In about 1990 when I wrote Cafod’s first leaflet on their environmental projects abroad, it was seen as edgy that an overseas development charity was talking about deforestation and pollution of rivers. Wasn’t that something for Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace? The Catholic Church was probably ahead of others in recognising the Biblical mandate to care for creation and the dire human development impact of environmental destruction: environment as a justice issue. But few people had heard of climate change and biodiversity loss, let alone that they would become existential threats to the human race in our lifetime.
Now, the world and Christian churches are in a very different place. In all my 35 years of campaigning on social justice and the environment I cannot remember a time so fraught with risk and so overflowing with opportunity. Scientists are very clear that concerted human action is necessary over the next decade, starting yesterday, to avoid catastrophic global warming and nature loss. Governments and society need to act urgently and at scale. Fortunately, however, the churches’ awareness is being transformed, while their potential to make a difference locally and nationally – with a presence in every village, town, and city neighbourhood, and national voice – is truly unique. Christians and churches could therefore make a game–changing contribution to that common effort; and ARocha UK, the only Christian nature conservation organisation, is working with our partners to bring that about.
On World Environment Day, Saturday 5 June, and six months before the UK hosts the next critical round of UN climate negotiations (COP26), we launched our Big Green Vision. Our goal is, within five years, to treble the number of local churches and Christians engaging in deliberate and ongoing practical action to restore nature and address climate change, and using their collective voice to speak up for change. We are confident, from our own experience ‘on the ground’, that this is possible.
ARocha UK was founded in 2001 as a local Christian conservation project in Southall, a deprived area in west London. But in recent years, our work has expanded nationally as the churches have woken up to the biblical mandate to care for creation. We’ve moved from only doing our own conservation – we have two nature reserves – to focusing intensely on facilitating others to do what they can for nature and climate, where they are – in their church, home, community and in the public sphere. Our nature reserves now act as demonstration sites in this bigger vision. A Rocha is non–denominational and we are delighted to have a growing number of Catholic partner organisations.
Our Big Green Vision will be delivered through our partnership programmes catering for different needs and opportunities within the Church – those of local parish churches are very different from those of individuals and families, or Christian–managed farms for example.
Our Eco Church programme is a fast–expanding national community of churches addressing the environmental crisis, using a common framework, an online toolkit, learning and speaking up together. The tools are online resources – whether that is teaching the Biblical mandate to care for God’s creation, or reducing fossil fuel energy. As a church reaches a certain level, A Rocha UK recognises this achievement with a bronze, silver and then gold award. There are already 3,500 registered Eco Churches in England and Wales – more than 5% of churches. A Rocha UK is aiming, by 2025, to engage at least 15 per cent of churches in on–going action to protect nature and address climate change through the free scheme. All denominations are welcome but Cafod runs the excellent Live Simply scheme particularly for Catholic parishes, and, together with Eco Congregation Scotland, we coordinate with each other, exchange learning and participate in joint campaigns such as the Climate Sunday Initiative in the run up to COP26.
A Rocha UK’s Partners In Action network currently supports twenty Christian land–holders to improve the quality and biodiversity of their land, share their learning and encourage them to work to engage their local communities. Partners include Christian conference centres, religious communities, large farming estates, schools and youth adventure centres in all four nations of the UK. We have been delighted recently to welcome our first Catholic centre Drumalis Retreat and Conference Centre in Northern Ireland. A Rocha UK aims to see 75,000 acres of land owned by Churches and Christians managed for conservation by 2025. And we also want to see at least 250,000 members of the public benefitting annually from access to nature on land managed by A Rocha UK and partners.
Wild Christian is an online community for individuals and families, helping them care for nature and address climate change, through sharing ideas and learning collectively to live more sustainably in our own home and community. Launched only two years ago, there are already more than 3,000 participants. By 2025, A Rocha UK wants to be supporting at least 25,000 people annually, to routinely care for nature through their practical actions at home and in the community, and through campaigning.
The next decade will be critical for the environment and the need for churches to stand up for the environment right now cannot be understated. Fortunately, Christians and churches have a wealth of assets to bring to bear to this challenge of our generation – from buildings and land, to the money they spend, what they teach in church, and standing in the local community. Acting together is vital to head off environmental catastrophe in the next decade. But by churches and Christians doing so, it will surely build our own churches and communities too.
We invite you to get your hands dirty and join us as partners in A Rocha’s Big Green Vision for the next five years.
You can sign up to A Rocha’s free Wild Christian programme and investigate our other resources at www.arocha.org