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Scottish Synod nudged on fossil-fuel disinvestment

11 December 2020


Robin Rigg Wind Farm, Scotland’s offshore wind farm in the Solway Firth

Robin Rigg Wind Farm, Scotland’s offshore wind farm in the Solway Firth

THE Synod received the Standing Committee interim report on ethical investment, which preceded and had relevance to the debate on climate change. Discussion of the issue at the June 2019 Synod meeting had been either “enthralling, ground-breaking, subversive, or confusing, depending on your point of view on the day”, the convener, Robert Gordon, suggested.

The Synod voted at that meeting to update its ethical-investment policy to reflect the moral imperative to disinvest fully from fossil fuels. By doing so, it had affirmed that the Church must address the climate crisis, develop and model good practice, and offer prophetic witness as part of its mission, the mover of that motion, the Revd Diana Hall, a member of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), said.

The magnitude and urgency of the need to limit global warming meant that addressing fossil-fuel investment had been the immediate priority for that group, whose work she described as complex and nuanced. “Ethical investment principles must balance requirements of moral and ethical imperatives, legal responsibilities, and practical needs,” she said.

“As a Church we must be faithful to our spiritual and moral values under God; wise stewards of the money entrusted to us; and attentive to the practical implications of our actions for our mission. This last point has particular resonance for us, because, as a denomination, we currently rely significantly on investment income to fund our work.”

Good news on disinvestment — the disposal of the Church’s last direct investment in a fossil-fuel extraction company — was not the end of the story, and might, instead, open a window on to the complexity of the debate. It was not fossil-fuel extraction, but fossil-fuel burning that was the main cause of human-induced climate change. For anyone seeking to frame ethical investment criteria, this opened up a demanding exercise even regarding a single ethical concern.

“If we divest from fossil-fuel extraction companies while continuing to invest in those who burn significant volumes of fossil fuels — think for example of airlines, logistics companies, and countless others — our actions are scientifically and ethically inconsistent. Should we divest from these companies, too? How should the Church respond?” she asked.

The group proposed to focus for now on fossil-fuel extraction, recommending an updated definition of divestment as “the avoidance of any investment which results in the UTP [Unit Trust Pool] holding, directly or as part of a pooled fund, any interest in any business which generates more than 10 per cent of its turnover directly from extracting fossil fuels”.

Looking to 2021 and the COP26 meeting taking place in Glasgow, it seemed likely that the context of work would remain dynamic: “There is much work for the Group still to do.”

Alan McLean QC, who chairs the EIAG, said that the group had had to wrestle with many difficult questions related to investment. How was it to decide what the Scottish Episcopal Church’s ethical views were at any given time, and how to provide for those developing in the future?

There were issues about what ethical advice should be given on investing in companies that did not extract fossil fuels, but did make significant use of them. How should issues be balanced when a company, such as Total or Shell, “that does things we don’t like also starts doing things we value very much”?

He reflected: “More broadly, how do we go beyond the SEC’s existing exclusionary rules towards positive engagement, to achieve good ends, given the limitations we must recognise in our resources, as a small church — and as a relatively small investor?”

There were no simple answers to these and many other questions, Mr McLean said. The most important thing, he concluded, was to “carry on moving forward in dialogue, constructively, to deliver lasting, truly ethical, truly practical advice which our Church can actually put into effect, that will hold good whatever the global economy throws at the UTP in the months and years ahead”.

The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, the Very Revd John Conway, commended the work of the group and its careful examination of the issues involved. It was an important first step for the SEC, which, along with the climate-change motion, would show the Church’s commitment to action, putting its own house in order, in the face of the climate emergency. He urged the Primus and the College of Bishops to pledge the Church’s commitment, and suggested that they sign the pledge offered by Eco-Congregation Scotland as soon as possible.

The Revd William Shaw (Edinburgh) echoed that suggestion. He asked whether the same decisions could be made about pension funds as had been made with regard to UTPs.

Colin Sibley (Argyll & The Isles) said that there was a piece missing in the distinction being made about extraction of fossil fuels and their use: the use of everyday things such as plastic-framed spectacles and buttons, which were made from hydrocarbons. He, too, suggested that decisions should be made about pension funds.

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