How the Church is tackling climate change on the ground?

There are signs that the Church is waking up to the dangers posed by climate change and the need for real action to confront the threat posed.

Pope Benedict has been well ahead of most Christian leaders with his pronouncements and actions.

The Vatican has become the first carbon neutral state and in his New Years message the Pope declared that “the Church has a responsibility towards creation…in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator, meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self destruction.”

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales produced a blueprint for sustainable living with the Plan for Generational Change (PGC). It was the practical follow up to the bishops Call of Creation document of 2002. The PGC drew on a number of activities undertaken over a year in the Clifton Diocese. Titled Sounds of Many Waters this exercise called on people to put their faith and care for the natural world together.

The PGC outlines seven areas for Catholic communities to consider for action: celebration and love of people, education and young people, lifestyles, wisdom and guidance, media and advocacy, partnerships and eco-twinning and assets. This provides as excellent blueprint but as journalist Mary Colwell, who helped to put together the document, said there is still a long way to go to get it action in practical terms on the ground. “I think the juggernaut is about to move on this,” said Ms Colwell, who confirms in Clifton Diocese, where she lives, things are beginning to happen. “Bishop Declan Lang has really got the bit between his teeth. We are looking at how Clifton Cathedral can be greened and to start getting things going in the parishes and schools.”

Among parishes there have been a number of ad hoc initiatives like that of St Anne Lines Church in South Woodford, east London, which fitted a sedum roof to its hall. This is a form of grass that does not need cutting but has the effect of insulating the building as well. “It absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen via photosynthesis, as well as absorbing water,” said Father Francis Coveney, the parish priest. “It provides excellent insulation keeping the hall warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The national scheme that parishes should follow if they want to go green is that of eco-congregation.

There are three elements to becoming an ecocongregation : spiritual, practical and mission (outreach to the community).

Parishes have to work out a programme and take up all of these challenges before they can be assessed as to whether they qualify to be called an eco-congregation.

The spiritual dimension involves bringing environmental elements into worship.

An eco friendly buildingSt Pancras Church in Lewes is one Catholic parish that has taken up the challenge and been awarded eco-congrgation status. Among the initiatives undertaken have been prayers, a harvest thanksgiving, survey of the premises resulting in the fitting of low energy light bulbs and servicing of the boiler, transport sharing, talks from outside speakers and regular items in the Church newsletter. There have also been efforts made to improve the priest’s house garden with composters provided and new banks of flowers sown.

Another more recent eco-congregation award winner is St John Southworth Catholic Church in Nelson Lancashire. Working closely with neighbouring Christchurch Methodist, initiatives have included planting bulbs after a joint service on Good Friday between the two churches. Compost bins and recycling are also in evidence with all of this good news being conveyed via local media.

These parishes are really leading the way on taking practical steps to address climate change. Others are gradually beginning to follow with 20 Catholic parishes in the process of seeking to attain eco-congrgation status and around 100 showing interest.

CAFOD has undertaken a project to adapt and promote the eco-congregation idea throughout the Catholic community. David Hughes, the director of eco-congregations, is optmisitic that more Catholic parishes will start to follow suit. He points to the leadership given by the Pope with his clear announciation that addressing climate change is a justice issue. “The Pope has said it is the rich world that has created the emissions, it is the poor who are now being made to pay the price,” said Mr Hughes, who points out that finance departments and others in the Church concerned with maintenance are increasingly embracing the idea of new technologies to cut emissions. The grants available and pay back on efficient boilers, solar panels and photovoltaic systems for electricity creation make strong economic sense for those seeking to cut bills.

One diocese particularly pushing the eco-agenda is Westminster with its witnessing to the integrity of creation programme. The programme pushes the three dimensional approach of eco-congregations with care for the environment being expressed in terms of faith, practical action and campaigning.

J&P co-ordinator Barbara Kentish has held 10 deanery meetings with a view to these practices cascading out. “We’ve had discussions with the finance department about how to do parish energy audits,” said Ms Kentish, who is aware that there need to be more ways found to get the word out and bring people on board. Some of the conjecture about how serious climate change is – like the leaking of the East Anglia University emails – has not helped in this respect. “There are simply things we should all be doing as individuals, like having water meters – it’s cheaper and they save water,” said Ms Kentish.

Among schools, there is the Cardinal Wiseman Catholic School and Language College in Coventry won the 2009 Sustainable Schools Award. It has transformed its grounds into a farm and gardens which are used as “outdoor classrooms” by the school and surrounding primaries. Children are encouraged to look after a wide range of domestic animals including goats, chickens, pig and alpacas. The school makes its own sausages, hamburgers, with eggs from the school’s chickens also available..

Then there is St Polycarp’s primary in Farnham, Surrey, which was the first green flag school in its area. The school does lots of recycling, uses hippo bags in its cisterns, self-stopping taps and has water butts collecting rainwater to use in its courtyard vegetable garden. The central quad has been transformed into a garden where the whole school has been involved in growing fruit, vegetables and flowers through various clubs and competitions. These include a potato growing competition where each year group gets a number of seed potatoes and the winner is the one that gets the greatest yield at harvest time.

Environmenal writer Ellen Teague wants to see the Catholic Church build on its rhetoric on the environment with greater practical action in parishes and schools. She is encouraged by the PGC document which provides a way to move forward for diocese.

Thus far the Anglican Church have been well ahead of the Catholics with green diocesan officers appointed and carbon and energy reports being conducted in most of the churches. The Church of England has been running its Shrinking the Footprint campaign since 2007 and aims to cut the Church’s carbon emissions by 42 per cent by 2020. Among the measures being adopted are advice on green energy tariffs, encouraging tree planting on church land, climate justice fund offering aid to churches in the developing world and fair trade status for all diocese by 2016.

Mrs Teague believes there should be a Creation Sunday and an agency of the bishops conference created to push the agenda forward. “We need a proper agency and creation Sunday,” said Mrs Teague.

There is still much to be done before there can be said to have been a true greening of the Church. The Catholic Church is in the main still very much at the rhetoric stage but things are beginning to happen. Many are looking to the Church for a moral lead but increasingly going green also makes economic sense. Church buildings will be able to run much more cheaply and efficiently if they employ solar and photovoltaic technologies. Mary Colwell is right the juggernaut is beginning to roll, it just needs a bit more of a push in the right direction.

Paul Donovan

Photo: An eco friendly building. [Photo credit: Photonburst]