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A green church is a just church

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Naomi Osinnowo asks, is caring for our planet an essential part of social justice?



Being an environmentally friendly church may seem like yet another responsibility, but... what if caring for our planet is an essential part of living out our faith? asks Naomi Osinnowo.

Christians taking a stand to tackle environmental issues isn’t new. On World Environment Day in 2006, the Church of England launched Shrinking the Footprint, an ambitious environmental campaign to encourage its churches to review and reduce their energy output. With 16,000 church buildings and 5,000 church schools, plus offices and clergy housing, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, championed the church taking seriously responsible energy usage. He said: ​“For the church of the 21st century, good ecology is not an optional extra but a matter of justice. It is therefore central to what it means to be a Christian.”

Going back even further, A Rocha, a Christian charity that engages communities in nature conservation, held its first meeting in the north of England in 1983, before establishing a field study centre in Portugal a few years later. The past few decades have seen A Rocha expand its international network of environmental organisations, gain ground across the globe, and launch in February 2016 Eco Church, an awards scheme for churches, which is backed by The Church of England, The Methodist Church, The United Reformed Church, Tearfund and Christian Aid.

As these and other Christian campaigns and projects continue to gather pace, and national and international governments ramp up their efforts to protect the environment, we’re seeing in the UK a growing number of switched-on, engaged and informed Christian congregations that have assimilated environmentally friendly practices into church life.

“As of this summer, 1,000 churches have signed up to Eco Church, of which just over 250 have received an award,” says Rich Bee, engagement director at A Rocha UK. ​“Our target is to engage 4,000 churches in a decade, 10 per cent of the 40,000 churches in England and Wales, which would make creation care mainstream in these nations.”

A little bit of help, please

But, let’s pause to consider the possible increasing number of churches that want to step up their ​‘green game’ but don’t know how to, or those that may struggle to see how they can fit this type of stewardship into their church culture, ministries or budget. Simon Dennis, lead pastor at Sheddocksley Baptist Church in Aberdeen, comments, ​“We take environmental responsibility seriously and our members are diligent and godly stewards: our community café recycles both plastic and food waste, and we are a lead partner in the development of a new community garden to grow organic veg and bring local people together in a safe, shared outdoor space. We also recently invested £20,000 in solar panels, which is a lot of money for a small church like ours, knowing it will benefit the planet and help us steward resources well. I’m not sure there’s a next level, but if there is more we could do, we’d like to know.”

Meanwhile, Christy Smith, senior pastor at Brighton Elim Church, says that over the last couple of years, as environmental issues, namely plastic pollution, have garnered more attention in the media and within Christian circles, he’s started to think even more about what his church can do ​“to look after God’s earth, which He has created for us”. ​“I’m very concerned for the planet,” he says. ​“On a personal level, my wife and I try to use fair trade products, and we don’t use plastic carrier bags. Within the context of the church, we have taken part in ​‘big clean ups’, to tidy our beaches after festivals, and we’re thinking about using ethical products.”

Without paying attention to the environment, these problems could get even worse.

But Christy admits that despite believing that planet preservation should be an integral part of his church’s mission, and Christian organisations and denominations should be at the forefront of such stewardship, he’d benefit from support and guidance to overcome some of the challenges. ​“One of the challenges we face is busyness,” he explains. ​“The age range of our congregation is nine to 90, so a lot of preparation has to go into the Sunday morning service, where we encourage the elderly members of our congregation, entertain the youth, preach the gospel, and educate long-standing Christians. Other obstacles include our small pool of volunteers as well as encouraging church members to think differently. For these reasons, we could do with some outside help.”

Interconnected creation

Rich Bee, engagement director at A Rocha UK, acknowledges that church leaders have to be pragmatic about what they do and prioritise, and so he recommends Eco Church, which encourages churches in England and Wales to celebrate what they already do to look after the environment and helps them to figure out what they’re going to do next. ​“The initiative urges church families to look at biodiversity, climate change and plastic pollution in the context of the ​‘whole issue’ that the church has been called to care about – famine, child mortality, malnutrition, etc – as opposed to a separate or additional problem,” he says. ​“Every single one of these concerns has a link to the destruction that people have caused to the environment. Climate change, for example, is a major cause of people being forced out of their homes, which is a justice issue.

“If we give to poverty alleviation programmes, which is a good thing, so that they can help communities out of poverty, but insist on, say, driving to church even if it’s only half a mile, and don’t change our behaviour, we’re giving with one hand and taking with the other. Poverty alleviation is great, but not moving to address the root causes begs the question: why are we giving? Jesus calls us to do more than just give some money. It’s about radical wholescale lifestyle change.

“We all find it difficult, but if we all do it together and avoid judgemental attitudes that don’t encourage people, then I think we stand to make a significant difference. The church is the biggest sector of civil society. If we all stood up and said we’re going to make this an integral part of our outward witness to the world, the potential to make those changes and shape the national debate is huge.”

David Shreeve, environmental adviser to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, agrees with both Rich and Christy, that people of faith, whose teaching and worship constantly remind them of their responsibilities to look after God’s world, should really be the vanguard of environmental concern and campaigning. He says, ​“Added together, Christians total far more than the members of any environmental organisation. But whilst there has been obvious interest and concern in many quarters of most faiths, it could not be said to have been ​‘mainstream’. But, there is a greater acceptance by faiths of the importance of the environment, and, importantly, there is a feeling in the world generally that the faiths have an important role to play.”

Like Rich, David, who creates awareness for environmental issues and projects, recognises the weight of responsibility that is on the church, and the financial and time implications thereof. ​“Isn’t money always an issue?” he asks. ​“The trouble is, that ways of saving it often cost money initially. Solar panels and new boilers, for instance, will save money and energy in the long run, but cost money now, and there are so many demands on churches. Nevertheless, the cost of environmental improvements needs to be looked at as an investment.”

Cost-effective solutions

Yet he also points to innovative solutions that can tackle both environmental issues and the current needs of Christians and the wider community which cost very little, if anything at all. ​“I’m very keen to see faith organisations use the space around their buildings for therapeutic gardening, which should not cost very much at all. Faith leaders have seen a large increase in problems caused by mental issues, for example. We know that gardening can help reduce depression, and so encouraging mental health and community groups to use faith space for gardening projects would cost very little but could prove of great value to the local community.”

The underlying message is that more and more Christians are becoming aware of their responsibility to take care of God’s planet as much as His people. Rather than see this as two separate acts of faith, it’s important that Christians recognise that they’re intrinsically linked and work towards improvements in both areas. David concludes, ​“I once spoke to a group of clergymen about what churches should be doing for the environment, and when I sat down I heard one of them say, ​‘These greenies have to understand they must get in the queue – I have the homeless, the hungry, the depressed all wanting my help.’ I wanted to answer that by saying: without paying attention to the environment, these problems could get even worse.”
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