Series on Climate and Major Religions

Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change

Leaders of American Episcopalians point to ‘mounting urgency’ to address climate change and develop more compassionate and sustainable economies to support stewardship of all of God’s creation.

In September 2011, the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church, attending a meeting in Quito, Ecuador, sent a pastoral letter to Episcopal clergy worldwide expressing “mounting urgency” to address climate change within church membership. The letter argued the critical need for Christians to care for all of God’s creation and urged that justice be sought for the poor, who it said will suffer most from climate change.

That pastoral letter was the latest in a string of climate change and environmental sustainability communications that have consistently framed action on climate change as a matter of stewardship of creation and social justice, comprising two of the “Five Marks of Mission” in the Episcopal Church. But despite strong messaging from the top, many clergy are cautious of preaching on climate change.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowen Williams, the leader of the Anglican Communion, which includes the global network of Episcopal Churches, has been publicly outspoken in supporting action on climate change adaptation and mitigation. He has made individual and joint announcements, with the World Council on Churches and with the Vatican, to urge policy action by governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, stopped flying for a year because he wanted to reduce his greenhouse gas footprint. And the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., Katharine Jefferts Schori, repeatedly addresses climate change.

Making connections: ‘All Life Depends on the Life of Others’

Jefferts Schori testifies before the Senate environment committee in 2007.

An oceanographer prior to her ordination to the priesthood, Jefferts Schori brings a unique blend of science and theology to climate communication. As a scientist, she understands linkages, including between global poverty and the need to address global warming. At a U.S. Senate environment committee meeting in 2007, Jefferts Schori explained that “no life form can be studied in isolation from its surroundings or from other organisms. All living things are deeply interconnected, and all life depends on the life of others.”

Her Senate testimony centered on how global poverty and climate change are “intimately related.” She told the committee she and her colleagues share “a profound concern that climate change will most severely affect those living in poverty and the most vulnerable in our communities here in the United States and around the world.”

“I want to be absolutely clear; inaction on our part is the most costly of all courses of action for those living in poverty,” she testified.

That message of interconnectedness has been an ongoing tenet of the Episcopal Church’s ministry, whose members total about 1.9 million in the U.S. It was the basis for a resolution in 1991 to oppose drilling and mining in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, an area important to the Gwich’in people, 90 percent of whom are Episcopalian. Connectedness was also the basis for the church’s justice, peace and the integrity of creation initiative and the formation of a committee on environmental stewardship, both of which laid an early foundation for the church’s work on climate, Michael Schut, Economic and Environmental Affairs Officer for the Episcopal Church in the U.S., said in a telephone interview.

“When you think of our call to ‘Love thy neighbor,’ I also think there is some motivation among Episcopalians to see other parts of creation as our neighbor, including endangered species and healthy ecosystems,” Schutt said, “because they ultimately influence human health and our ability to sustain human life.”

Episcopalian’s ‘Genesis Covenant’ Calls for GHG Reductions

Episcopalians have called for international policies to combat climate change since 2000, including backing conservation-based energy legislation and financial support for developing nations to control carbon emissions, among many other efforts. But the Genesis Covenant may be the most significant proposal. It was adopted unanimously by Episcopal Church’s main governing body four years ago and requires that church facilities — including places of worship, offices, schools, camps and retreat centers — reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent within 10 years.

The Genesis Covenant has potential for big change across the church’s 7,000 parishes in the U.S., but it’s a voluntary program and therein lies the problem. Local leadership is necessary for it to take off, explained Schut. So far a limited number of districts and individual parishes have signed on to the agreement; these include the Diocese of Chicago, the Diocese of Olympia (Washington), and the Arkansas Diocese. (Watch a video of Bishop Charleston’s Sermon on the Genesis Covenant given at Washington D.C’s National Cathedral on February 24, 2008.)

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham has helped promote enthusiasm for climate action by helping churches lead by example. An ordained Episcopal priest and the environment minister at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, Bingham is also the founder and president of The Regeneration Project, an ecology and faith group that oversees the Interfaith Power and Light campaign. Chapters of Interfaith Power and Light now operate in 39 states and involve more than 14,000 congregations that work to reduce energy use from fossil fuels.

‘Right Information’ Leads to ‘Right Thing’

“When people have the right information, they do the right thing,” Bingham said in a telephone interview. She added that the Episcopal Church has always been concerned for the poor and the suffering.

“Anybody who professes a love for God and creation will respond when they know it’s an insult to God and a crime against creation to destroy the climate,” she said. “If you know that when you are wasting electricity, and you are depriving people in the developing world, and the poorest of the world’s poor are being hurt by our behavior, you are harming those folks. If you know that, you are not going to do that. You are going to be much more responsible.”

Some Areas, Some Clergy Slow to Take Action

Bingham says some areas of the U.S. are less receptive to hearing direct addresses on climate change issues than others, and she point to parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Tennessee as places clergy encounter the most opposition to climate change issues. “They say that God would never let the Earth be destroyed again,” Bingham said. When asked to preach in more conservative areas, she said she often focuses on less controversial aspects of environmental stewardship, such as saving money through energy efficiency, “something everyone agrees on.”

Solar panels installed in St. Luke’s Church in Dixon, Ill.

Individual clergy have been slow to address climate issues, Schut said. Yet he said some Episcopalian priests have been surprised by positive reactions from among members of their congregations. Young parishioners at St. Luke’s Church in Dixon, Ill., sought ways to “green” their Gothic stone church and discretely installed solar panels on the roof to reduce use of fossil fuels and save on energy.

They then undertook a community outreach campaign, and The Rev. Michael Greene communicated with parishioners and community groups using church facilities during the week, about benefits of renewable energy, energy efficiency and recycling. The local newspaper ran a front-page story on the project, and St. Luke’s received so much public attention that it resulted in increased membership.

Some Say Climate Change ‘Doesn’t Seem Religious’

The Rev. Chris Epperson, of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Va., has taken climate change into the pulpit many times over the past decade.

Rev. Chris Epperson, of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Va.,

“My approach has been to be careful and nuanced when preaching about global warming, and to understand that there’s real religious content there and on the need to address how we care for creation,” said Epperson. “When I get pushback, it’s usually when people tell me, ‘I come to church to be religious and this doesn’t seem religious.’”

Epperson said there’s a tendency among some church members to think about faith as “private” and not consider how it relates more broadly to the world. “Some people tell me they go to church from 9 to 12 on Sundays for spirituality and religion, and then they want to live the rest of their lives however they want,” said Epperson. “I think in terms of less tidy categories. We are called to see, and I think of it as a Venn diagram. There’s much more overlap — with climate change, our call to care for creation, and seeking justice — than people realize.”

Overcoming Criticisms … On Politics in Sermons

A big challenge in the Episcopal Church involves getting the word out and having more of its clergy talking about climate change as an issue.

“One woman called me and said, ‘I don’t want to hear about politics when I come to church.’ If you have folks like that in your parish, or if you have the head of an oil company, or big donors who are Republicans, as clergy you are sometimes afraid,” said Bingham. She often is asked to be a visiting minister to help carry the burden: “The message gets delivered and the clergy member doesn’t have to take the brunt of it,” she said.

In recent years, the Episcopal Church has faced strong criticism from conservative members who have opposed having gays and lesbians openly serve as bishops and clergy. While climate change has raised some hackles, it has not caused divisions among bishops and clergy.

“When you look at the abolition of slavery or the civil rights movement, if people had been afraid to talk about that from the pulpit, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Bingham said.

“And getting off fossil fuels is the same kind of an issue. It is harming people. It is killing people. It is only going to get worse as time goes on. It is a matter of life or death. We as clergy have a responsibility to tell the truth and a responsibility to talk about it. If you ask Episcopal clergy if they think it’s a problem, they’ll tell you yes. But will they get up and give a sermon about it? Sometimes, but certainly not always. They are afraid to.”

A New ‘App’ … and an Upcoming Ecumenical Forum and Webcast

The Episcopal Church recently stepped up its communications efforts to further engage members on climate change. In February it launched a new iPad magazine app called “Wayfarer” to tell stories that concern Episcopalians around the globe. The first issue highlights the plight of residents of Kivalina, Alaska, and chronicles the story of indigenous Alaskans faced with having to move their entire village to higher ground because of rising sea levels.

On April 21, the Episcopal Church plans to further explore poverty and the environment during a two-hour ecumenical forum that is to be available as a live webcast. “We will explore the differential effects of environmental degradation and changing climate patterns on the poor –- in this country and around the world,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a press release.

Preaching about climate change poses clear challenges for Episcopalians, just as it does for other faith communities addressed in this ongoing Yale Forum series.

The science is complex. The specter of upsetting parishioners is real. But faith leaders, who deeply believe that the connection to creation is clear, seem determined to persist.

Also see:
Nationwide Climate ‘Preach-In’ To Target Broad Faith-Group Congregations
The Catholic Church and Climate Change
Judaism and Climate Change
Baptists and Climate Change
The United Church of Christ and Climate Change
‘Green Muslims,’ Eco-Islam and Evolving Climate Change Consciousness
Presbyterians and Climate Change
Preachable Moments: Evangelical Christians and Climate Change
Mormon Silence on Climate Change: Why, and What Might It Mean?

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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11 Responses to Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change

  1. Sean says:

    Given the battle the Episcopalians have gone through with gay clergy, I’d suspect the conservative members are gone and that the members who are left are pretty liberal. So what the heck. I just wonder how the clergy reconciles the proliferation of first generation biofuel which is essentially taking food commodities out of the system to sustain nourishment and using it for transportation in wealthy countries instead. How do you reconcile climate change solutions that make the poor poorer with being good stewards for the earth.

    • Patrick Huston says:

      When ethanol is added to gasoline to fuel our autos, fuel consumption rises enough to offset any gains in ghg emissions. When the energy expended in producing ethanol is considered, the result is higher emissions for gasohol than than for the 100% petroleum product. Maybe we should be questioning the addition of corn-based alcohol to the fuel that we use for transportation, and looking at who really benefits from this practice.

  2. Paul in Sweden says:

    Climate Change Policies most severely affect those living in poverty and the most vulnerable in our communities here in the United States and around the world.

    Families in poverty and those on fixed income are vulnerable to the rising energy costs and restricted food supplies by punitive climate change policies advocated by wealthy NGOs, Governments and individuals who have no regard for the standard of living of those who live with less.

    “The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, stopped flying for a year because he wanted to reduce his greenhouse gas footprint.” More Climate Change Policy advocates should follow the Bishop of London’s example so the rest of us will have a break from the ever increasing food and energy costs heaped on us by their actions.

    We need reasonably priced food(stop burning it in your gas tanks), clean drinking water, proper sanitation and uninterrupted electricity.

    Wake up, Pixie Dust, ground Unicorn horns, wind mills, PV solar farms & choruses of Kumbayah do not help us make the payments at the end of the month.

  3. Gordon says:

    I can’t speak for the US, but hear in Scotland the churches do not support biofuels.

    The reason churches are concerned about this issue is the effect it is having on the lives of people in developing countries. Growing seasons are already reducing and this is reducing crop yields.

    The reason that the right wing in europe also support climate change action is because they don’t want half of Africa migrating to Europe. I suspect if this was a risk the US faced then the Republicans would all be in favour of mitigation measures.

  4. Lisa Palmer says:

    The Episcopal Church in America has not come to a consensus on the issue of biofuels, and therefore does not have a policy on it. To the extent that biofuels intersect with other policy positions, such as environmental justice or environmental racism, then the church would likely chime in on a specific event or case, according to DeWayne Davis, policy analyst for the Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

    I’d like to hear from bishops and clergy on the important questions raised here. How do faith leaders reconcile the proliferation of biofuels with being good stewards of the Earth?

    I’ve reached out to some folks and will report back with any further comments.

    • That is good Lisa, I look forward to your follow up on the biofuel issues. You however did not address the fuel poverty issues or the rising cost of electricity. Do we buy food, pay the rising electric bill or fill up the tank for our home heating units? Do we cut out driving to church on Sunday?

      The heavily subsidized(on the backs of every US tax payer) Chevy Volt was revealed to have a buyer profile of one that earned more than 180,000 dollars a year. How does this sit with the Bishops?

      Those that fly off on vacations every year have the luxury to ponder these questions as others struggle to keep the heat on and have the embarrassment of putting items off the counter on the supermarket because Climate Change Policies have disproportionally effected those that are least equipped to deal with the whims of the “Climate Concerned Community”.

  5. Having read this article again, I see no reference to biofuels whatsoever and find the subject an interesting by-product of a much bigger issue. We must cut down on our use of fossil fuels across the board and some fossil fuels are certainly used to make biofuels which is not a good idea in my opinion. Corn ethanol has disrupted the corn markets around the world and not good for the poor in countries where they depend on corn as a staple. Brazil has made great strides with biofuel, but it is cellulosic rather than corn based. Clearing forests to grow any kind of ethanol is wrong in my opinion, too. We have the technology to put wind and sun to work and replace much of the dirty fossil fuels. And the automobile industry is striving to make cars that will run on electricity, too, which will cut way back on the use of oil. The challenge is making sure that biofuels and bioenergy are better than the fossil fuels they’re meant to replace. That means ensuring that all bioenergy is produced in ways that conserve our natural resources and don’t destroy wildlife habitat, create water pollution or contribute to global warming.(sentence taken from NRDC)

    The bigger issue is…. are we going to take human induced climate change seriously in this county? and shouldn’t the faith community (people who profess a love for God) be the ones to lead and serve as examples?

  6. No Sally,

    The few tenths of a degree Fahrenheit that by the absurd global temperature anomaly index is portrayed can easily be explained by any sophomore.

    Sally, have you checked to see if the temperatures in the arctic have gotten above freezing so that ice is physically capable of melting?

    Do you realize that wind patterns above 80N latitude change frequently and the ice in the arctic is blown out to southern latitudes so that it then melts?

    When rent seeking tools tell me that in an arctic region with absolutely no instruments of measurements(to speak of except for NASA GISS imaginnation) indicate arctic temperatures have changed from -50 to -49.888 I find it incredulous when you tell me that this is due to my driving an SUV vehicle.

    Populations continue to migrate from Northern latitudes to Southern latitudes because it is beneficial economically and health-wise. How long do you imagine the prolific postings and enormous quantities of ink will be expended before your readers realize that you are talking out of school?

    What will you do then for employment.

  7. As the Program Director of an MBA in Sustainability, we often wrestle with the best way to get organizations to talk about challenging topics; particularly ones that are so dynamic. I find it interesting that clergy struggle with the politics of an environmental topic. As a professor, I know I get the same type of push back when I integrate religious activism in my MBA courses.
    The tragedy is that we think in silos but there are so few issues in the world that act in silos. Climate change is food, water, weather, poverty, equity, women, and much much more.

    A bigger question may not just be about climate change but how do we bring together unlikely partners? For example, how does an MBA program that teaches climate change support clergy in talking about climate change to their parishes?

  8. Stephanie Johnson says:

    Over a year ago, I was hired by the Episcopal Bishops of New England to help the 650+ congregations in the New England region to reduce their carbon footprint. In countless conversations with people in the pews there is a real committment to responding to climate change by reducing congregational and personal energy use. Thanks to the leadership of Sally Bingham’s Interfaith Power and Light the church has a strong resource to use in doing just that. Ultimately, I believe that a more substantial ethos shift will happen as the church more fully encourages and preaches the love of God’s Creation as a central focus of our worship.