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Green Church Showcase: Laudato Si’, brought to life

05 November 2021

The Bishop of Salford has taken a papal encyclical to heart

PAPAL encyclicals do not always require urgent action and can safely consigned to the bookshelves. But, on the publication of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’: On care for our common home, in 2015, (News, 19 June 2015), the Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford, in Greater Manchester, the Rt Revd John Arnold, recognised that it was not in that category.

He held a meeting of the diocese’s Catholic Social Action Network to brainstorm ideas about embedding the encyclical’s teaching in the life and worship of the diocese — “essentially, just to make sure that Laudato Si’ doesn’t just sit on a bookshelf gathering dust”, Steve Burrowes, who leads CAFOD’s community engagement in the diocese, explains.

“So, I said, wouldn’t it be great if the diocese had its own Laudato Si’ centre, where we could actually unpack it and bring it to life within our context, as well as taking on some of the wider macro issues?”

Bishop Arnold was keen on the idea, and took it a stage further. The centre, he said, should be located at Wardley Hall, a 16th-century house and his official residence.

With hindsight, the synergy was obvious, says Mr Burrowes — who is now loaned by CAFOD for two days a week to run the Laudato Si’ centre. “When you think about it, he’s the spokesperson for the environment [for the Bishops’ Conference] and a trustee of the aid agency CAFOD. Integral ecology and the integral human development — he’s got them running through him like a stick of Blackpool rock.”

The first phase of lifting the teaching of Laudato Si’ off the page was to build a walled garden at Wardley Hall. Mimicking the ecosystem of a rainforest, the garden features more than 50 fruit trees and other species, creating a canopy to sustain smaller shrubs, wild flowers, bushes, and herbs. Everything grown there is edible; but, more important, everything is also a teaching resource.

Using his background as a special-needs teacher, Mr Burrowes has built the walled garden for children to play in, and to learn about the care of creation and the importance of climate justice. “From the very outset, it’s for people of all faiths and none, and all abilities.”


THERE are raised beds so that children in wheelchairs can garden, and plenty of greenhouses and polytunnels. At the centre, huge willow-domed structures represent home, school, and parish. Just as CAFOD creates safe spaces within which children can play and learn in refugee camps around the world, the walled garden is an outdoor classroom and playground for young people, Mr Burrowes explains. There are beehives to encourage pollinators, and the diocese has worked with the local wildlife trust to create a Bug Life project for the children.

Dozens of teachers and delegations of pupils from local schools have visited Wardley Hall, to enjoy the environment of the garden and take inspiration back to their classrooms. “They just enjoyed the space that we’re trying to create — a place of healing and discovery, a place of beauty. And, in this post-Covid world, a place of recovery,” Mr Burrowes says. They are now working with horticultural therapists, to ensure that outdoor learning is also a “way of healing”.

This was is the first step for the Laudato Si’ centre. The diocese has now secured planning permission for restoration of the Hall’s old stable block and its conversion into a multi-sensory collection of buildings for more work with children with special needs. There are also plans to collaborate with Salford Cathedral’s music department to launch song-writing workshops with young people, where they can create new songs inspired by Laudato Si’.

Essential to the entire project has been the enthusiastic support of Bishop Arnold, Mr Burrowes says. “It’s in his own backyard, and he’s very explicitly walking the walk of it. Not just encouraging people, but enabling them to do it by sharing in the space he has here.”

Parishes have been inspired by Bishop Arnold’s ambition with the centre to begin their own smaller schemes, planting new trees and rewilding churchyards; and the diocese has sought to become a green flagship, blazing a trail for the rest of the Church to follow.

“It’s like a relay race,” Mr Burrowes says, “to pass the baton to other people, and equip them with the tools they need to do it. Beyond that, I just say, ‘Be imaginative, be bold, and be creative.’”

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