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Bishop for the environment: At root, it’s about survival

04 November 2022

Net zero is just a fraction of what the C of E’s environment bishop is working on, Pat Ashworth discovers

Diocese of Norwich/Luke Bryant

The Bishop of Norwich with some hazel-tree saplings

The Bishop of Norwich with some hazel-tree saplings

WHAT you don’t hear from the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment, Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich, are empty words and fine phrases. Aspirations, yes, but this is a bishop with a degree in ecological science from the University of Edinburgh: a man who loved looking down an electron microscope, likes to have his hands in the soil, and who knows that a large and nitrogen-rich bed of nettles is likely to be on the site of a medieval latrine.

The interest in biodiversity and landscape that he studied 30 years ago has only grown stronger. He has taken every opportunity to work with bodies such as the Forestry Commission and the National Parks during a ministry that has been mostly in the north-east. Now, in his present post, those opportunities are proving to be even wider.

He recalls how much less urgent it seemed at a time when the environment and sustainable development were lower down the political agenda, and when those being vocal about it — including the Prince of Wales — were often dismissed as “loony tree-huggers”. “In fact, they were being very prophetic,” he says. He is pleased that goods once available only on churches’ Fairtrade tables are now on supermarket shelves.

But although the environmental awareness is more mainstream, our determination remains, he says, “to have all the stuff we want, and to do all the things we want to do. We enter into this psychological drama in our heads where we think: ‘Oh, that little bit won’t make much impact. . .’

“Ultimately, the environmental crises we face, like climate and biodiversity, are connected with spiritual and psychological life: how we are as human beings, how we learn to live.”

His early childhood was spent in Ghana, and one tradition there has had a profound influence on him. “The question at the end of every meal is: ‘Have you had sufficient?’ he remembers. “In a sense, that’s what we say in: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. What is ‘sufficient’ in a life that is always wanting to gather more or use up more?”


HE HAS given himself three priorities around net-zero carbon, land, and evangelism on the environment. The Church of England, along with the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church, has committed itself to net zero by 2030: a move Bishop Usher commends as “incredibly bold”, and for which realism and hopefulness come together.

Closely involved with writing the Calls on Environment and Sustainable Development for the Lambeth Conference, and developing the Communion Forest initiative — for which the first tree was planted at Lambeth Palace (News, 5 August) — he has been seriously challenged by fellow bishops in parts of the Anglican Communion already feeling the impact of climate change.

“I’d read the reports from bodies such as Christian Aid and Tearfund, and seen all manner of things. But, at Lambeth, I had all kinds of conversations with bishops affected by famine and adverse weather events now,” he says, soberly. “I’m still thinking about the conversation I had with the Bishop of Vanuatu [Solomon Islands], who asked me: “You are the lead bishop on the environment. What are you doing to help? My islands are sinking. We have lost so many. I’m telling my great-nephew: there’s no future for you here.’

“For these sisters and brothers in Christ around the Anglican Communion, this is not about how can I recycle my milk bottles or take the train. This is about how we live.”

Migration because of climate change is acknowledged to be one of the biggest challenges of the next 50 years: it is already evident, but only the tip of the iceberg.

“We know migration leads to conflict, which leads to war, which leads to scarcer resources. . . It’s a vicious cycle,” Bishop Usher observes.

He went to COP26 in Glasgow, and came out, he says, thinking: “Get a grip. . . These pledges: how are we going to live them out?’”

The Lambeth Calls affirm that, for future generations, the need is for action now, urgent, and at scale. But actions are difficult to sustain unless there is also the transformation of hearts and minds from which such action flows, the Calls suggest, describing the climate emergency as a spiritual as well as a physical crisis.

Among the many actions called for, one is to equip communities to build resilience to help them withstand and recover from disasters, and “promote the prophetic voice of young people and the key role of women as earth protectors, recognising that climate change impacts unequally on the women and future generations”.

Another is to join in the Communion Forest initiative, which encourages provinces, dioceses, and local churches “to protect and restore forests and other ecosystems across our planet, and commit to promoting tree-planting at the time of confirmation and of the key life and faith moments, as a symbol of spiritual growth.” The tree planted at Lambeth Palace was a symbolic act to launch the project (News, 5 August).

Wealthier nations, and those with greatest responsibility for climate change, are urged to take the lead on climate action and just financing for other countries to reduce emissions.


BISHOP USHER has much to say about land. His appointment as a Church Commissioner is giving him the opportunity to consider how best to look after the very large amounts that the Commissioners own, and to explore a vision of how best to steward what God has entrusted for the life of the Church.

“In our portfolio, there will be some land that will be for farming, prime agricultural land, not for rewilding,” he says. “We need to feed the nation. But some of our land can be in reserve for development, which is all part of providing housing. And how can we work with our tenant farmers to improve the soil health of the land, and to improve biodiversity?”

He admires the vision set out by Jake Fiennes, the conservation director of the 25,000-acre Holkham Estate, in Norfolk, whose new book, Land Healer, makes the case for farming to restore wildlife, while producing better food. “It’s a really strong vision which I would like to see influence the Church Commissioners and diocesan finance officers. It’s a win-win,” he says with enthusiasm.

He believes that the Commissioners are very positive about such a move. “We’re linking up with the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Trust, the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Crown estates to see how we can learn from each other.”


LANDSCAPE has been an influence from an early age. Most of his holidays were spent in the north of Scotland, where he walked in the mountains with his grandfather, and there was something about the luminosity of that landscape, he reflects, that was enchanting to him.

He recalls moments when he experienced a profound sense of being overcome by the presence of God: on a rocky knoll on Anglesey, as a teenager, looking across the bay to Holyhead; at a service of compline in his link diocese in Sweden; up above the Arctic Circle in the midnight sun.

So, a renewed emphasis on nature and the land for well-being and mental health is something with which he can readily concur. “Being in nature is part of the toolkit for well-being,” he suggests. “The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, ‘forest bathing’, but it’s the breath of God filling my lungs again.”

Bishops of Norwich are the temporary custodians of a beautiful, four-acre garden. With it, inherited from his predecessor, came a number of volunteers living with mental ill-health. Volunteers are now also coming through social prescribing, finding healing from being in the garden. A recent audit with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has led to changes in the regime that have greatly increased the biodiversity of the garden. Early orchids now come out of the seedbanks. It is a green space beloved of schools with only tarmac on which to play.

“We are disconnected from nature in so many ways in our lives,” he reflects. “Jesus notices the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the fig tree that is fruiting or not . . . he takes time to notice.”

The conversation is just beginning, he suggests, on how the environment might be used to engage all young people — many of whom are actively interested in the issues surrounding it — in a life of following Jesus. “For me, the Christian life speaks of a simpler life. I’m not an expert in any way, which is why I wanted to work with Dr Stephen Hance, national adviser on evangelism.”

When a young person passes a church, the Bishop hopes they might think: “That’s the place where they talk about treading more gently on the earth, and where they care about my future and others’ future.”

His own lifestyle has changed over these years of awakened awareness: no chemicals used in the garden; more vegetarian meals than meat; the move to a hybrid car as a first step to electric (when the infrastructure of Norfolk allows); holidays in the UK. The diocese has got used to the sight of him cycling to a confirmation service, with his crosier strapped to the crossbar and everything else in the rucksack.

“A lot of people do far better than me, but it’s having the ability to just step back and review,” he says. He owns how much he has been challenged by his children, and how much he is learning from people who have been involved in this area for many years.

And he takes his hat (mitre?) off to diocesan environmental officers, and especially to A Rocha for their eco-church scheme. “I want to fly the flag for them because we can’t do this without them,” he concludes. “The challenge of Bronze, Silver, and Gold helps parishes to engage, and gives stretch and challenge in the process.”

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