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Green Church Showcase: Green thread in the making

05 November 2021

Sheffield diocese has been prominent in local campaigning

THE diocese of Sheffield’s collaboration with a cross-city effort to declare a nature emergency was born out of failure. The diocesan environment officer, Cathy Rhodes, was browsing posts by a Facebook group of green activists in Sheffield who were commiserating one another after failing to persuade the city council to declare a nature emergency.

On a whim, Dr Rhodes commented on the group, noting that Sheffield diocese had declared its own ecological emergency, and, immediately, “we got round the table with local action groups.” At the first meeting of the new Nature Recovery Sheffield, there was no rejoicing, but more lamentation, because another campaign — to prevent the building of new housing on green space in the city — had failed.

This second setback, instead of reducing the momentum of the new coalition, ended up as a catalyst. “For me, as a Christian, that lament for that piece of land and loss of the biodiversity there was a symbolic moment of lamenting what has happened to our world and wanting to do something about it communally,” Dr Rhodes recalled.

Rather than wait for the council to change its mind, Nation Recovery Sheffield decided to declare that Sheffield was in a nature emergency. After a publicity campaign, on 21 May, the diocese was at the forefront of the dozens of activist groups declaring the emergency; there was extensive local press coverage, and more than 1300 people and businesses added their names in support.

“People sometimes dismiss declaring a climate and nature emergency as just words; but this is a statement of intent, and commits us to urgent action,” Dr Rhodes said. “There is a great deal of power in people coming together with a common purpose, and the partnership has been overwhelmed by the extraordinary response to the campaign. In the midst of the pandemic, it has given purpose and hope to us that we can make a difference.”

First sighting of a bee orchid in an unmown Sheffield churchyard

From this act of collaboration, the diocese has become a core part of driving forward the green agenda in Sheffield. Allies, including the local Labour MP and Shadow Minister, and the Mayor of Sheffield, Dan Jarvis, have emerged, while partnerships with wildlife trusts, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and parents’ groups have flourished, Dr Rhodes says.

 

FINALLY, after months of campaigning, and an election in which new Green councillors were elected, Sheffield City Council formally declared its own nature emergency, and made a commitment to writing a natural-environment action plan. “I cannot tell you the joy of that wonderful, wonderful news,” Dr Rhodes said.

With the diocese’s prominent part in the campaign has come a reappraisal of Christianity, she believes. “We are standing up and saying, ‘This is what we believe in. It is part of our calling as Christians to engage with this.’ It’s incredibly important — I think we realise every month how important it is that we reduce our carbon footprint, and that we’re leaders and prophetic as a Church.”

Now, the number of Eco Churches signed up to A Rocha’s scheme to cut their emissions and make creation care a priority has doubled; Sheffield Cathedral has begun hosting campaign events for activists and politicians; and the bishops and leading figures in the diocese have become high-profile in the campaign to “green” Sheffield.

“My aim, ultimately, is that green issues and the environment run as a green thread through everything we do. The Church can be too inward-looking. We need to get out there,” Dr Rhodes says.

For those inspired by Sheffield’s example, her advice is simple: connect with existing local campaigners; “use every medium you’ve got to spread the word”; and find some practical action to unite around, to avoid degenerating into a talking shop.

“And, finally, mention God and faith naturally as part of interviews and presentations, showing how our faith upholds and inspires this work.”

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