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A peculiar man

‘We need a peculiar man, for the young people’.
So ran the opening of an article in a Congregational Christian magazine of the early twentieth century, defending the right of ministers to be boring ……and reliable. The dilemma of local churches’ frustration with their less-than-imagined appeal to absent generations, goes a long way back.

And it has been the burden of those sharing my calling, to be measured against a cherished  magic solution, and frequently found wanting.

For a while, I was probably, on paper the ideal sought-after item: male, married to a woman, with two children, and neither too old nor too young, with good vocal projection. But then the specification might have slipped a bit, as I was vegetarian, I didn’t drive, had a pony-tail, wore sandals, and was rumoured to hang around with peace-loving activists. At least I wore a collar (it opens doors) and preferred to use the pulpit to preach from (as, frankly, you get better eye contact!)

In recent years, where applicable, the profiles churches assemble for their ideal minister have also taken on a still more intrusive slant, and the position on ‘marriage’ of a prospective candidate, one way or another, additionally, and sadly,  narrows the field.

Still, the demand is great for someone young, mature, scholarly but not highbrow, prayerful but down-to-earth, who will gather a crowd of compliant young people, and CHANGE NOTHING.

Right now, however, I am actually delighted that more than one church in vacancy has begun to include a further criterion: commitment to environmental concern in prayer and action. Then again, for a local Christian leader publicly to espouse climate denial could do serious spiritual harm to the vulnerability of people becoming aware of the crisis we’re in.

We need to be able to cope with the scary truth of climate emergency on the holy ground of church, and keep the inevitable rude awakenings and penny-droppings to a minimum . (Heaven knows, I’ve had enough of those myself!) . Churches need to be sanctuaries first, before they can be hotbeds of activism, and that will now include the task of gently and compassionately easing heads out of the sand; helping folk see that it isn’t ‘just a matter of opinion’, and it’s not going to go away. Truth – even the frightening truth – sets us free.

Most sorts of church do, however, quite reasonably, look for someone, as pastoral leader, who has studied, and acquired skills in Biblical interpretation and spiritual reflection. Good. These are vital resources for a time of crisis. And they are actually pretty widespread, though colleagues often lack the confidence to stick their necks out in a sermon or elsewhere, when, like Moses and the unburned bush, they notice something worthy of a double-take. That’s where the encouragement of a congregation – and maybe their tolerance for attempts falling flat now and then – comes in.

I am heartened when I see current ministry training prioritising responsiveness to context and circumstances, because whatever else the future holds, I’m sure there is going to be more, and more unprecedented change to deal with.

And these are the parameters of Eco-Chaplaincy that Eco Congregation would dearly like to see spreading. To be normal, and run-of-the-mill , not ‘peculiar’. (But not boring, either!). Because this is what it means to be church in our day.

No minister, pastor, priest or whatever, in a local setting, can do the magic that is looked for without consistent and compassionate collaborative support from the congregation. I hope and pray (and from what I have seen, have confidence ) that eco-congregations in vacancy look to share rather than offload what it means to follow Christ, the Word made Flesh, in an age of uncertainty and threat.

(Hint: part of it does mean having fun along the way!)

Good Money Week 2019

Statement from Selkirk Parish Church for Good Money Week 2019

Eco-Congregation Scotland supported the Good Money Week event organised by the Church of Scotland on Saturday 5th October 2019 and provided this statement as a divestment example for local churches to consider.

Selkirk Parish Church is a typical small town parish church, with around 400 members, and 60-70 regular attenders at Sunday services.  For a number of years, members of the congregation have become increasingly concerned about the damage being done to the environment and, in particular, the growing threat of runaway climate change.

The congregation registered as an eco-congregation back in 2013, and achieved its first eco-award in 2015.  Care for creation has become an integral part of the congregation’s life, impacting its spiritual life through worship and study groups, and showing itself in practical actions to reduce environmental impact, at both individual and congregational level.

In early 2018, a congregational 1/2 day conference was arranged by the eco-group, with most office bearers and many of the congregation in attendance.  The title of the conference was “Caring for Creation – asking the difficult questions”, and through presentations and interactive group activities, many issues were addressed.  These included considering the environmental impact of our financial decisions (what we buy, where we bank, and our investments). 

One outcome of this discussion was to consider whether the congregation’s investments were compatible with our environmental policy.  We ascertained that we had around £14K invested in the Church of Scotland’s Growth Fund, and became aware that this fund held investments on our behalf in three major oil and gas companies, Shell, BP and Total.  This was discussed by the Congregational Board and the Kirk Session, who resolved to withdraw the invested funds.

The following letter was sent to the Church of Scotland’s Investors Trust on 21st June 2018:

Dear Sirs,

In the light of our concerns about climate change driven by the continued burning of fossil fuels, most recently highlighted by Pope Francis in his meeting with oil executives, and the failure of the Church of Scotland’s policy of engagement to bring about significant change in the policies and practices of Shell, BP and Total over the last 2 years, Selkirk Parish Church has decided to withdraw its funds invested in the Church of Scotland Growth Fund.

As an eco-congregation, we do not believe it is ethically acceptable to invest in, and gain profit from, companies whose main aim is to continue to explore for, and to extract, fossil fuels.  For example, BP states on its website that its strategy is to “invest in more gas and oil, producing both with increasing efficiency”. In fact, we believe that these investments are contrary to the Investors Trust’s current policy not to invest in companies whose “activities … are felt to harm society more than they benefit it”.  The activities of Shell, BP and Total (and other similar companies) are driving the whole world towards dangerous and potentially uncontrollable climate change, already causing harm to people across many parts of the planet.

We disagree with the Church of Scotland’s policy to continue to “engage” with these companies as being impractical and ineffective.  Many large institutions, including cities, universities, some pension funds, the British Medical Association, the Church of Ireland and the United Reformed Church in Scotland have already agreed to fully divest from all fossil fuel exploration and extraction.  We believe that the Church of Scotland should be leading the way for others, and should fully divest now from all companies involved in fossil fuel exploration and extraction; this would give a stronger signal to these companies than any engagement is ever likely to do.

Within Selkirk Parish Church, we are committed to caring for God’s creation.  We can no longer wait for the Church or Scotland to act in this matter, so we are taking our own small steps to make ourselves “fossil free”.  Withdrawing our funds is one step in this journey that we are able to make now, and therefore we are doing so.  We hope that other congregations may follow our example.

The funds withdrawn may be either reinvested in an ethical fund or used to part-fund a children and families worker; we consider this to be a much better way to invest for growth in God’s Kingdom.

This was a small, but significant practical action that we could readily take. Other congregations may lack the confidence to take this step, and so it is important that we continue to campaign for total disinvestment by the Church of Scotland from all fossil fuel companies, and reinvestment into other areas that are compatible with the church’s care for creation.

Selkirk Parish Church still has other investments held by the Church of Scotland in its “consolidated fabric fund”, but we have no information about whether this fund includes fossil fuel investments. As we are not able to withdraw these funds, we hope that the 2020 General Assembly will resolve to divest completely from fossil fuels across all its investments.

David Bethune

Elder, Selkirk Parish Church

Climate Emergency and the Future of Oil and Gas: How do we respond?

A range of climate, energy and environmental concerns in 2019 has led to declarations of a ‘climate emergency’.  This raises some hard questions for the future of the oil and gas industries.  What does this mean and how should churches respond?

Campaigners old and young

David Attenborough, 93,  addressed the potentially disastrous consequences in a BBC documentary Climate Change – The Facts and Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old climate campaigner from Sweden has been travelling Europe with widespread publicity, addressing UK MPs when she criticised the UK Government’s response to climate change,  encouraging Extinction Rebellion protestors in London , and briefly meeting the Pope,  who asked her to continue with her campaigning. In August she travelled by yacht from Europe to New York to address the United Nations.

Strikes and protests

There have been school strikes around the world including Scotland with children protesting outside the Scottish Parliament.  Protesters from Extinction Rebellion have disrupted traffic in London,  Edinburgh and elsewhere.  The protests have included significant numbers of church activists from Christian Climate Action. The strikes continue into the autumn with actions planned for the week beginning 20 September.

The CoP comes to Glasgow in 2020!

In September it was announced that the United Nations climate conference 2020 (CoP26) will be held in Glasgow in November 2020.  Delegates from governments around the world, churches, NGOs and others numbering perhaps 30,000 will be in the city. This is an opportunity to meet representatives from the world’s churches and to showcase climate action in Scotland.  It also runs the risk of highlighting our dependence on oil and gas and our commitment to continued exploration and production in the North Sea.     

UKCCC Report

The United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change (UKCCC) published a report on 2 May 2019 Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warmingThe report sets out how the UK can end its contribution to global warming within 30 years by setting an ambitious new target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.  For Scotland the report suggests that the target date should be 2045.  The recommendations of the report were accepted quickly by the Scottish Government who announced amendments to the Climate Change Bill currently before Parliament to implement the UKCCC target date.

Climate emergency

At the SNP Conference in April 2019 the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared a climate emergency in response, she said, to meeting children who had taken part in the school climate strike.  While having no statutory force a state of emergency demands urgent action and challenges the status quo.  Following her speech critics challenged Scottish Government proposals to reduce or eliminate Air Departure Tax arguing that this offers a financial incentive to encourage flying and is inconsistent with a climate emergency.  In a remarkably rapid response the Scottish Government agreed and  scrapped the proposals

The Scottish Government Programme for Scotland 2019-20 ‘Protecting Scotland’s Future’ was published in September.  The programme gives priority to climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy.  Its breadth recognises that a range of initiatives are required to transform the economy, communities, homes and travel.

Carbon Tracker

A report in September from financial analysts Carbon Tracker Breaking the Habit  concludes that none of the large oil companies are “Paris-aligned”.  “Every oil major is betting heavily against a 1.5˚C world and investing in projects that are contrary to the Paris goals.”  This includes the large European companies that are doing the most to reassure investors that they are responsive to climate concerns – BP, Shell, Total and Equinor.  Shockingly, the report concludes that oil and gas projects already been sanctioned will take the world past 1.5ºC, unless carbon capture and storage can be brought into action at scale and very quickly.

Concern grows about oil companies lobbying

A research report has revealed how oil companies have spent $1 billion on lobbying and publicity since the Paris agreement to ensure that their highly profitable business model is not disrupted.[1]   There has been a huge publicity campaign from BP  stressing its green credentials, a campaign that has been widely criticised as ‘greenwash’ and has been called ‘Deceptive and Hypocritical’ .  In particular a research report has highlighted that while claiming to be promoting renewables, less than 5% of BP’s capital expenditure is in renewable energy.

Total

Similarly, Total is a leader in renewables among the largest oil companies but this still represents a tiny fraction of its overall investment (less than 5%).   At the presentation of its results in February 2019 Total reported it had made $15bn of capital expenditure and achieved an 8% increase in output along with a 28% increase in earnings.  It is planning a similar level of investment in new oil and gas fields around the world in the next five years. 

[1] Big Oil’s Real Agenda on Climate Change, March 2019, How the oil majors have spent $1bn since Parison narrative capture and lobbying on climate, Influence Map, March 2019.

Norway

The Labour Party in Norway, the largest party in the Norwegian Parliament, has indicated that it will not support proposals for drilling for oil near the Lofoten islands.  This decision has caused surprise in the oil industry and among trade unions and marks a significant turning point in the debate on fossil fuel extraction.  Also in Norway the Sovereign Wealth Fund has indicated its intention to move away from fossil fuel investments.    

Finance

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has repeated his warning about the financial implications of climate change. In an open letter written with other leading central bankers on climate-related financial risks he set out steps that need to be taken in the finance sector to minimise these risks.  Also in April Legal and General Investment Management (LGIM) warned of a climate catastrophe in its Active Ownership report.  LGIM is one of the largest investors in the UK and announced it had divested from companies that it considered had made insufficient progress in addressing climate risks.  Sacha Sadan, Director of Corporate Governance at LGIM said:

The point here is that we are facing a climate catastrophe. More and more people are realising this, especially as we have seen further evidence that the effects of climate change will soon be irreversible. This will affect economies, politics and, as a result, our clients’ assets all around the world. We all need to move faster.

Just Transition

This is a campaign to promote a just transition to an environmentally and socially sustainable economy.  It has attracted the support of some trade unions and the Scottish Government has set up a Just Transition Commission chaired by Prof. Jim Skea.  In part this is a recognition that we have to move rapidly from an economy dependant on oil and gas but that must be done in a fair and just way. The report Sea Change published by Oil Change international in 2019 explores what this might mean for the oil and gas industry.

Questions: what are the implications for churches

An environmental emergency demands an urgent response.  

  • What does a climate emergency mean and how should we respond?
  • What is a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy and how do we make it happen? 
  • What does a climate emergency mean for the future of the oil and gas industry in the North Sea?
  • What does this mean for our investments in oil and gas companies both as churches and as individuals?

Adrian Shaw, Church of Scotland, 17 September 2019


Ayrshire network

Many thanks to Fullarton Parish Church, Irvine for the use of one of their halls as a venue for the zero waste workshops and the Big Climate Conversation on the 19th of September. We were well looked after by their staff and had a busy afternoon at our workshops.

Here are a couple of photos of everyone sharing their views during the big climate conversation.