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Southwark Chancellor urges realism over church carbon targets

03 November 2023

Churches granted faculties for two gas boilers, despite Church’s 2030 net-zero target

St Mary and St John the Divine, Balham/Facebook

The interior of St Mary and St John the Divine, Balham

The interior of St Mary and St John the Divine, Balham

TWO churches in Southwark diocese that have struggled to find a viable “green” alternative to replacing their existing gas boilers with new ones have been granted faculties by the Consistory Court to do so — without any condition that they should buy carbon offsets.

St Mary and St John the Divine, Balham, had three gas boilers to heat the church. When these had to be replaced, the PCC investigated all available “green” options, but no such option at a reasonable cost presented itself.

In 2020, the General Synod set a target for the whole Church to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030 (News, 14 February 2020). The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 were then amended to ensure that diocesan advisory committees (DACs) were satisfied that PCCs that intended to apply for a faculty to replace gas boilers had had due regard to the 2030 target.

The Southwark DAC had been satisfied, and had therefore recommended the church’s proposals.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful Philip Petchey, said that he was “confident” that the petitioners’ assessment of the situation was correct; and therefore it was appropriate for him to issue a faculty.

He observed that 84 per cent of the energy requirements of C of E churches were in respect of heating, and that 87 per cent used oil or gas. It was open to any church that currently used oil or gas for heating to achieve carbon neutrality by buying offsets now.

The Chancellor also said, however, that he preferred a different approach, and, in general, did not think that it was “realistic to expect churches, which are already bearing the cost of installing new heating, additionally to buy both offsets and to seek to make provision — as they need to do — for achieving carbon neutrality without paying for offsets”.

A further complication was that, “if the purchase of offsets became the first call upon its funds, its ability to pay its parish share might be compromised”. It seemed better, therefore, the Chancellor said, to leave decisions on the purchase of offsets to individual parishes.

The approach he had adopted “might be seen as letting the parishes off the hook: that a church given the option of doing nothing will do nothing”, he said. But that was belied by the “strenuous efforts made by churches across England to achieve carbon neutrality by reference to a very challenging target”.

If that was achieved, it would be by “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” efforts, he said. In principle, it was also necessary to encourage local effort, and “not impose requirements which might be perceived as unfair or prejudice a parish’s ability to pay its parish share”.

Another Southwark church that applied for a similar faculty was Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, which had a gas-fuelled heating system, which operated by blowing hot air through underfloor vents. It was very efficient, the petitioners said, and, even on the coldest day, the church could be warm within 15 minutes. The heating unit to provide the hot air had failed, and the obvious solution was to replace it — but it was gas-fuelled.

The PCC had looked carefully at alternative options. Heat pumps were not viable. Electric heaters would be very expensive to install, less energy-efficient, unsightly, and expensive to run. The PCC, therefore, sought permission to install a replacement gas heater. The DAC certified that the church had considered the Church’s net-zero guidance.

The Chancellor therefore granted the faculty without imposing a condition for carbon offsetting for the same reasons as he had given in the case of St Mary and St John the Divine, Balham.

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