To Lambeth to consider the Call on the environment

Bishops and their spouses and honoured guests gather for the ceremonial tree-planting
Bishops, their spouses and invited guests during the symbolic tree planting ceremony the Environmental and Sustainable Development day at Lambeth Palace during the 2022 Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom. Photo: Ian Walton for The Lambeth Conference. Wednesday 3rd August 2022

The Bishops were bused to Lambeth Palace for the day where they were to consider the Call on the environment. I was delighted with the venue as an opportunity to see the Palace gardens and the new Library which was completed just before the pandemic struck in 2020. 

The diocese of Canterbury acquired a piece of marshy muddy land on the south bank opposite Westminster around 1200 AD to build a residence for its bishop when he needed to be in London. So the people of Kent can claim a special interest in how this plot is maintained and utilised. My enthusiasm for exploring this actual environment kept colliding with what I was there to do, which was to understand the Call on the environment. So, this article may jump from one to the other.

A stroll along Lower Marsh

I walked from Waterloo Station, along Lower Marsh (reminder of the muddy plot) until I saw Archbishop’s Palace Gardens, a public park which was part of the original estate, but given over to public use by the Archbishop in the nineteenth century, following the Victorian movement to provide more green spaces in cities.

Then further along the road is the red brick nine-story building of the new library. I got through security and, over coffee, took a look at the display about what is in the library. After the Vatican, it is one of the most valuable libraries in Europe with over 600 medieval manuscripts. Obviously worth another trip and article. But I had to take the lift to the eighth floor.

Themes of the day: environmental protection and sustainable development

There, a panel of speakers introduced the themes of the day. We were reminded that the fifth affirmation of Mission is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation”. Archbishop Justin Welby then talked from his observations after 80 or more visits to Nigeria where the advancing Sahara is causing conflict between pastoralists and farmers.

Climate change causes drought, famine, conflicts over water and land. Many bishops in the conference come from those zones affected by climate change. The Anglican Communion Forest, the project being launched that afternoon in the palace garden, is to reach out across the planet triggering action at local level. 

Keeping carbon emissions in check to achieve no more than 1.5°C heating

The next speaker was Archbishop Julio Murray from Panama, who led the Anglican team at COP26. He talked of his role, and that of other bishops in their own countries, as ‘influencers’, who can get things moving both at government or national level as well as locally.

Then it was the turn of Elizabeth, a young climate activist from Kenya, who spoke passionately about the effects of climate change in parts of Kenya, and specified what needs to be done internationally: stop investing in fossil fuels, transform global food supplies; strive for 1.5°C carbon emissions limit, and put more finance behind this goal.

Then Bishop Graham Usher from Norwich, the lead C of E bishop on the environment, spoke about what he does at local level: he presents each confirmation candidate with a hazel tree to plant (hazel because of the nut that St Julian of Norwich saw in her dream as the whole world held in God’s hands).

World press in attendance

The journalists assembled for this Press session consisted not just those from the religious papers who have followed the conference daily, but also the national Press (BBC, Daily Telegraph) as well as one from France (La Croix) and from Germany. They asked sharp questions about divesting from fossil fuels, one pointing out that Welby himself used to work in the oil industry. What would he say to his former colleagues?

They are mostly retired now, came the answer, but those still working in that industry – they have the power and the logistical skills and the money to change the world. On investment, there is a high-powered advisory group, a coalition of churches and some LSE researchers devising ethical measuring tools, advising on some £50tn, more than half total world funds! 

Where should the church invest its wealth?

I nearly clapped at that point, as that news seems the completion of (one part of) my life’s work. I have to confess to being a very early activist on ethical church investment, possibly the first person to pose the question to one of the Church Commissioners, who was totally surprised to receive my cheeky question about church money invested in South African mining in 1972. And I was doing so from a pay phone in a student building, dropping in pennies as the conversation got more complex.

There was also a question on South Sudan, and the forthright answer was the need to restore UK government aid to the 0.7%, with 2% of that going to the poorest countries.

Networking and lunch

After question time there was an opportunity to mill around and network. I headed first to Bishop Usher to follow up on what parishes are being encouraged to do. I wanted to find out more about the rewilding of churchyards, and who advises on it (having observed that Sevington Church, near the lorry park, has a notice about this). He told me that most dioceses have a nature adviser – so expect further KBL articles on this. I also wanted to find out whether parish tours of Lambeth gardens are organised. Again, something to follow up.

Elizabeth Wathuti addresses the bishops during lunch
Youth climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti addresses the Bishops, their spouses and invited guests during the lunchtime speeches at the Environmental and Sustainable Development day at Lambeth Palace during the 2022 Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom. Photo: Neil Turner for The Lambeth Conference. Wednesday 3 August 2022

It was then time for lunch, which was being served for the Lambeth guests in three huge marquees in the garden. During the lunch there were speeches by Archbishop Julio and by Elizabeth from Kenya. There was also a speaker from the diocese of Brazil, translated from Portuguese, who lives in the area where the church works alongside indigenous tribes threatened by incursions that cause climate change.

Post-prandial pictures in the garden

As the lunch was drawing to a close, I wandered out to take pictures in the garden. There are many fully grown trees there: sycamore, chestnut and fig (reputed to be 300 years old), which act as a green lung in a very built-up area. Two of the chestnuts are under strain from the lack of rain with curling brown leaves. The garden is not over-manicured and, under those trees, there is long unmown grass and wildflowers. There is also a small vegetable patch. I wonder if the Welbys are watering it every evening as we now have to do in drought-stricken Kent allotments.

Inauguration of the Anglican Communion Forest

It was then time for the launch of the Anglican Communion Forest. Everyone was gathered on the front lawn, and a drone flew over to take photos. Then there was a time of prayer in different languages before the symbolic act of planting the tree. Only it is not the right time for tree-planting during a hot dry month, so it was explained that the tree will later be replanted in another more suitable position.

I was curious to see exactly what type of tree had been chosen. An apple tree (with Adam and Eve connotations)? No. An olive tree? (Now grow well in our hotter climate, but no.) It is an oak tree: sturdy, indigenous, which may grow for more than 500 years. So, a good symbol to launch the Anglican Communion Forest.

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