr Tucker calls “the old-fashioned, generous-hearted response of send­ing money to relieve need”? Or could “reports from the front line” serve to bring home to us that we need to change drastically the way we live, to reduce the pressure on our planet which is so destabilising its climate?

“If it was made more obvious”, Dr Spencer suggests, “that churches that have links with churches in the developing world should not just exchange news and pray for them and give practical support, but should examine how we can express our friendship with them in our lifestyles, I think that many would rise to the challenge.

“Congregations here really do value these relationships, and they are transformative for us. When Christians from Tanzania come to visit us, it turns our priorities upside down, because we realise that the things we obsess over really aren’t important.

“But, in a big diocese like Leeds,” he concludes, “it would really need to come from the bishops. On my own, I can’t do a huge amount, but it would be different if the wind was in the sails.”

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