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Time to disinvest from fossil fuels is now

28 July 2022

As bishops meet at the Lambeth Conference, young Anglicans are pleading with them to listen, says Holly-Anna Petersen

Members of Christian Climate Action drop a banner during a gathering of the General Synod in Church House, Westminster, in February 2015

Members of Christian Climate Action drop a banner during a gathering of the General Synod in Church House, Westminster, in February 2015

IT HAS long been known that the Church of England has a youth problem. In 2019, one third of those attending Church of England services were aged 70 or over, and a report published a couple of years ago showed that 38 per cent of churches have no under-16-year-olds, and 68 per cent have fewer than five young people.

The Church of England website projects a Church that is willing to engage young people and facilitate their participation. It reads: “We believe that children and young people can follow Jesus and be full members of the church, and that discipleship is possible at any age. They are integral to our churches, but we need to make sure there are no obstacles preventing them from getting involved.”

Surely, however, the most important step in engaging young people is to listen to them?

In February 2015, some young adult Christians dropped a banner during a meeting of the General Synod, urging the Church of England to disinvest from fossil fuels. The banner read “We are young Christians. For us and our children, climate change is the biggest threat we face. Please pray and act for all those afflicted by climate change now and in the future. As a church community, we cannot continue to invest in fossil fuel companies. So we ask you, on our behalf, to divest now. ‘May God defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy’ (Is. 24:2-5).”

I was one of those young Christians who dropped the banner. I had never done anything like that before, but was determined for my Church not to be funding the destruction of my future.

WE ARE now seven years on. I’m now into my thirties, and I’m ashamed to say that Church of England dioceses, the Church Commissioners, and the Pensions Board currently hold investments worth around £55 million in fossil-fuel companies.

Young Christians are still calling for the Church of England to disinvest. Last week, the Young Christian Climate Network (YCCN) wrote a letter to bishops ahead of Lambeth Conference asking for them to “sever all remaining financial ties with fossil fuel companies”.

The letter drew on the science of the climate crisis, stating that “the 2022 IPCC report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability concluded that breaching 1.5°C of warming ‘would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans’”. The letter also outlines the theology, stating that, “as Christians, we are called to express the restoring justice of God. We are to ‘learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression’ (Is. 1:17).”

Young people today are inspiring — they are building movements, they are school-striking, they are supporting each other in their faith. They are pushing to change the wreck of a world that their older parishioners have left for them.

Why would young people want to engage with the Church of England? I spoke to an inspiring young Christian recently who should be being encouraged by the Church. Instead, she recalled to me her exasperation when she took part in a climate change engagement day with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, only for him to think it suitable to recall how much he enjoyed his time working as an oil industry executive.

IF C OF E leaders want any hope of engaging young people, they must prove that they care about young people’s lives. At the very least, the Church must disinvest from fossil fuels — and stop funding the destruction of their future.

But, also, church leaders must be there for the journey. If church leaders don’t want to be on the street protesting against the fossil-fuel industry, you can bet your bottom dollar that young people would rather not have to either. If we care, we won’t just offer token gestures, we will do the hard graft of being alongside young people as they turn over the tables of the oppressive powers that are against them in our society. If we don’t, it’ll be the death of the Church and the death of us all.

The Church of England appears set on its strategy of continued funding of fossil-fuel companies — saying that they are engaging instead of leaving them. If they continue to do this, one thing is for certain — young people will leave the church, instead of engaging with it.

Holly-Anna Petersen is a mental-health therapist and a founding member of Christian Climate Action.

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