Home > Queensland Synod News > How to ‘green’ your church

How to ‘green’ your church

This article was first published in Eureka Street. www.eurekastreet.com.au

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.

Dr 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.