What is the main factor holding churches back from doing more about the environment?

old stone built church in front of a body of water
St Mary’s, Haddenham, Buckinghamshire. The church gained a bronze Eco Church award in June 2019

Dr Martin Hodson reflects on his recent time spent running the @OurCofELike Twitter account and a fascinating poll that he ran on what is holding churches back from doing more for the environment.

I have been following the Twitter account @OurCofELike for some years. Every week a different person connected with the Church of England takes over the account, and they have seven days to tell their story and explain what they do. Many of the people doing this are vicars, but I have seen lay readers, chaplains, diocese support staff, and others. I had always fancied doing it myself! Just before Christmas 2022, Bill Braviner, the archdeacon who runs the account, tweeted that he would like more volunteers. I sent him a message saying that I am an authorised preacher in our benefice, a clergy spouse, and do a lot on Christian environmental education. Much to my surprise, Bill came straight back and booked me! He actually gave me a good week (20-26 Feb. 2023) from the local church angle as it included Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It was also a good week from the environmental viewpoint as we were teaching Cuddesdon ordinands on Zoom, I spoke on environmental issues for an in person session at Regents Theological College in Malvern, and we had a JRI staff meeting.

So on the morning of 20th Feb. I set off for a week of tweeting! I must have sent over a hundred tweets, but I will focus on one. I wanted to engage the nearly 16 thousand people who followed the account with an environmental question. One way of doing that is a Twitter poll. My question was, “What is the main factor holding churches back from doing more about the environment?” Twitter allows a maximum of four responses, and I gave: Their Theology; Money; Apathy; and Other (please specify). With this kind of poll there are many possible answers and so the catchall “Other” is more or less mandatory. I gave two days as the deadline for votes and responses, and asked people to retweet the post to get a good sample size. I also asked some Christian organisations to do this, and thanks to JRI, Church of England Environment Programme, Hazelnut Community Farm, and A Rocha UK who did this for me. After two days, 774 people had voted, and there were quite a large number of written responses. With the latter I asked many of the writers if they would mind being quoted in a blog, and whether they could be named or would prefer to be anonymous. Those responses form an Appendix to this blog, and make interesting reading in themselves! I will refer to some of them directly, and others will be the source material for more general comments.

This survey will obviously be biased towards the Church of England, and quite possibly towards those who are interested in the environment. It is definitely not a “scientific” survey. Nonetheless, I believe that the results give us some useful pointers in this area.

The results of the poll on the question “What is the main factor holding churches back from doing more about the environment?” were:

Their Theology 8.1%

Money 33.6%

Apathy 49.1%

Other (please specify) 9.2%

So apathy was a pretty clear winner, with money easily into second place. Six of the written responses mentioned lack of finance as a major obstacle, and only three mentioned apathy. There was hardly any indication that respondents felt that the church should not be engaging with environmental issues. I was surprised that theology came in with such a small percentage. From my experience, theology is a very important issue, particularly with more evangelical churches. It is difficult to determine the theological positions of @OurCofELike followers, but it is clear that they range across the very broad church that is the Church of England. One respondent, Jeremy Heuslein, reminded us that, “money and apathy are theological issues!” Well put, and point taken.

Turning to consider the responses in the Appendix. It is obvious that there are a very large number of “other” factors that hold back churches from taking actions on the environment. Time and available resources were evidently important in a number of cases. A typical comment comes from Daniel Thompson: “Resources! It’s hard enough finding people to read the lesson!” Four respondents mentioned elderly or ageing congregations as a factor. The faculty system for approval of works in churches was mentioned as a barrier by three people. Giles Morrison commented: “Faculty is a necessary step to protect heritage buildings, but perhaps need to adopt an environmentally focused emphasis?” Six respondents mentioned multiple problems for engagement, and often felt it was all too much. For example, Phillip Parker concluded that, “It’s just one agenda point too many currently.” Lucy Foster makes a very valid point that resonates with my own experience. She thinks a major barrier to engagement is, “The assumption that it’s all about the building & its challenges (size, cost, faculties, listed buildings, boilers, heating, energy use, etc.) when environmental engagement includes all aspects of corporate life & worship & individual faith & discipleship.”

What can we conclude? Quite evidently a large number of respondents saw church engagement with the environment as problematic. There was little sign of climate scepticism or lack of desire to do something, but many churches are really struggling just to keep going. Of course, the question was framed in a way that was bound to get mostly negative responses, and there are many positive stories out there as well. Witness the more than 4,000 churches registered for the Eco Church scheme, many of which have had awards. So there is good news to be had as well. But the Church of England target of Net Zero by 2030 will be very difficult to achieve while so many churches seem to having difficulties of the types described in my survey. How do we help them?

Dr Martin Hodson (CRES Principal Tutor)

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Archdeacon Bill Braviner for running @OurCofELike, and for allowing me to host it for a week. I am also grateful to all those who responded to the poll.