00:00 Saturday 19 January 2008  Written by Hilary Wakeman

Christians playing their part in sustainability

MENTION global warming and we're all capable of rushing to bury our heads in the sand. We might consider changing some light bulbs, and even getting more organised about re-cycling household waste, but if anyone is expecting us to go for a smaller car, or give up flying to the sunnier parts of the world for our holidays, we'd prefer not to think about it.

If the little monkey in our brain is really clever, it will come up with all sorts of positive reasons for not doing anything about it. Like, the whole thing is nonsense, the weather's always been a bit odd, people are just panicking. Or it's some sort of plot, by someone or other, and we're not going to fall into their trap.

Traditionally, Christianity is concerned about caring for God's creation. So you'd think we Christians would be out at the front when it comes to doing something about all the threats to the environment we are suddenly aware of. But not necessarily. 'I just trust in God,' one woman said, and presumably went on living in her old familiar creation-wasting way. ('Poor God,' some nuns said, when they heard that one.) A parish priest, who said the matter didn't interest him, was asked what would happen when the seas rise and sweep over Ireland. 'Ah, they can all go to America,' was his simple solution.

Church bells in Dublin and Clonakilty and other places rang out at 2pm on December 2nd, at the initiative of the Stop Climate Chaos alliance. It was part of a general appeal to make a lot of noise at that time on that day, to draw attention to the world's climate problems. Supporting the appeal were groups like Christian Aid, Concern and Gorta, yet the only high-ranking church group to be included was the Methodist Church in Ireland's Council of Social Responsibility. A week before it happened, I asked a group of about a dozen local clergy here in West Cork if their church bells would be taking part. Only two of them knew anything about it.

Puzzling over all this, I went to see Jennifer Sleeman, of Clonakilty. Jennifer is the person mainly responsible for Clonakilty becoming the first Fair Trade town in Ireland. Last month she received an award from the Cork Environmental Forum, in recognition of her 'outstanding contribution to sustainability in Cork city and county through partnership and participation in the promotion of environmental care'. She is also an active member of her local Catholic church.

'I am so disappointed in the clergy, and their attitude to the things that are going to afflict us all, like global warming,' she says. 'The clergy should be setting an example, and be seen to be doing it. There are exceptions, but most of them appear to be blind to it all.'

But if the church authorities are not involved, individual Christians certainly are. Most of Jennifer's energy is now going into the setting up of the new environmental group, Sustainability Clonakilty. She got involved because she found herself thinking about her grandchildren and wondering 'What are we doing to their world?' Then a friend from Newry came to see her. He had experienced the pulling together of the community there as, together, they faced up to the current threat to the environment.

Jennifer and a few others decided to show the film The End of Suburbia, in O'Donovan's hotel. Some locals were sceptical. 'You'll never get people to come and see that.' But they advertised it well, and filled the room twice. Al Gore's film was showing at the cinema in Clonakilty at about the same time. Local people were roused. 'We must do more,' they said. And so Sustainability Clonakilty was formed. Local clergy Fr Gerard Galvin and the Revd Ian Jonas are supportive. It's been an informal group so far, but this month they will have an AGM, elect a committee and make plans.

And some church congregations are stirring, thanks to a new organisation called 'Eco-Congregation Ireland' that has sprung up out of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI). Five churches are involved: the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Quakers. Congregations are beginning to ask how many light bulbs are on unnecessarily, and even whether they could install solar panels on the church roof or geothermal heating under the church floor. Parishes undertake an audit to work out how environmentally sound they are. After that they get free access to resources to help them to integrate care for the environment into different areas of church life.

As soon as the Quakers in Cork heard about Eco-Congregation Ireland they set up a public meeting called 'Caring for Creation'. Quaker Tash Harty was impressed with how many church people came to it. The Church of Ireland bishop sent a representative, and there was an SMA priest and a retired Columbian priest. 'And lots of nuns,' she says - 'they were great!' And there were many ordinary churchgoers of all denominations. The day was 'a resounding success'. Since then there have been other events, including talks on the energy crisis, and on the ecological care of graveyards, and a showing of the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Tash Harty is full of information. 'If people in West Cork are thinking they'd like to do something,' she says, 'they should get in touch with us. We can recommend any number of good speakers.'

One of those good speakers is the Revd John Purdy, of the Methodist circuit of West Cork. 'Eco-Congregation Ireland is designed to encourage everybody to greater ecological awareness,' he says. At first, some of the local farmers thought they were attacking the farming community, when they talked about Fair Trade produce. That is, until they realised the emphasis was also on locally produced food, organically grown and animal-friendly.

What was Sustainability Clonakilty hoping for, I asked Jennifer Sleeman. 'We would like to see us all reducing our carbon footprint, especially the town council but also individuals and businesses. Changing our lifestyles is very important now, or we are heading for disaster. People say 'What difference can I make?' but if everybody makes changes we can make a huge difference. We want to get the hearts and minds of people.'

Another way to go is that of the Transition Towns. Kinsale is the first such town in all of Ireland. According to the TT website, 'A Transition Initiative is a community that is unleashing its own latent collective genius to look Peak Oil and Climate Change squarely in the eye and to discover and implement ways to address this big question.'

So there is no shortage of ways for churches to get involved in the survival of creation. If the people of Newry are any indication, groups like Sustainability are good in two ways. Not only do they work for the good of the planet and the future life of our grandchildren, but they also pull communities together, across denominational or sectarian divides, and political differences. How could that not be an essential part of the work of our churches?

(For more information, see www.sustain abilityclonakilty.com, www.eco-congregation ireland.org, www.transitiontowns.org.)

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