The latest session of the General Synod of the Church of England drew to a close in York this week and, absent any debate about women bishops, it failed to set the blood racing. Indeed, until we get on to discussing the outcomes of the two-year ‘shared conversations‘ on sexuality, things are likely to stay pretty quiet. A couple of items did manage to gain some media attention, though. Firstly, these shared conversations involving 600 people will cost the CofE £360,000. That’s a lot of money spent on talking about sex, especially when it runs the risk of producing little by way of helpful conclusions. Let’s hope and pray it has been a wise investment.
Talking of investments, the second item was the matter of climate change and divestment from fossil fuels. Despite various recent rumblings about the need for the Church of England to set an example and steer away from companies extracting fossil fuels, somewhat surprisingly it would appear that the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EAIG) is in agreement with Brother Ivo. The former national secretary of the Green Party is now a member of Synod and, having changed his mind on many ‘green’ issues, contributed to the discussion as a devil’s advocate, explaining why a complete halt in investing in these companies could potentially be disastrous. Until renewable sources are able to provide the majority of our energy needs, we need to accept that affordable and readily-available fossil fuels are essential not only to keep societies functioning, but also to drive down global poverty.
This argument clearly worked as Synod almost unanimously backed the EIAG (and Brother Ivo). Make no mistake though, the CofE will not be turning its back on the issue. It fully intends to ‘engage robustly’ with Shell and BP and other petroleum companies, and it will continue to hold millions of pounds of shares in renewables and work towards a low-carbon economy. Synod also overwhelmingly voted for a motion presented by Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury:
That this Synod, believing that God’s creation is holy, that we are called to protect the earth now and for the future, and that climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest, and welcoming the convergence of ecumenical partners and faith communities in demanding that the nations of the world urgently seek to limit the global rise in average temperatures to a maximum of 2 ̊C, as agreed by the United Nations in Cancun..
It would be easy at this point to descend into another heated discussion about whether climate change is actually real, but irrespective of the stark differences of opinion on this matter, the CofE still deserves credit for not ducking the issue and thinking it through seriously.
Perhaps, though, there are some who have become a little too consumed by it all. In his motion, the Bishop of Salisbury, who is Chairman of the CofE’s Environment Working Group, also referred to the development and promotion of new ‘ecotheological resources’ for the whole church; in-service training for all ministers on ‘eco-justice’ and ‘ecotheology’; and of encouraging parishes and dioceses to pray and fast for climate justice on the first day of each month.
Is it the task of the Church to create disciples of Christ or eco-warriors? The Church of England is not a branch of the Green Party or a subsidiary of Greenpeace. Certainly, one of the Church of England’s Five Marks of Mission is to “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”, so, yes, it deserves proper attention as part of the church’s ministry. But if the Church finds itself spending more time and energy on dishing out ‘eco-justice’ than preaching salvation, then something has gone badly awry. Are there the same levels of enthusiasm at Synod and beyond for the less fashionable and more challenging Marks of Mission, such as proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and teaching, baptising and nurturing new believers? If Synod has decided that members of the CofE ought to spend a day each month fasting and praying over climate change, then surely they should be encouraging the same to be done over the declining number of young people in this country who have any understanding of the Christian faith. We might also be called to fast and pray against all those who promulgate terrorism; for the increase of wisdom in national and world leaders; for a fair, just and economically stable society; that the Church might be guided by God’s Spirit rather than human whims; and that the gospel of Jesus would be revealed powerfully, leading many to repentance and reconciliation with God.
By all means, let’s see churches installing solar panels on the roof (subject to listed-building restrictions), and having vicars who have a good understanding of what it means to be stewards of God’s creation (although that really ought to have been covered at theological college). But let’s also get them trained up as effective leaders as well as pastors. Let’s get them thinking as missionaries, apostles and prophets, looking at how the Church can reach out and share the love of God with those who wouldn’t ever think of walking into a church service. And let’s get the Church of England actively encouraging every member to use their gifts in various forms of ministry, remembering that according to the Bible every Christian is a member of the priesthood; not just those with dog collars.
During the climate change debate at Synod, Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, called for “an ecological conversion of individuals and communities”. That is good and proper. but unless a spiritual conversion is also being sought, the Church of England is wasting its time.