By Catherine Pepinster
Roman Catholic bishops across the UK are flexing their green spiritual — and financial — muscles with a new-found commitment to combating climate change.
The two bishops conferences of England and Wales and Scotland have joined forces to issue statements on the environment this Pentecost Sunday (23 May), urging Catholics — and politicians — to do more to care for creation and recognise the damage that humanity has done to it.
They are also making efforts for the Catholic Church in this country to “go green” by both investing and divesting according to green criteria and becoming the biggest user of green energy in the country. Its use of gas already equates to that supplied from a gin distillery in Scotland.
The bishops chose Pentecost to make their appeal on the environment both because of its significance as a religious feast linked to the spiritual renewal of the Earth, and because Britain is preparing for the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow in November.
And the bishops’ enthusiasm for green issues is noticeably being stepped up just as it seems increasingly likely that Pope Francis will attend Cop26 in Glasgow.
Speculation has been growing for some time that the Pope will travel to Scotland for the conference. On May 9, Alok Sharma — a government minister and the Cop26 president designate — held talks at the Vatican. Then a week later John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s climate change envoy, also visited the Pope, indicating afterwards that the Pope was likely to visit. Kerry said that the Pope had been “ahead of the curve” in his response to climate change, and that “I think that his voice will be a very important voice leading up to and through the Glasgow conference which I believe he intends to, hopefully, intends to attend.”
This week Sally Axworthy, the UK ambassador to the Holy See, confirmed that she had had a private audience in January with Pope Francis — an event that is usually linked to discussions of the utmost significance, such as a papal visit to the country that ambassador represents.
And both English and Scottish bishops confirmed to the Religion Media Centre that there had been approaches to the Pope from the British government.
Bishop John Arnold, the lead Roman Catholic bishop on the environment in England and Wales, said: “The UK ambassador to the Holy See has talked about the possibility of a visit to Cop26 to Pope Francis. There have been discussions in the Vatican about this. They have spoken about hoping the Pope will attend.”
Pentecost weekend marks the sixth anniversary of publication of the Pope’s encyclical or teaching document, Laudato Si’, in which he outlined the threat of climate change to what he called “our common home” — planet Earth. Mr Kerry described Laudato Si’ as “a very, very powerful document and morally very persuasive”.
Laudato Si’ has inspired both the English and the Scottish bishops in their Pentecost statements, which outline the disastrous impact of humanity on the planet, people’s continuing culpability and the need for practical action at all levels. Both of them refer to the planet as “our common home”.
“The urgency of the situation and the enormity of the challenges we face have spurred us to speak out together this Pentecost Sunday as bishops of England, Wales and Scotland, about the role that the Catholic Church and our faith must plan in our shared care for God’s gift to us”, says the English bishops’ document.
“For all too long we have either been ignorant of, or ignored the systematic exploitation of our planet and the unsustainable consumption of its resources”, it continues, going on to urge that people “must radically reduce the use of carbon-based fuels”.
Both sets of bishops refer to the need for a different kind of political thinking, just as global leaders prepare for the G7 Summit and Cop26. “These meetings,” says the English bishops’ statement, “will gather together men and women who have the power to make defining choices and policies which will help us build back better [post-pandemic], provide for our brothers and sisters and take care of our common home.”
The Scottish bishops’ pastoral letter says: “Governments have a responsibility to work together, and with haste, to reduce emissions to a safe level. Governments also need to be concerned about adopting an economic model that no longer embraces consumption and waste, nor neglects the welfare of poorer nations.” The bishops will also be writing to the members of G7 and Cop26 to urge them to take action on climate change.
Both the English and Welsh and the Scottish bishops are matching their words with practical action to help the climate. The English bishops recently held talks with BP and other companies to discuss fossil fuels and forms of greener energy and the Scottish bishops are also investigating divestment.
The Catholic Church is now the biggest purchaser of green energy in England and Wales. Churches, church halls and presbyteries are all now using green energy through an interdiocesan project — with more than three-quarters of their gas derived from a Scottish gin distillery.
The church buys its energy collectively through an organisation called Interdiocesan Fuel Management (IFM), a 20-year-old outfit run through the Diocese of Shrewsbury.
The deal, negotiated through the Green Gas Certification Scheme, matches the amount of gas the church needs with a supply of green gas fed into the grid by the Hendrick’s Gin Distillery in Ayrshire as a by-product of gin-making.
In the year end March 2020, the church spent £7.56m on green gas — 78 per cent of its total gas bill, while the other 22 per cent derived from carbon offset projects. It also helps funds water production projects in developing world countries through IFM. All its electricity is green. The next stage will involve Catholic schools in the project with 100 already on board, while Scottish dioceses are also lined up to join.
Bishop Arnold said: “The church has a part to play in this. We have a spirituality and a theology which speaks profoundly towards the care for the environment. It runs through Scripture. We have every reason to regard ourselves as guardians of creation and what a privilege that is.
“We have had a focus on the market economy to increase standards of life and we haven’t thought about resources not being sustained. The global north has plundered the global south and now we re facing a very unequal world where the rich are getting richer. The people suffering the most from climate change are the ones who did the least to cause it.
“We’ve got a climate crisis, we need the Holy Spirit, and we’ve got an opportunity to make some really serious decisions through G7 and Cop26. This is an ideal time to get serious in a practical and spiritual way to combat the damage we’ve done.”
Meanwhile Bishop Arnold’s Salford diocese is working on a project with the Laudato Si’ Research institute, Oxford, St Mary’s University and the Tyndall Centre, Manchester University, to examine how the diocese can become carbon neutral. It is also working to help other dioceses make accurate carbon footprint measurements. Sixteen of the 22 Catholic dioceses now have environmental advisers who meet regularly to share good practice.
At Bishop Arnold’s home, Wardley Hall, in Greater Manchester, grounds have been used to provide an open-air classroom, there are bug hotels, beehives with 40,000 bees producing award-winning honey, a pond, and a woodland walk. And he is convinced that the church’s commitment to the environment is a means of connecting with children who have such enthusiasm for the environment. “The interest is so great that it is a great means of evangelisation,” he said.
In Scotland, the bishops have just announced that they are setting up a Care of Creation office ahead of Cop26 to advise dioceses and parishes on assessing carbon footprint and carbon neutrality.
William Nolan, the Bishop of Galloway and lead bishop on the environment, said: “The environment is a major priority for us. We can say fine words but we can also take action, so we are setting up this office to ensure practical change.”
In Bishop Nolan’s own diocese, there has already been practical change: it has divested completely from Shell. Now it will also be withdrawing its money from BP.