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How to 'green' your church

In February this year Alistair Macrae, President Elect of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), called for 'real action' to address the ecological crisis. He decried the 'disjuncture between public policy and rhetoric' that is so evident in the Federal Government's response to climate change. He now faces the same disjuncture within the UCA, as do other church leaders in their churches.

Since its inception in 1977 the UCA has a proud history of leading Australia's largest churches in calling for a range of actions to address social and ecological justice. Numerous UCA proclamations have rightly called for government action to address a range of ecological concerns. But only recently has the church begun to take seriously its own obligations to act accordingly.

Much the same can be said of the Catholic and Anglican Churches in Australia, which are relatively recent converts to religious environmentalism. The Catholic Church has had more to say on ecological concerns. It has formed Catholic Earthcare Australia as its ecological justice body. But the focus of the Catholic Church remains strongly on education, primarily within its schools. Its organisations are not obliged to comply with the Church's international or national statements on ecological responsibility.

Arms of the Catholic Church have proposed highly controversial land developments that entail clearing bushland, sometimes including threatened species and ecological communities. They justify them on the basis that the profits from such works will produce social gains. A recent example is an urban subdivision proposed by the Church on land it owns near Bendigo, Victoria.

The strong rhetoric of the Catholic Church on Creation-care remains largely an optional extra for its organisations, and economic and institutional gains still take precedence over ecological protection in the vast majority of situations. In some dioceses a distinct greening of policy and praxis is evident. In others the almighty dollar and the interests of the Church still take absolute priority over ecological values, even in the face of parishioners' opposition.

Much the same is true in Australian Anglicanism, though it has had far less to say on environmental issues. Overall, it is the least progressive and the least active of the three churches on ecological issues. It has no equivalent of Catholic Earthcare, nor the eco-justice aspects of UnitingJustice Australia. At the national level, the Anglican Church struggles to move beyond symbolic policy-making and calls for government action.

As is the case in the UCA and the Catholic Church, parts of the Anglican Church are advanced in applying eco-justice through their operations. But in all three traditions such examples, though part of an increasing trend, are still the exception.

The phenomenon of climate change has apparently catalysed much of the recent interest in and action by churches on ecological issues. Traditionally, perceived human rights and interests have prevailed in the churches' anthropocentric ecological policies and praxis. Now that they accept that the ecological harm caused by climate change is having and will have a potentially devastating impact on people, particularly on those who are least responsible for the problem, the old dichotomy between human rights and ecological values has been at least partially undermined.

Churches have belatedly moved to protect children from abuse while in their care. Organisations and individuals within the churches are bound by such rules, sometimes enforced through strong sanctions. But as yet, even the relatively progressive UCA has not required its organisations and members similarly to protect Creation.

Like its Catholic and Anglican peers, the UCA has only encouraged real action on ecological issues. Of its peers, it has taken the strongest stance by encouraging its members and organisations to switch to 'green' (renewable) electricity.

Encouragement doesn't seem to be sufficient. Internal surveys have indicated that a tiny minority have made this switch. Some have indicated that they don't see this as a priority; others that they might get around to it; some can't justify the extra cost; others are thoroughly uninterested.

Whether an aging and dwindling membership will be able to undertake the full spectrum of changes needed to reduce its ecological impacts is problematic. But it requires only a phone call to the energy supplier and a small additional cost to switch to green power. Often the cost can be eliminated through basic energy efficiency measures.

All three of our larger denominations continue to struggle with the process of converting their ecological policies into praxis. The wider society also struggles, as evidenced by the still small percentage of consumers buying green power.

Perhaps if the churches gave the same institutional weight to eco-justice as they have belatedly done to child abuse protection, they might catch-up with the greening of the community. They might ideally surpass it or come to lead it.

Steve DouglasDr Steven Douglas has completed a PhD thesis dealing with the ecological policies and practices of the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Churches in Australia. He has been a Publishing Fellow at the ANU, and is currently working to establish a university-supported Centre for Faith & Ecology.


Topic tags: UnitingJustice Australia, Catholic Earthcare Australia, religious environmentalism, creation-care



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Existing comments

You hold 'debates' on Intelligent design and Natural Selection and expect the whole world to ignore the fact of a Natural Design being an Intelligent Selection. It is your organisation which is in denial

Greig Williams | 05 March 2009  

So true. It will be interesting to see what comes of a major environmental statement being drafted for the next Uniting Church Assembly. But as you say, the problem is usually not the words, but the action.

The NSW Synod of the Uniting Church did just pass a resolution that commits it to "integrating 'creation care' into "all aspects of its worship, witness and service", beginning the process of reducing its own carbon footprint, and setting a minimum 4 Green Star rating for all new buildings. Those of us who wrote it are watching with interest to see whether it comes to anything... details can be found at http://nsw.uca.org.au/news/2008/synod-climate-change_22-11-08.htm

Justin Whelan | 05 March 2009  

The hottest day in Victoria's recorded history occurred last month - the results to lives and property horribly manifest. Yet hotter days will come. CSIRO predictions are that Melbourne can expect 50C days in years ahead.

Global warming is here. It cannot be stopped but through our actions in minimising our greenhouse gases we MAY be able to lessen its severity for future generation.

It is all well to educate children about being eco-friendly but they didn't create this scenario. Leadership by example is what is needed in this crisis. The churches have historically take up this moral mantel.

So please ACT on the best scientific data and show leadership on this life-threatening issue. Begin by taking an environmental audit on all your activities, from top to bottom. Set a big target - say 60 percent - for reduction on your carbon imprint and take the message into the world.

Be accountable. Tell the children who will have to live with the effects of global warming what you are doing and why. That you are acting for the love of God so that life may continue into the next century.

Dinks | 05 March 2009  

While I agree that the Catholic Church should publicly take a stand on our responsibility to protect the planet from the human causes of global warming, including our responsibility to adopt green electricity, I don't understand how you can so easily say it only takes a call to our electricity supplier and a "small additional cost to switch to green power.

Even the cost of switching to solar hot water with gas boosting will cost me at least $1300 after receiving the benefit of government grants. I can afford it but how many people on low incomes can do that? To switch to solar electricity would cost me $12,000 I believe as I don't qualify for the government subsidy. That is a sum I can't afford.

Even with the government subsidy low income households would still be out of pocket to the tune of some $4000. However even this grant will cut out on 30 June 2009. The result will be the demise of the green electricity industry.

The Church should be advocating a reversal of this policy and an increase in the grant and in the numbers of households who can qualify for it. This would preserve the jobs of those still in the industry and it would have a direct effect on reducing our carbon emissions.

Tony santospirito | 06 March 2009  

Dr Douglas, Your statement '(Catholic) organisations are not obliged to comply with the Church's international or national statements on ecological responsibility' is not correct.

I can confirm that my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents and especially the wonderful Nuns at St Patricks Primary and Secondary Schools at Blacktown kept stressing how important it is for all humans to be constantly conscientious and mindful of the responsibility of being 'good stewards' of the earth and all its creatures that God has given to us; that we absolutely, absolutely must have the same attitude as Saint Francis of Assisi (who, by the way, did not live 'recently'): that humans must only take what is necessary for our sustenance and leave the rest for forthcoming generations because they, too, have just as much right to the “fruits of the earth”; that selfish abuse and greed (You shall not steal) are some of the deadliest of sins and extremely offensive to God … and just how deadly these sins are, we are witnessing today.

Mankind, through his sin of arrogance and mindless greed … by thumbing his nose at the Ten Commandments, and disregard for the commandment 'to love one another as I love you' (the only way to equitable sharing of resources and to world peace) … is once again punishing himself; punishing the entire planet and 'fouling his own nest'.

It is in fact human arrogance and mindless greed which poison everything. Nothing else is as toxic.

Terry | 09 March 2009  

In reply to the submitted comments:

Greig, I don't actually work for ANU and have no involvement in what the organisation says or does.

Justin, thanks for the info re NSW Synod. It is progressing in the right direction but as you note, the Resolution doesn't guarantee action. The requirement for minimum 4-star rating of new buildings and renovations is likely to work as the Synod controls the funds and so can simply block funding for proposals that don't meee this standard. I believe that the Anglican Diocese of Canberra & Goulburn pioneered this particular protocol in Australia.

Tony, I think you've misunderstood what I mean by 'green' power. The term refers to electricity supplied by the normal grid, but which has been generated by certified 'green' (renewable) methods such as wind or solar power. Customers can obtain 'green' power from most electricity retailers.

Terry, I agree that some within the Church take ecological responsibilities very strongly. The point about being obliged to comply with Church teachings on such issues is a regulatory one. Bishops can and do choose to ignore such matters. They aren't summonsed to Rome to account for such decisions like they would be on other issues.

Steve Douglas | 09 March 2009  

Very very few people want to face the fact that life as usual is not even going to be remotely possible, if we want to stop catastrophic climate change. We are being misled to believe that all we need is a few little tweaks and we will have done our part - no need to sacrifice lifestyle, consumption or all-important economic growth.

If the Church wishes to claim moral leadership in this, then it must take a much more radical stance and be prepared to call its flock to action and account.

Jason Koh | 09 March 2009  

Hi Jason, your view sums it up from my perspective. There is a lot of denial on issues such as climate change and more broadly. Such denials are by no means restricted to the Churches or many other faith traditions. Western culture doesn't seem to be able to deal with the implications of ecological reality. Much of Eastern culture has been corrupted by the West (not that the East had or has a monopoloy on ecological sensitivity).

My interest in the 'greening' of the Churches is driven in part by my view that they could be very positive role models to their followers and to society. The level of personal and societal change needed to bring us into line with ecological reality is so profound that only religion (in the strict and broad sense) can provide the necessary impetus and sustenance. I'm disappointed that the Churches aren't fulfilling their prophetic and transformative potential. They are doing good things, but these are mainly the 'low-hanging fruit'. Teaching eco-ed to school kids is easy. Training and retraining clergy in ecotheology and ecopraxis is another step. Making bishops ecologically accountable in Canon Law is apparently a lot more challenging and isn't on their agenda.

Steve Douglas | 12 March 2009  

It is strange that we (Believers) believe that God created the world and that we are to 'till and keep' the land. However, we are the main environment destroyer. Our talk and walk differs. We vote for political parties that destroy the earth through more consumerism and predatory capitalism. Why don't we vote for Green parties?

Gabriel Campher | 06 July 2015  

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