Reading Churches’ Response to Climate Change
Report delivered to the Green City and Open Spaces Forum in September 2010
I’m Jo Laynesmith and I head up the green team in my church – St John and St Stephen’s in Newtown – last December our church was presented with an EcoCongregation award by bishop Stephen – I’ll explain what that means shortly. I’m also the co-ordinator for Reading Christian Ecology Link. I’ve been asked to report on the response of Reading’s churches to climate change. In April 2009 I and other RCEL members were part of a team in Reading Faith Forum who organized a conference on Greening Faiths, this involved GREN and the council’s sustainability team too. At that event someone mentioned a recent Environment Agency survey of environmental experts who had concluded that the response of faith groups was the second most important item in a list of 50 actions to stop climate change. Many at the conference expressed surprise and indeed consternation at this. On the one hand it makes sense – in the 2001 census only 15% of people said they had no religion. Or from another perspective – the carbon footprint of just the Church of England and all its congregations, is about the same as Tesco’s. BUT – are these faith groups actually responding to the challenge?
Influences on Churches
I can only speak for Christians here, and in Reading the answer is a bit of mix. At national level there are a wide range of movements trying to influence churches to cut their carbon footprints and to provide them with the resources to do so. For instance, in 2006 the largest denomination, the Church of England launched its Shrinking the Footprint campaign – its aim is to reduce the church’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Unfortunately I have yet to find an Anglican church in Reading Borough that has actually measured its carbon footprint and submitted this information as they ask. Which is presumably why they’ve just re-launched the campaign.That’s the bad news.
The good news is that churches seem to respond rather more to the urging of Christian development agencies such as Christian Aid, Tearfund and Cafod – these organizations all did a lot of campaigning in the run up to the Copenhagen summit. This certainly prompted campaigning action among Reading’s churches – you are probably aware of GREN’s* message to Copenhagen last year which 56 Reading groups signed up to, half of these were church groups. For the Wave climate demonstration in London last December a Cafod supporter in Woodley organized a coach for Reading church-goers, although I know the 25 who went from my church mostly went by train and we met Reading’s bishop Stephen Cottrell on the march. But alongside the campaigning from these organizations comes the urging to change our own lifestyles – that was, for example, the message of a Tearfund Climate Change evening organized at St John and St Stephen’s in Newtown last October. This was attended by church-goers from across Reading. Tearfund have also introduced an annual carbon fast in Lent, producing a booklet of daily recommendations to help individuals reduce their footprint which has certainly been used in Reading’s churches, including St John and St Stephen’s, St Luke’s and St Bartholomew’s.
Then there are organizations campaigning from a specifically environmental perspective, rather than the broader social justice of the development agencies. These include Christian Ecology Link who have founded a specific climate change campaign action group, called Operation Noah. There are quite a few others but perhaps most influential is A Rocha – this began as a practical conservation initiative but has broadened out to include an online network called Living Lightly encouraging simpler living and, most relevantly from the point of view of action on climate change in Reading churches, A Rocha oversees the Ecocongregation programme I mentioned earlier. EcoCongregation is a toolkit for churches wanting to bring creation care into their worship, mission and practice. It goes much wider than climate change but inevitably that is a significant part of it and certainly it was specifically concern about climate change that motivated my own church to use this programme. The way EcoCongregation works is that churches carry out an environmental audit to see how well or badly they’re currently doing, then they draw up an action plan to improve things. The EcoCongregation website has a whole series of modules of suggestions for action covering every aspect of church life but many churches also incorporate material from organizations like the Iona Community, the development agencies I’ve mentioned and indeed from organizations like Friends of the Earth or 10:10. It generally takes a couple of years before churches feel ready to apply for the EcoCongregation award – their suitability is assessed by someone with green concerns from a local church and someone from the local community involved in environmental issues – Green Councillor Rob White has assessed two of Reading’s churches and I’ve just persuaded Paul Harper at GREN to help with another. The award lasts for three years, after which they have to prove they’ve continued to make progress in greening their worship, the practical use of their building and grounds, and in their relationship with the wider community – locally and internationally.
There are of course more local initiatives too – for instance Churches Together in Reading Environment Group has provided a stall at Forbury Fever for a number of years and has recently re-constituted itself as Reading Christian Ecology Link with a view to achieving more environmental influence specifically within Reading’s churches. The Anglican diocese has an environment group and a green website: www.earthingfaith.org.
Practical Action: Heating and lighting
But what has actually been happening in Reading’s churches? Back in 2007 St Peter’s Caversham announced their determination to become carbon neutral by 2015. The green pioneer there is John Madeley whose work on poverty and development issues you may know. The church did an energy audit to aim for greater efficiency but have apparently decided to postpone their plan for investing in solar energy until it is possible to buy the new-generation solar units available in Germany and the US but not yet here – these are wafer-thin solar cells printed on aluminium film – apparently cheaper and more efficient than panels or tiles. On the outskirts of Reading a number of such projects are further under way – the most ambitious of these is at St George’s Wash Common where they’re insulating the building and raising funds to install ground source heat pumps powered by solar panels. St George’s Owlsmoor have added extra insulation in all the roof space that is readily accessible and created a loft space that is lined with 50mm Celotex insulation panels prior to launching, this year, a project to build a small extension and at the same time to change all exterior glazing to double glazing and to fit Photo-Voltaic Cells to the South Facing Roof
But to come back within the borough, Park URC – next door to Palmer Park – have just announced their scheme for a biomass boiler and photo-voltaic panels. To install the boiler they’re depending on getting a grant from the Community Sustainable Energy Programme – they’ll know later this month whether they’ve been successful and will appeal if not, but if it still does not come through then they will just install the solar panels anyway. They’ve been promised a generous grant and loan from the URC’s Wessex synod but will still need to raise £15,000. This has proved an inspirational exercise already as the congregation member who carried out the feasibility study for the panels was so impressed that he has just installed solar panels on his own home. The story was covered on the front page of the Reading Post which sparked a lot of interest and they’re putting details in this month’s church magazine in the hope of encouraging more action.
Other churches have been focusing on the efficiency of their heating and lighting systems. For instance, the vicar of St Luke’s and St Bartholomew’s was on the team who organized the Greening Faiths conference, his parish have put condensing boilers in one church, new draft proofing in the other, re-time-tabled the hall heating, put low energy lighting in both and the new vicarage has, I quote ‘super insulated cavity walls and loft, double glazing and the latest low energy lighting’. Southlake St James have installed a new heating system (when the old one could not be repaired) which incorporates a high-efficiency condensing combi-boiler, zoned heating controls and thermostats and individual radiator thermostats.
The Reading Quaker Meeting have changed a whole load of their heating and lighting as well as improving their insulation, replacing unused doors with insulated plasterboard and installing a hanging ceiling and have wonderfully also been measuring their carbon footprint so I can tell you that their 2008-9 emissions were 30% lower than 2004-5 and having signed up to the 10:10 campaign they’re confident of making their next 10% reduction. They are actually featured on the 10:10 website and, as at Southlake St James, they have been encouraging the many users of their building to help with their energy saving.
Many churches have introduced energy-saving light bulbs and at Wycliffe Baptist Church they have motion-sensitive light switching in those rooms where people tend to leave lights on for no reason. St John and St Stephen’s in Newtown have switched to Ecotricity’s 100% green tariff for their electricity supply as well as organizing a talk for congregation members explaining the relative merits of different sorts of ‘green electricity’.
St John and St Stephen’s, as I mentioned, is the church I attend and is one of a number of Reading churches using the EcoCongregation programme. The first to apply for and achieve EcoCongregation status was Caversham Heights Methodists – as well as trying to improve church energy use, they’ve been reducing their paper use, encouraging car-sharing and cycling, putting green tips on the screen each week and using their church magazine to encourage greener lifestyles such as home insulation. In a recent survey 81% of their members said that they choose energy efficient appliances and 90% try to buy local produce.
Others in Reading who have embarked on the EcoCongregation programme are St Barnabas Emmer Green, Southlake St James, St Nicholas Earley, Tilehurst Methodists and Park URC and our near neighbours already accredited include St Mary and St John, California. At Wargrave with Knowl Hill there is an environment group who will be reporting on green recommendations for the parish at Easter 2011 and may consider the EcoCongregation route. Micro-recycling schemes, reduced paper, regular green tips are all common features in such churches, as well as fair trade and an interest in development issues. Congregations are also encouraged to leave the car behind. St John Bosco, in Woodley, not yet on the EcoCongregation programme, launched a Walk to Church Sunday which was adopted by several other churches too – the 101 parishioners who walked that Sunday signed up to a letter to the Prime Minister urging more action on climate change. When St John and St Stephen’s organized a church bike ride this Environment Sunday several of those enjoying the gentle route along the canal explained that they’d not ridden in years but were feeling encouraged to cycle more now. St Mary and St John and St John and St Stephen have both organised LOAF events – this is a CEL initiative encouraging us to source food that is Locally produced, Organically Grown, Animal Friendly and Fair Trade. Tilehurst Methodists have also been encouraging local food and sharing produce.
EcoCongregation churches usually hold occasional ‘green’ services – for instance, at St John and St Stephen’s we held an evening service which centred on prayer stations designed to help people contemplate a number of themes including food miles and farming, personal travel and waste – the template for this has been picked up by several other churches and a version is appearing in a forthcoming Iona Community book. A morning service in May last year used the Operation Noah theme and included an opportunity to sign up to the council’s carbon pledge on their footprint posters. St Mary and St John’s, California will be emphasizing Living Lightly at their next green service and are preparing carbon footprint questionnaires for each of the congregation. A Rocha and CEL provide resources for use on Environment Sunday, every June, while Churches Together in Britain and Ireland produce a wide variety of sermons and other resources for Creation Tide each September.
Spreading the word
Active churches have also been trying to encourage the wider community and other churches to reduce their emissions – last year several churches held showings of The Age of Stupid. At St John and St Stephen’s we reckoned about a third of the fifty or so people present were not congregation members. Reading Community Church hosted a multi-media presentation by A Rocha, Tearfund and others called Hope for Planet Earth. Day conferences have been held at Greyfriars and at Tilehurst Methodists with a few major speakers and then workshops to encourage action – these have been attended by 100 or so people, many from outside Reading, and have been organized largely by Christian Concern for One World which is an interdenominational organization working in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. (This green church day has become an annual event and this year’s was actually held out at Great Missenden). Most recently in June this year an event that was widely advertised and attended by members of Reading churches was a talk at St Mary’s Wargrave by Sir John Houghton, the former co-chair of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. His talk can now be downloaded from the church website (http://www.wargravechurch.org.uk/churchenvironmentgroup.htm).
To conclude. In most churches active on climate change there are two or three passionate individuals calling for attention, while many of the congregation, and ministers, see climate change as one issue among very many that jostle for priority of action and prayer, and of course there are sceptics too – sceptics about climate change and about the appropriateness of churches being involved. The dismal showing at Copenhagen did not help with motivation. The principal inspiration for action is usually awareness of the devastating consequences for those in the developing world. The most visible church responses to the threat of climate change are political campaigning and church based energy efficiency measures. Besides these, the increasing number of would-be EcoCongregations is a heartening sign of a slowly increasing awareness of how important the issue is. In that connection my own experience is that being part of an EcoCongregation entails a drip drip of reminders that does bear fruit in the lifestyles of the congregation.
*Greater Reading Environmental Network www.gren.org.uk