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Full steam ahead for cleaner church boilers, General Synod agrees

10 February 2022

Rules to help churches meet carbon-reduction target are agreed

CLIVE MEAR/CHURCH TIMES

The amended faculty rules are moved by the Dean of the Arches, Morag Ellis QC, an environmental lawyer by profession

The amended faculty rules are moved by the Dean of the Arches, Morag Ellis QC, an environmental lawyer by profession

EFFORTS by the Church to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions are “the very best way to become a younger Church”, the Archbishop of York told the General Synod on Wednesday.

“At last people will see that this Christian faith that we share means something,” he said. “It is actually being lived out in really, really hard, painful decisions — like what you do when you replace your boiler.”

He was speaking during a debate that several members joked might seem boring: changes to the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules (News, 28 January 2022). The amended rules, moved by the Dean of the Arches, Morag Ellis QC, an environmental lawyer by profession, were clearly carried by the Synod, despite warnings about the impact on parish finances and the workload of volunteers.

The result suggests that, despite a high turnover in Synod’s membership last autumn (60 per cent are new, News, 22 October 2021), the new cohort shares its predecessor’s 2020 commitment to reduce the Church’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 (News, 14 February 2020) — a target described as an “almighty challenge” by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, the lead bishop on the environment.

Based on the recommendations of the net-zero-carbon faculty working group, set up in the wake of the 2020 vote, the amendments before the Synod are designed to make the permissions route more straightforward for changes to church buildings that are most likely to reduce carbon, including the installation of electric pew heaters, electric-car charging points, and soft furnishings to “heat people rather than buildings”. They also increase the hurdles for any proposals that will commit a church to producing additional carbon emissions.

The latter element, described by one speaker as a stick as opposed to a carrot, includes the requirement that the “like for like” replacement of a boiler that uses a fossil fuel will now require a faculty. Churches applying for a faculty will also have to explain how they have had “due regard” to new net-zero guidance issued by the Church Buildings Council.

Introducing the amended rules, Dean Ellis described them as “a positive and proportionate step towards implementing the earnest determination of General Synod . . . Nothing in the proposed new rules forces parishes to make changes; nor do the rules rule out doing things which are incompatible with carbon reduction — but they do ask us in our parishes about what to do for the best in an informed way when we want or need to make changes to our buildings.”

The vast majority of speeches that followed were in favour of the changes, with several arguing that taking action would appeal to a younger generation missing from the Church’s pews.

The Vicar of St Nicholas and St Barnabas, Kenilworth, in the diocese of Coventry, the Revd Stella Bailey, noted that, as the vicar of a parish with a Grade-1 listed building with an Augustinian Prior in its churchyard, “you cannot sneeze without Historic England wanting to know.”

The new rules were “inconvenient” and would create more work. Yet, “This is where legislation reaches mission. For the emerging generations in our community, this subject matters. . . They are looking to this chamber and seeking authenticity and integrity.” She called for the changes to go further, to include listed buildings; and, in a plea to the Government and amenities societies, said: “Our churches are not historic monuments, they are living, breathing communities. . . Work with us to hear the cry of not just this chamber, but wider society.”

Fiona Norris, a Tearfund employee in Salisbury, quoted from a colleague affected by climate change in Honduras. She cited Youthscape polling that suggested that only one in ten young people thought that the Church was doing enough on climate change (News, 12 February 2021).

Speakers acknowledged concern around the impact of the changes on parishes. The Revd Ruth Newton, associate minister of the Ripon Cathedral benefice in the diocese of Leeds, and chair of the Synod environment group, was aware of anxiety about the impact of the target on “smaller, more vulnerable churches, which have already been hit hard by Covid and need a bit of a break”. Money must be made available, she said.

But, the burden of the target would “almost certainly not fall on our smaller and more vulnerable churches but on larger parishes where the church is in daily use.”

CLIVE MEAR/CHURCH TIMESTwo amendments were moved by the Revd Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, and chair of the Save the Parish steering committee

Two amendments were moved by the Revd Marcus Walker, the Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, and chair of the Save the Parish steering committee, removing the requirement to have due regard to the net-zero guidance, and the changes concerning the replacement of fossil-fuel boilers.

While the 2020 commitment was a “noble and worthwhile” target, he urged Synod to remove the “sticks” from the amendments, leaving the new rules “an ecologically sound meal of pure carrot”. Outlining the challenges facing parishes, he noted that 57 per cent of them recorded a deficit last year, that hundreds were unable to fill their PCCs, and that volunteers were quitting.

“Where we make the changes we want to see affordable, we are friends to every parish across the land,” he told the Synod. “But when we hit them with unaffordable costs without anything but vague promises to fund them, we risk the very thing we love.”

The faculty system was “exhausting and debilitating for those going through it”, he observed. “We . . . should not be forcing our scarce volunteers to negotiate the DAC the quinquennial architects, the statutory bodies and amenities societies and find all that extra money just to stay warm.” Volunteers needed to be “set free from the burdens imposed, I regret to say, by Synod. We may not be able to lift too many of those today but we can choose not to add to their load.”

In his response, Archbishop Cottrell said: “I entirely understand the sentiments behind these amendments and the earnest desire that I think we all share to make life easier for our parishes who often do feel that they are drowning in red tape and things are difficult.”

But, he argued, “the very best way to support parishes and help them to grow is to preach the gospel and build the Kingdom. And I think, if we in the C of E can be seen to be taking a lead in this issue . . . that is going to be the very best way that we will become a younger Church. Because at last people will see that this Christian faith that we share means something: it is actually being lived out in really, really hard, painful decisions like what you do when you replace your boiler.”

A younger, more diverse Church is one of the three priorities of the Vision and Strategy for the Church in the 2020s, a programme spearheaded by Archbishop Cottrell. While their wishes were appealed to by speakers, there were few younger members in the chamber: the Church of England Youth Council, which was previously represented, chose to disband in 2019, after struggling to attract viable numbers.

Responding to Fr Walker’s amendments, Dean Ellis warned of churches being “fettered to increasingly expensive as well as damaging fossil fuels”, effectively storing up problems for the next generations of volunteers. The rules did not prohibit oil or gas boilers, she said: in some circumstances, this would be the only option. But, “we should not be perpetuating a situation which just enables parishes to do same old same old with boilers.”

None of those called spoke in favour of the amendments, and both fell.

Also lost was an amendment moved by the Archdeacon of Chichester, the Ven. Luke Irvine-Capel, which sought to ensure that proposals to replace a boiler could be considered by an archdeacon rather than being subject to the faculty process.

Speaking in support of the amendment, Prudence Dailey of Oxford spoke of the risk of a boiler breaking down just before Christmas, “which is one of the best missional opportunities the Church has to get through the door”.

The amendment fell, but narrowly, by 142 to 145 with 12 abstentions.

The only successful amendment was moved by the Archdeacon of Ludlow, the Ven. Fiona Gibson, who proposed that the list of matters that could be approved by an archdeacon include the installation on the exterior of a church building of equipment for receiving and sharing wireless broadband services.

During the Covid-19 pandemic many rural churches could not get online for want of a signal, she reported. “Our people felt isolated at a time when they needed us most.” The amendment would “rural-proof” the new rules.

The amended rules were carried by an overwhelming majority. Reaching the 2030 target would be an “almighty challenge”, Bishop Usher acknowledged. “But so is any aspect of living the gospel.”

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