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General Synod digest: Climate question for confirmands encouraged

14 July 2023
Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, who introduced the Oxford diocesan motion on Tuesday

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, who introduced the Oxford diocesan motion on Tuesday

BOOSTING the Church’s action on climate change was the General Synod’s theme on Tuesday morning, when an Oxford diocesan motion was carried after vigorous debate.

Before the debate began, Prudence Dailey (Oxford) asked whether the air conditioning could be turned off in the chamber to allow the Synod to “properly engage with the question of fossil fuels”. This was ruled out of order.

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham (Southern Suffragans), introduced a motion, carried three years ago by Oxford diocesan synod; it had guided the actions of the diocese ever since. She wanted to encourage “lightning speed and significantly raised ambition” for what the rest of the Church could achieve.

Creation care was not just a programme, but a way of being, Bishop Graham said. Excess heat was building up around the planet at an unprecedented rate. She asked Synod members to think how hot 2022 was; and yet that year would end up being one of the coolest years of the rest of their lives, she warned. The “signs from Westminster are not at all good,” she said, criticising recent government approval of new oil and coal developments. Large parts of the planet would, at this rate, become uninhabitable, and there could be as many as two billion climate refugees by the end of the century. “This is a bleak picture, and I paint it not to be alarmist, but to concentrate our minds.”

She hailed the Church’s 2030 net-zero target as already having an effect (News, 14 February 2020), and the power of a 2018 Synod motion that had recently led the Church Commissioners to disinvest from all fossil-fuel companies (News, 23 June). But there was only a small window to the end of this decade to take action to prevent catastrophe. Her motion would seek to mobilise the entire Church and stop society from “kicking the can down the road for the next generation to deal with”.

Roy Faulkner (Leicester) said that he could not support the motion, because it was presumptuous to rewrite the catechism to include protecting the environment. God was more than capable of looking after his creation by himself, he suggested. He also criticised the plan to decarbonise church buildings and install heat pumps, when the “real power” lay with the electricity generators. If the money allocated to net zero was redistributed, it could give each diocese ten more vicars, he said. “The Church is dying. It needs more vicars, not more heat pumps.”

Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) backed the motion: it was important not simply to recite “pious words”, but to commit the Church to effective action. He hoped that the action taken by the national investing bodies (NIBs) would help parishes to deliver on carbon cuts, by investing in green technologies. This joined-up thinking would help the Church to save money, he said.

Dr Cathy Rhodes (Sheffield) then moved her amendment to include praise for the recent disinvestment from fossil fuels by the NIBs, and urge them to pour more investment into renewable technologies.

Bishop Graham accepted the amendment.

Sue Cavill (Derby) backed the motion and the amendment, praising the recent disinvestment. For those who were still sceptical about climate change, what harm could it do to have greener, less polluting energy, she asked.

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Helen-Ann Hartley, had urged the Commissioners to disinvest as long ago as 2018, she said. The importance of farming and the rural life must not be lost from discussion about the environment.

The amendment was carried.

The Revd Martin Poole (Chichester) moved his amendment to ensure that all parts of the C of E’s environmental policies were up to date. His own diocese’s policy dated from 2014, which was “well out of date”, given the developments in climate-change policy and science since then, he said.

Bishop Graham accepted the amendment, which was carried.

The Revd Jack Shepherd (Liverpool) moved an amendment to require the Church to commit more spending to improving the carbon footprints of vicarages. His own vicarage was cold, but the diocese said that it would prefer to sell the building rather than re-insulate it, he said. His amendment did not give a particular sum, but said that each diocese should spend roughly in line with the £10 million that Oxford diocese had already committed to this kind of work. While this was a lot of money, it could save funds for dioceses in the long term by reducing heating bills. He hoped that the extra sum could be mostly met by the Church Commissioners in the short term.

Bishop Graham appreciated the intent behind the amendment, but resisted it: Oxford was one of the wealthier dioceses, and there were already plans to release central funding for decarbonising vicarages.

Simon Friend (Exeter) was also sympathetic to the amendment, but opposed it on the basis that the carbon footprint of vicarages couldn’t necessarily be “improved”: “sometimes they need to be knocked down.”

Canon Paul Cartwright (Leeds) said that the installation of solar panels on his vicarage had the added benefit of making him more conscious of his energy usage, and encouraged people to support the amendment.

The amendment was narrowly accepted: by 139-124, with 25 recorded abstentions.

Dr Ros Clarke (Lichfield) then moved an amendment to leave out a clause requesting that the Bishops and Liturgical Commission “encourage confirmation services to include an addition question: ‘Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth?’” Ms Clarke said: “Let me be clear: it’s a good promise to make,” but argued that “by including it in the confirmation service we are effectively making this promise a requirement for those who want to affirm their faith and fully participate in our Church”. She asked for the clause to be left out so that members could vote “wholeheartedly” for the rest of the motion.

Bishop Graham said that the new question would be an optional and informal part of a commissioning at a confirmation service. In Oxford diocese, it had been very positive. She therefore resisted the amendment.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford), a member of the Liturgical Commission, concurred that this clause would not make any change to the core liturgical responses during the baptismal decision or profession of faith. This would be an optional question added to an optional commission, used alongside existing questions about loving your neighbour and seeking justice. Contrary to the Synod documents, this variation had not been authorised in the diocese of Oxford or Norwich, it was simply a “friendly, informal encouragement” for parishes to use at their discretion. There was no reason for any fear about the clause, and so he urged the Synod to vote against the amendment.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) echoed Dr Atherstone’s words and reminded members about the extent of God’s creation. The integrity of creation referred to far more than “this tiny little spot on the western arm of the Milky Way”, he said.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, who is the lead bishop for the environment, said that he had used this question in confirmations, which invariably enthused young people. They longed to belong to a Church that was credible about the environment. “Please resist the amendment,” he urged.

A member of the Archbishops’ Council, Alison Coulter (Winchester), also resisted the amendment. Ninety-eight per cent of the Church were lay people, and this clause gave them a practical way to affirm how to live the way of Christ in caring for the environment.

The Revd Graham Hamilton (Exeter) asked whether there could be more speakers heard in favour of the amendment.

Debbie Buggs (London) said that the Church might find itself in a postcode lottery, where some bishops asked the question, but others did not. It would be much better to have a uniform baptismal and confirmation service across the Church. Backing the amendment, she said: “Please do not politicise a sacrament, for unity’s sake.”

The amendment was lost in in all three Houses: Bishops 20-2, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy 81-47, with nine recorded abstentions; Laity, 78-68, with 16 recorded abstentions.

Mr Shepherd then moved his second amendment, to ask the Business Committee to review progress on the steps in 2024.

Bishop Graham resisted the amendment: it was not the place of the Business Committee to do so, and there were already plans to report back on net-zero progress to the Synod in 2025.

The amendment lapsed.

Returning to the main debate, the Revd Andrew Mumby (Southwark), while in strong support, said that the language of the motion was too grounded in “C of E jargon”. He asked whether the phrasing could be tweaked to be more accessible to his congregation in Walworth. He also highlighted the importance of the lobbying clause.

In a counted vote of the whole Synod, the motion was passed 256-36, with 16 recorded abstentions.


That this Synod, affirming the fifth mark of mission, concerned by the scientific evidence that climate change is proceeding at a rapid rate and by the impact of climate events, and seeking to build on the decisions taken with respect to GS 2159:

(a) commend the recent disinvestment announcements by the Church Commissioners for England and Church of England Pensions Board, and urge each of the National Investing Bodies of the Church of England to prioritise and scale up investment in renewable energy and other climate solutions, in line with their fiduciary duties, and ask each to report back on progress to General Synod each quinquennium;

(b) urge all parts of the Church of England to review their relevant policies and procedures, in order to ensure that they are up to date and give due priority to creation care;

(c) urge the Church of England to further develop pre- and post-ordination and lay training to deepen understanding in how care for the earth is part of our Christian faith and a missional imperative;

(d) urge all parts of the Church of England to seek to support, through prayer, advocacy and practical action, the poorest in the world who are suffering the most from the impacts of climate change, in the awareness that our nation has been among those who have benefited most from the emissions that have caused the crisis;

(e) commit earnestly and regularly to pray — and to promote prayer — about the climate and wider environmental crisis;

(f) call upon all institutions of the Church of England to make urgent practical preparations for the delivery of substantial reduction of the Church’s carbon footprint, including, but not restricted to, the following immediate actions in respect of Church buildings:

i. ensuring that the NCIs are adequately resourced to provide DACs, Buildings Departments, Education Departments and others with authoritative national guidance notes, advice and training on key technical and procedural questions relating to adaptation of buildings for the net zero target; and

ii. ensuring that Parish Buying and other national-level entities have the capacity to engage with manufacturers and suppliers of products and processes recommended for making our buildings more efficient, with a view to using the scale of the national net zero project to achieve both sympathetic design and economies of scale on cost; and

iii. commit expenditure, reflective of the £10 million committed by Oxford Diocese, on environmental works to improve the carbon footprint of vicarages;

(g) request that Bishops and the Liturgical Commission encourage confirmation services to include an additional question “Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth?”; and

(h) ask that HM Government review the weight given to the environmental public benefit in planning regulations to facilitate the installation of renewable technologies, including for buildings that are listed or in conservation areas.

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