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General Synod digest: call for sustainable use of church land welcomed

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, presents his motion on Land and Nature

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, presents his motion on Land and Nature

THE encouragement of greater biodiversity and sustainable land use was backed by the General Synod during a short debate on Saturday afternoon.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, spoke of the devastation of UK biodiversity in recent years: 26 per cent of mammals were facing extinction, 97 per cent of wildflower meadows had been lost since the 1930s, and 41 per cent of species had declined since 1970, he said.

His motion was an invitation to “live out the Fifth Mark of Mission” — to safeguard the integrity of creation and renew the earth. He then introduced a slideshow of images depicting church biodiversity projects.

Church land was a gift from God which parishes and diocese must steward wisely, the Bishop said. “How can we manage it in such a way that it is a blessing to nature and to the wider human community?” Churchyards were home to a variety of wildlife and, in many places, were the one remaining area of species-rich grassland untouched by development and cultivation. Churchyards “should be places of the living, not just the dead”, he said.

There had already been a positive response to this motion, Bishop Usher reported. He also hailed the work of charities such as A Rocha and Caring For God’s Acre. Churches with glebe land should pay heed to national guidance on how to best manage this land, not just as a source of revenue, but as a gift of nature.

The Church Commissioners owned large agricultural and timber estates and were working with their tenant farmers to boost soil health and biodiversity, he explained. “To be out in nature, to smell and touch, hear and taste, is good for our mental health, children’s learning, financial returns, and rekindling in us a sense of joyous wonder at God’s gift all around us.”

Beginning the debate, the Revd Paul Bradbury (Salisbury) supported the motion, but asked whether it could be more ambitious, even prophetic. The ecological crisis was, he suggested, part of a bigger crisis in society, which some called a “time of endings” — with broken relationships not only with creation, but also the Creator. Do not see land just as a small part of the environment, he told the Synod, but as a part of church life which could be better aligned “to the whole mission of God”.

Prebendary Rosie Austin (Exeter) said that biodiversity loss, climate change, and falling food production must all be addressed together. The UK must “stop pushing farmers to the brink”. The agricultural community had much to teach the Church, despite the crisis looming for it. Food shortages in the pandemic showed just how fragile food systems were. Sustainable farming practices needed more investment and support from church bodies, she suggested.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, presents his motion on Land and Nature

Robert Zampetti (London) moved his amendment, which would include a requirement to publish an inventory of glebe land and its “net zero score”. His church in central London was making good strides towards its silver Eco Church award, he said, thanks to more sustainable practices in the planting of flowers, adding bug hotels and bird boxes, and banning pesticides. Good planning could not happen without knowing where you were starting from: hence his call for an inventory of glebe land.

Bishop Usher resisted the amendment, however, arguing that it had not been costed and could end up being very expensive for dioceses. It could also force the release of commercially sensitive information, he warned.

The amendment lapsed.

The Revd Andrew Yates (Truro) then moved his amendment. He backed the main motion but wanted to introduce an element of accountability. His amendment would require the Commissioners to report back within three years on their progress in enhancing biodiversity and their engagement with tenant farmers about sustainable practices. He said that there was no call for action on the Commissioners in the original motion, despite their being the largest landholder in the C of E. Mr Yates quoted a recent survey of 605 churchgoers by Green Christian in which most wanted all farms owned by the Church to be utilising sustainable practices.

Bishop Usher accepted the amendment, saying that it would help to hold the Commissioners to account.

The Revd Ross Meikle (Oxford) recalled a story from Genesis about Joseph’s utilising wisdom in how to manage land well during a time of climate crisis. He praised the amendment for creating accountability for the Commissioners in how they were using the power accrued by the land they owned.

Susan Cavill (Derby) supported the amendment and the main motion, and praised the encouragement to parishes and dioceses to get involved in practical ways in caring for God’s creation. But a higher-level strategic role was also necessary, which was were the Commissioners came in.

The amendment was carried.

Fr Stephen Maxfield (Greek Orthodox Church) said that, in the planting process, weeds could reduce a crop by as much as 85 per cent; and, too often, trees were planted with good intentions, but without proper care, which led to their death. Rewilding also needed proper planning, he said.

The Archdeacon of Ludlow, the Ven. Fiona Gibson (Hereford), praised the charity Caring For God’s Acre, which had helped many churchyards to flourish, with increased biodiversity, beautifying the countryside. Without properly resourcing the rural Church, however, it would be impossible to deliver on the motion, she warned. “Country churchyards need country churches.” The rural Church had much wisdom to offer the wider C of E on the theology of place, she said.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, suggested connecting the motion to the work of the Anglican Communion Forest, launched at the 2022 Lambeth Conference (News, 3 August 2022). His diocese would be using its links with dioceses overseas to encourage biodiversity, he said.

Debbie Buggs (London) said that the initiative should be connected to other debates, including those on the war in Ukraine and the future of work. Aiming for self-sufficiency in food and timber was necessary because of the disruption after war, and would also cut carbon emissions, she said. Being prepared to pay a fair price for UK-grown produce and lobbying the Government for farming subsidies might also be part of the Church’s response.

Roy Faulkner (Leicester) questioned how expensive the implementation of the motion would be, and encouraged more efforts to lobby foreign governments who produced the bulk of the world’s emissions.

The Archdeacon for Rural Mission (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), the Ven. Sally Gaze, welcomed the motion, and said that caring for the environment could help to develop discipleship among believers. Farmers were keen to enter into partnership with the Church as an institution that could give them a voice, she said. “They see us as crucial to get that message out.”

Voting for the motion would be good for people, good for farmers, good for the land, and good for the nation, Bishop Usher concluded.

The motion was carried:

That this Synod, recognising the need to respond urgently to the ecological crisis, in line with the global scientific consensus that the climate change and biodiversity loss crises are intricately linked

(a) welcome the work being done by the Church Commissioners, the NCIs, and many dioceses, parishes, cathedrals, and schools to manage all or part of their land for climate and nature, in urban and rural communities alike.

(b) request Diocesan Secretaries to task a named person / committee in their dioceses to create an action plan to achieve the “Land” section of Eco Diocese at Silver level by 2026 at the latest.

(c) request Chairs and Secretaries of all diocesan property/finance committees to incorporate nature-positive objectives into their asset management policies within the next 6 months.

(d) call on all parishes, cathedrals, TEIs, NCIs offices with land they manage or influence to:

i. create a simple land management plan, with reference to the guidance and examples from Caring for Gods Acre,

ii. work towards an increasing level of Eco Church, including the actions in the “Land” section, and

iii. record the biodiversity of their green spaces, through taking part in Churches Count On Nature each year.

(e) call on all Diocesan Boards of Education to work in accordance with the Department for Education Sustainability Strategy.

(f) request the Church Commissioners to report back to General Synod within three years about their progress with:

(i) enhancing and supporting biodiversity across their agricultural and forestry land, (ii) engagement and collaboration with tenants about sustainable farming, and

(iii) their leadership amongst landowners in a way that recognises the importance of shared learning, support and respect in achieving these objectives.

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