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Where climate change and the church come together

Rainbow above a church spire

Pierre Hurtevent under a Creative Commons Licence

At this year’s Greenbelt festival, among the beautiful trees and gardens of Boughton House in Northamptonshire, I got a sense of the growing and untapped power of the church to tackle climate change.

By no means an exclusively Christian festival – Greenbelt featured the political folk of the iconoclastic Grace Petrie alongside Muslim journalist and community organizer Abdul-Rehman Malik – Greenbelt lives up to its name as a place where faith, justice and the arts collide.

The range of issues addressed was broad. Former Deloitte management consultant Eve Poole discussed Capitalism’s Seven Toxic Assumptions, Christian theologian Noel Moules shared how the Bible and pagan belief overlaps around the idea of animism, and Jeff Halper, Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) examined what a bi-national democratic state of equal rights would look like in Israel  and the occupied Palestinian territory.

But one topic that kept rearing its head was the climate crisis and, encouragingly, I kept finding glimpses that the church is taking it seriously and may have a crucial role to play in tackling it.

Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at Edinburgh University and author of the Political Theology of Climate Change, told me that the perception of the chilly relationship between the church and the environment is actually a recent phenomenon.

He said: ‘The person who managed to secure the first National Park in Britain was actually an Anglican Canon, Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust.’

He added that long before the modern ‘eat local’ movement got started, Christian authors CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were discussing the merits of eating local and the positive aspects of the benevolent localized agrarian culture of hobbits. Northcott said Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, rich with Christian symbolism, is a book about those revelling in the destruction of the environment being defeated by those keen to conserve and restore it.

Discussing more recent development, he said: ‘Ethical investment, including the fossil fuel divestment movement, has in many cases been led by churches and universities. The Church of England has started to engage on this issue and has already divested from tar sands.’

Other places where the interchange between church and climate change emerged at Greenbelt was the launch of Christian Aid’s Big Shift campaign. A co-founder of New Internationalist Magazine, Christian Aid is turning its sights on the financing of fossil fuels, urging the world to leave energy like coal in the past where it belongs. Coal may have been all the rage before we realized its harmful effects and created new, cleaner energy sources, but now we know what we know, it’s our moral duty to urge governments and institutions to switch their investments to the energy sources of the future. Says Christian Aid’s Kit Powney: ‘Like floppy discs and three-wheeled cars, it’s time to leave dirty fossil fuels in the past.’

Also at Greenbelt was the launch of a new comedy play by talented troupe Riding Lights. Commissioned by the Church of England’s Diocese of Lichfield, Baked Alaska takes on the notoriously difficult challenge of communicating the urgency and importance of climate change in an entertaining and inspiring way. The show will be touring Britain from 16 September and if it can help bring the message of climate action to a new audience then it could be another example of the church helping to move the world in the right direction.

Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid. Follow him on Twitter

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