National Cathedrals Conference – Climate Change

19th May 2022

“Hope comes when we act and only then, and there is always something we can do to generate hope.” Greta Thunberg

Cathedrals should be a driving force for change and the safeguarding of creation, the second National Cathedrals Conference heard yesterday (Tuesday 17 May).

Speaking first in a series of thought-provoking presentations about climate justice was Rt Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich and Lead Bishop for the Environment. With a background as an ecologist, he has maintained an interest in this area, previously chairing the Forest Commission in the North East and being a board member of the Northumberland National Park Authority.

He encouraged cathedrals from across the country to identify more opportunities to meet the ambitious target set by General Synod in 2020.

“You have a crucial part to play in caring for the web of creation and seeking justice for the world’s economically poorest people already adversely impacted by climate change,” he said.

Bishop Usher outlined many of the practical things that cathedrals are currently doing – and can still do, to reach Net Zero Net Zero carbon across the whole Church by 2030.

Leading Christian environmentalist Dr Lorna Gold, Director of Movement Building with FaithInvest, considered: ‘What can cathedrals and the communities that sustain them contribute in the face of the climate crisis?’.

She said: “We need to pull in the same direction to reduce emissions”, citing examples of how churches’ action in this area “has never been more vibrant and alive, as the faith presence at COP26 in Glasgow showed last December”.

“As people of faith, as faith communities, as a great network of places of worship[…] we have a key role to play in transforming this situation. We can do this through practical changes – to lower our emissions, and this is a moral imperative. However, we can also do much more. We can become true hubs of ecological, spiritual transformation. Of community conversion and havens of hope for the future.”

She ended by referring to a statement made by Greta Thunberg: “Hope comes when we act and only then, and there is always something we can do to generate hope.”

Next up, Julian Allwood, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge, spoke about the two biggest environmental challenges facing cathedrals: first, keeping the buildings warm, and second, avoiding the use of cement.

On the first point, he suggested more processions and movement during services, and local radiant heaters and heated cushions or blankets for occupied seats.

On the subject of cement-use, he encouraged churches and cathedrals to consider whether new builds are necessary, and suggested building with stone masonry or looking at alternative materials such as recycled steel or careful use of timber in construction.

Following Professor Allwood was a joint presentation from Andy Lester, Head of Conservation for the Christian Environmental Charity A Rocha UK, and Regina Ebner, the Partners in Action coordinator for A Rocha UK.

Andy shared the findings of a survey that asked what five things have most been concerning UK church leaders in the last year. Climate change came out top, with extinction of species and the costs of keeping cathedrals running following behind.

Regina encouraged church leaders to stop thinking of cathedrals just as indoor spaces, and to use the land around cathedrals in a way which glorifies God and encourages the community and congregation to connect with nature.

“We live in a time where humanity is facing things that we’ve never faced before, and fear is what most of us feel quite often. But I think it is also quite exciting because we as a Church, and as God’s people can step up and be his hands again. The church can be a place where people go to for hope and inspiration.”

Andy rounded off the afternoon’s presentations by echoing Regina’s sentiment that cathedrals should step outside their built environment:

“Hope is not lost… There is still time for adventure, creativity, and amazing change. But we must act at scale, and we must do it together with our communities – not just those in our churches and cathedrals, but those outside our doors too.”