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Church Times Green Church Awards: past winners

14 June 2024

As the deadline for entering the Church Times’s 2024 Green Church Awards approaches, Huw Spanner speaks to previous winners

The newly opened hand-built church hall at Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, in London

The newly opened hand-built church hall at Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, in London

IN THE Green Church Awards in 2017, the Green Building Award was won by St Wenn’s, near Bodmin (News, 13 October 2017), where the congregation of a small medieval village church formed a partnership with the primary school next door to install a shared biomass boiler.

“We were surprised to win the award, when we knew we were up against Gloucester Cathedral,” Barbara Crowle, one of the churchwardens, recalls, “but it was really heartening.”

The congregation was in single figures in 2017, but has since more than doubled, she says. “We’ve always been welcoming, but the warmth [from the boiler] has definitely helped. It has also made a big difference to the school, and their numbers have gone up, too.”

The £1000 that came with the award “went into the pot to help with our regeneration”, and the church has also received grants from a wind farm near by. In the past few years, they have been able to put in a lavatory with a sewage-treatment plant, and to replace old tarmac paths around the church with permeable gravel.

The congregation are always looking for other ways to make their church more environmentally friendly, Mrs Crowle says. “Obviously, we’ve changed all the lights to LEDs. We’re hoping to use rainwater in the new toilet, but at the moment we haven’t got any further with that.”

Several other churches in the diocese have sent people over “to have a look and ask questions”. And a local man, Stephen Chidgey, a member of the diocesan advisory committee (DAC) and a DAC adviser on renewable energy and heating, who was instrumental in greening St Wenn’s, now has a position on the diocesan board, advising on “all things environmental”.


THE biodiversity award in 2017 went to the 12th-century church of St James’s, Finchampstead, in Berkshire, for the “care and attention” that its congregation devoted to turning a patch of scrubland that the church had been left into a new churchyard to supplement its two ancient ones, which were both full.

The award was a big surprise, says Ed Sampson, a member of the congregation. The old churchyards have many “veteran” trees; there are always “a lot of bats and so on” around — “including in the church itself” — and “every grave has got some interesting creatures living in it. We didn’t think we were doing anything special in looking after them.”

It got many more people interested in helping in the churchyard, he recalls. “They felt they were doing something useful, and being recognised for it, and there was a great burst of energy.” The £1000 prize was “really a remarkable amount of money”, which went into building “a decent compost heap” and planting a small avenue of cherry-blossom trees.

The pandemic rather put a dampener on things, and a few people have since passed away or moved away, Mr Sampson says. “I’m going to be 88 this year, and I can’t really get down to the ground any more — but it’s amazing how many people do come and help out.”

THE Green Congregation Award went to St John’s, Shildon, in Co. Durham, which, in 2014, had set up the Shildon Alive “guerrilla gardening” project to counteract a decline in community engagement and an increase in vandalism.
In 2017, more than 1000 young people, aged from two to 20, were involved in this, the project’s manager, Paula Nelson, says.

“We talked to people in their streets, and made them planters for their front doorsteps. With the town council’s permission we went into the park and found areas that were a bit neglected and untidy, and we cleared them up and planted fruit trees.”

Winning the award “had a big impact”, she recalls. “It really enthused me, and we kept going for the next two or three years. The only thing that put us off was inclement weather, until Covid struck.”

She reflects that 2017 now “seems like a long time ago”. They have not done any guerrilla gardening for several years, but, on Furnace Industrial Estate, they have since restarted one of the two community gardens that they originally created, “which is on its way to being extremely active”.

A new community-engagement officer has started an adults’ group, a youth group, and a group for children of pre-school age, Little Growers.

The garden “grows vegetables and flowers, and has a bug hotel and things like that”. They are hoping to secure an adjacent plot to develop a nature garden and a forest school, where people can “learn how to whittle, build fires, make dens, and that sort of thing”.

Shildon Alive now has nine paid staff, and, since 2019, has been run by a trust which is independent of St John’s, although it is chaired by the Priest-in-Charge, and members of the PCC sit on its board. People in the church get involved as much as they can, Mrs Nelson says. “The connections are still still strong.”

The project has 12 volunteer drivers who collect food surplus from wholesalers and supermarkets, which is then sorted by other volunteers and shared widely. Last year, Mrs Nelson says, they redistributed 102 tonnes of food.

Their workers also go into primary schools to talk to the children about the value of food and the impact of waste. The children run pop-up stalls, selling rescued food to their families, and spend the income that this generates on school projects and school trips.

THE Green Futures Award in 2017 went to Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, in south-east London, for a hugely ambitious project: to engage the local community in building (by hand) a church hall, or “community hub”, using mainly upcycled or recycled materials. This was finally opened on 20 April this year. It is the largest self-built straw-bale building in Europe — roughly 30 metres long by 15 metres wide — and at its highest some 11 metres tall.

“We started it on April Fool’s Day 2017,” the Vicar, the Revd Richard Dormandy, recalls. He acted as project manager and principal builder. Eventually, they aimed to finish it by 31 March 2024, “which, I hadn’t realised, was Easter Day”. The building thus took exactly seven years.

The award from the Church Times, coming so early on, when the project had barely got planning permission, “was a huge encouragement, a real boost”, he says. “It helped us in fund-raising, to be able to say that this was an award-winning project.” The project has since won other building-industry awards.

The original design was very simple, he says. “We thought it might take a couple of years to build, and guessed it would cost about £440,000. There was probably a glorious naïvety about it.

“We realised quite soon that it needed to have two storeys to be fit for purpose, and it was going to cost about £880,000.” In the end, it came in at £1.1 million, which the church has now raised.

More than 600 volunteers were involved, including “a couple of classes of primary-school children, who did some of the initial plastering, slapping clay on the walls”. The foundations are made from pillars of old tyres packed with pea gravel, which both five-year-olds and 80-year-olds could help with.

The point of this “vernacular” style of building, Mr Dormandy says, is that it is a “very accessible” way to build. “We had a small amount of training, and, once you know how to do it, you can do it. I think our oldest volunteer was 93.”

It was a “massive” project, and there were times when the burden felt too great. “There were definitely periods when it was, physically, absolutely draining. Occasionally, I would think: ‘Are we doing this all wrong?’

“Interestingly, the building inspectors consistently praised the quality of our workmanship. The nervousness of not knowing quite what you’re doing means that you really want to get things right.”

Some of the people who worked on the building were doing community service or community payback, which was good for the church and good for them, Mr Dormandy believes.

“One person said to us: ‘You get paid for this, right?’ When we said no, they couldn’t believe it. It was a new idea to them, not to be money-led. For them, as for some of the volunteers, it was a life-changing experience.”

For his congregation of about 100, he says, “the sense that this is a major carbon-negative project that we’ve done, and we own, has been very positive. Everyone feels that they’ve been involved in something really significant. It’s definitely made people generally more aware [of environmental issues].

“It’s also increased their sense of self-worth and self-confidence, which is also part of what is required for mission.”

THE Green Champion Award in 2017 was shared between the five people who were shortlisted. “It was really nice that they split it,” one of the winners, Dr Judith Allinson, says, “because I think none of us thought we really deserved it. I can see in some ways why I was nominated, because I’m always pestering my minister to do green things at church.”

Seven years ago, she told the Church Times that the project that she was most enthusiastic about was the Rainforest Fund. “Really, it’s a fund to save wildlife habitats that are under threat — ‘rainforest’ seemed to be a more emotive word, which is why I called it that. It’s just a way of publicising that Christians should care for the natural world.”

Its work “is still trudging along”, she says. “A few churches are still doing a little bit, but it hasn’t grown. I’m a bit disappointed by that.”

Today, she is more active locally with Settle Methodist Church, which has itself won an Eco Church Gold award; “so there’s a lot more interest.”

Dr Allinson, a former primary-school teacher, and a friend go for walks in the summer, accompanied by children aged four to 11, and they “do wildlife things”, such as recording all the plants they can find in a single square metre.

Once a month, she also co-leads a “nice jolly” walk for Churches Together in Settle, and Craven Conservation Group. “We go to different places each time. The local vicar takes a big sack, and we collect litter. We look at nature, and we stop en route and read a few paragraphs from the prayers written for that day on prayandfastfortheclimate.org.uk, which are always very current.”

She writes a blog, and has a page on the Green Christian website, of which she is co-editor. “There are so many different things we have to campaign about,” she says. “Everyone is concerned about climate change, and it is terrible — but we’re also wrecking nature. As a botanist, I see how we’ve been destroying things. There’s an orange lichen, Xanthoria parietina, which is really pretty, but its [recent proliferation] is an indication of how much nitrogen compounds are raining down on Britain. There’s an awful lot of pollution in the air that we don’t see.”

Another of the five winners was Brother Hugh Cobbett SSF, of Hilfield Friary. Since 2017, he says, “I’ve just carried on the same as always, trying to raise awareness bit by bit, and getting on with the practical things. I am probably as much a ‘denier’ as all of us who know that the climate is changing extremely quickly but are just carrying on, putting in a car-charger here, a heat pump there, that sort of thing.

“I haven’t gone as far as my friends [in Extinction Rebellion], who have been protesting and getting arrested, which I can’t quite bring myself to do, somehow.”
At the Franciscans’ annual Brothers’ Chapter this month, “every house has been asked to give a little presentation on our journey to net zero by 2030,” he says.

“Well, I know that if I were to start talking about [what that really entails], people just aren’t ready for that; so I’m going to talk [instead] about the low-hanging fruit we can pick: more Zooming and less flying to international meetings, more insulation of our cold houses, and that sort of thing.”

There are several people at Hilfield Friary, he says, who are “really motivated”. “I’m always encouraging people to use our electric car more rather than the diesel. Three months ago, we got rid of one of our gas hobs and put in an electric one, powered by our solar panels.

“We’re encouraging people to get up an hour earlier and take advantage of the sunshine, and we’re about to get a couple of storage batteries.”

He is also advising other monastic houses elsewhere in the country. “There are all sorts of practical problems. Our monastery at Glasshampton are longing to have solar [power], and have been given some money for it; but it’s a listed building and they can’t get planning permission.”

It is very frustrating, he says, but “you can’t change things overnight. We have to live with the science somehow, but we also have to live with the theology of hope and carry on doing the right thing, even if sometimes it makes no difference. Any action is better than nothing.”


For details of the 2024 Church Times Green Award categories and sponsors, visit: churchtimes.co.uk/green-church

Nominate a project for the 2024 awards here (closing date 30 June)

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