The sustainable Church

Angela Singer investigates

“Global warming is a hoax”. “There are plenty of animal and plant species left for us to use”. “There’s still enough oil to last for years”. You may have heard these kinds of comments in casual conversation, so prevalent are they. In spite of the constant news reports that tell us our world is in serious trouble, there are those who argue against scientific evidence that we need to change the way we live to avert global ecological disaster. Within the voices raised on this issue, have you heard a Christian response? Is there even such a thing? If so, how are we addressing these complex challenges within the Church?

The Bible has many profound insights into “environmental issues” (or what the Church might term caring for God’s Creation). Both within and outside the church, Christians can offer the environmental movement a valuable spiritual understanding and a response that ultimately evokes hope.

Across the world, Christians are working denominationally, ecumenically and at an interchurch level to create projects and programmes that meet the most pressing environmental concerns. Within the past year in New Zealand, a number of international nondenominational Christian ecological organisations have begun to make an impact.

Not that there aren’t locally many organisations and long-term projects aimed at lessening, or even reversing, our impact on the environment. Throughout the land, Presbyterian Church congregations have initiated a diverse range of projects aimed at caring for Creation in their communities. In doing so they are carrying out one of the faces of mission of our Church: “as Christian people, discipleship and mission, including priority for the poor and stewardship of Creation, will drive our actions” (The Directory for Worship Chapter 7:5).

It was at General Assembly 2004 that caring for God’s Creation was adopted as part of the Church’s mission statement. General Assembly 2006 went further, passing a motion that “urged congregations to be conscientious in ordering congregational life on sound principles of sustainability, to honour our responsibility to be God’s stewards for Earth and to be pro-active in their local communities in challenging and educating people about sustainable living”. Moderator the Right Rev Pamela Tankersley’s theme of congregations being “Christ centred and community facing” has supported this call to action.

In October 2008, the Church’s Ecological Task Group will offer its declaration on caring for Creation for General Assembly’s approval.

Our Church is not alone in recognising the importance of confronting these issues at the highest level. The Uniting Church in Australia Assembly 2006 passed a resolution on “the rights of nature and the rights of future generations”.

The Church of Scotland 2007 and 2008 General Assemblies recognised the urgency with which major changes are needed to avert the worst consequences of climate change, as well as concluding there should be a focus on energy conservation and meeting future demands from renewable sources. However, the Church recognised that the moral and ethical dimensions of transport are complex, given the duty to go into the world in mission and in care for others. They urged the need for well-thought-out travel; travel that is for educational reasons, socially essential or prompted by faith, and is also economically productive rather than being wasteful or self indulgent. The Church also reiterated its commitment to the Eco-Congregation Programme (see A Rocha story on p.9), which has been hugely successful in Europe. Its effectiveness demonstrates the need for workable ecological, environmental and theological resources.

The Directory for Workshop (which can be found at www.presbyterian.org.nz under “ministers’ resources”) contains a section on caring for Creation and life with the following components: “God’s Mandate”, “Worship and the Care of Creation” and “Stewardship of Creation”. Around the country, congregations have taken these messages to heart and have found ways to practice the principles of stewardship of Creation in their churches, homes and community. Here are just a few of the projects that parishes have been involved in:

An environmental house group at St Columba’s, Havelock North, is one of the longest-running church-based environment groups. The group has been meeting monthly since the early 1990s to converse with environmentalists and participate in field projects. Congregation and group member Jim Watt says they are science-biased, “but Darwin’s Angel helps us with the bridging”. (The book Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell is a response to Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion.)

“We generally muster 10-20 people each meeting,” Jim says. Before it became standard practice, the group was promoting recycling and energy conservation. An environmental audit of the St Columba’s precinct sharpened their thinking “but we still felt we were talking into the wind”.

In 2000, the group focused on “their own backyard” and involved the wider community in restoring the Karamu Stream. With the support of the Regional and Hastings District councils, the stream was cleaned up and the banks planted over four years. Local schools and other groups became involved, and ongoing maintenance of the stream continues to be a principal activity.

The growing and sharing of food is the focus at Awatere Joint Christian Venture, Marlborough. Young mums arrive at the church for pre-school to find a table laden with free freshly grown vegetables, donated by the congregation.

Wellington’s Khandallah Presbyterian has also used green thumbs to enrich the earth and those in need. At the last Harvest Festival, the congregation brought to church home-grown herbs and vegetables. Those who attended the festival were invited to take what they wanted and leave a donation. A total of $150 was raised for children’s charity KidsCan.

To mark Wellington Presbytery’s 150th anniversary, its churches were asked to commit to carrying out environmental projects in their communities during 2008. In response, Wadestown Presbyterian and Ngaio Union hosted 30 people for a picnic and guided walk in Trelissick Park/Ngaio Gorge, with Trelissick Park Trust members discussing plans to restore the area to its original wilderness state. St James, Newtown, invited a group of migrant women to establish a community garden in their grounds and to use rooms in their old manse as an office. St Timothy’s, Titahi Bay, is developing a worm farm and has a working bee once a month to “beautify” church grounds. The congregation's young and able pick up rubbish in the main shopping centre opposite the church. St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington, has committed to helping its congregation recycle and is advocating with Wellington City Council for inner-city recycling. Otaki-Waikanae’s plan is to plant 20 native trees around the church to encourage bird life into the area. Upper Hutt Uniting weeded the graves in the cemetery they own and picked up rubbish in picnic areas along the Hutt River bank.

Island Bay Presbyterian, also in Wellington, has created a church garden that grows vegetables all year round for those in need. Their composting bin feeds their vegetable patch as well as the native garden they have planted. The church has hosted a presentation given by the Sustainability Trust, a Wellington-based group helping communities address sustainability-related issues, on a local project to reduce car use. They played the DVD “What would Jesus drive?”, which is part of a United States campaign featuring prominent evangelical leaders speaking out on the morality of transportation choices.

St Luke’s, Rongotea, runs fortnightly recycling in their rural area near Palmerston North, which is not included in the city’s recycling scheme. At Easter they leave recyclers a packet of hot cross buns and an Easter message.

Wellington’s Wadestown Presbyterian celebrated Lent this year with “Lenten eco-walks”. Minister the Rev Sharon Ensor says the idea was to introduce a spiritual discipline during Lent of caring for the environment. “It’s based on a resource from a United Kingdom book called Eggs and Ashes, which I expanded somewhat” she says.

Recently Sharon nominated one of the congregation for a Ministry for the Environment Green Ribbon award. “Bruce Anderson is committed to recycling. He sorts our church’s and our neighbours’ recycling each week. He also operates a couple of compost bins on our property and sells the compost for us,” she says.

St Stephen’s Presbyterian, Christchurch, takes its youth group to a reserve for eco weekends. Minister the Rev Martin Stewart says, “we talk over issues regarding the Gospel and how we live on this planet. The reserve is a living example of what we are exploring”.

St Stephen’s Leith Valley Presbyterian in Dunedin formed, less than two years ago, a “sustainable living in God’s world” group that has been exploring how the congregation can live more gently and use less resources. The group have undertaken an ecological footprint analysis of their church (which is nearly completed). They have also explored the work of A Rocha, completed a study series on living simply, watched and discussed the “Wasted” television programmes, facilitated recycling of rubbish from the church and undertaken church Kidztime talks discussing caring for creation.

Upper Clutha Presbyterian belongs to Sustainable Wanaka, which is a trust dedicated to sustainable development. “We’ve stopped orders of service to conserve paper,” says minister the Rev Diane Gilliam-Weeks. “We actively promote the use of cloth bags at the supermarket, and we recently held an Aspiring Faith Community Summer School on “The Christian Response to Climate Change”.

Kapiti Uniting Parish minister the Rev Norman Wilkins says his parish is “putting a lot of energy into helping initiatives arising in our community. Having said that, last year we ran a successful Sustainability Expo that 400 people attended and 25 different groups exhibited at. This led to our parish being involved in establishing Transition Towns Kapiti [which is a group that aims to develop sustainability at the local level].

“We also initiated Kapiti Interfaith to try to build good relationships across faith and ethnic divides. Lloyd Geering is a regular and very popular speaker at these meetings; his talks often have an environmental aspect to them. We have had a speaker from Whareroa Farm talk on conservation work. Nearly everything we do involves the wider public”.

For more than five years, a small group at St Ronan’s, Eastbourne, have supplied workable environmental ideas to the rest of the congregation. The group belong to local tramping clubs and Forest and Bird, and have been involved in cleaning up beaches, caring for the harbour dunes, weeding and re-vegetation both in the bush and at harbour boundaries;

Recently their emphasis has shifted to looking at sustainability. Congregation member Jenny Orange says they are examining their local council’s recycling policy and questioning why some material is sent offshore for recycling. Church members have been involved in growing native seedlings for replanting, making wooden penguin boxes, building a worm farm, beautifying school grounds and participating in the East Harbour Carbon Reduction Action Group.

“God calls: Touch the Earth Lightly” is the theme for the May 2009 Association of Presbyterian Women triennial business and study conference, national convener Heather Tate says. “Through Bible study and workshops, we will discuss God’s creation, our stewardship, the challenges of world grain shortages, the plight of environmental refugees, and the never-ending demand for greater economic growth despite scarce natural resources and very expensive oil”.

The Rev Howard Carter, minister at Ahuriri/Putorino Presbyterian, Hawke’s Bay, tackles cutting carbon emissions by cycling as often as he can in his “vast rural parish”. He also admits to being a committed recycler “of jokes in my sermons”.

A series of lectures titled, “Faith and a Sustainable Future” inspired the congregation at Knox Presbyterian, Christchurch; they agreed to buy minister the Rev Geoff King a bicycle. Geoff says: “in 2006 I made a commitment to cycling wherever possible and have not made a claim on the parish for petrol since August of that year”.

Cycling isn’t the only way parishes can make energy savings. Assembly Office has coordinated an offer of solar panels for parishes from Right House, an agent for Meridian Energy. Right House has offered to supply and install electricity-generating solar panels to churches at a special price (price based on the position and location of the church). To date, 22 parishes have expressed interest. For more information contact Brendan Sweeney on brendan@presbyterian.org.nz.

Assembly Office in Wellington has also made an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. Paper is recycled and excess printing is discouraged by a wearisome process of logging into the photocopier; old computers have been recycled to schools instead of contributing to toxic landfill. To save trees, monthly newsletter Bush Telegraph is delivered electronically, as are most copies of leadership journal Candour. Those involved in planning for General Assembly 2008 are doing their best to ensure ecologically sound options are taken where viable. In recognition of the importance of cutting emissions, 50 percent of Wellington-based staff now choose to either swap their car park for public transport passes, or regularly walk or cycle to work instead of driving.

The Church’s Ecological Task Group is investigating the possibility of reducing travel by switching Church meetings to video conferencing.

All this work being undertaken throughout the country by our congregations and at a national level demonstrates that there need not be a divide between the Church and the environmental movement. Congregations engaged in the enormous challenge of caring for Creation are finding that, although difficult, it leads not to despair but to greater engagement with their communities.

“In worship Christians rejoice and give thanks to God, who gives and sustains the created universe, the earth and all life. They acknowledge God’s command to be stewards. They confess their own failures in caring for Creation and life. They rejoice in the promise of the redemption” and renewal of the Creation in Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the Word and sealed in “the Sacraments. They commit themselves to live as God’s stewards until the day when God will make all things new” (Directory for Worship: Chapter 7).

For international and national resources on the many ways you and your congregation can make your church environmentally sustainable. View the resources page of the website.

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