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Evangelicals Rejoice at the Church of England’s Fossil Fuel Divestment

“Unless Jesus returns we face a catastrophic future.”
Evangelicals Rejoice at the Church of England’s Fossil Fuel Divestment
Image: Loredana Sangiuliano / SOPA Imag / Sipa USA / AP
Protestors urge divestment from oil and fuel companies.

Sometimes, late at night, when her kids have gone to bed and Eleanor Getson is doing the dishes, she is hit with an almost crippling fear.

“Glaciers melting. Islands of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Forest fires wiping out millennia of history,” said Getson, a 40-year-old evangelical living in Bradford, England, with her husband and two boys. “I can’t stop scrolling through stories about climate change. … It’s too much to think about, and I get this anxiety about what my children will suffer because of us.”

That’s why Getson was delighted to hear the news that the Church of England, which she grew up in, has made the momentous decision to divest from fossil fuels. Last month, the Anglican Church Commissioners and Pensions Board announced its decision to pull all financial investments from gas and oil companies because of the way burning fossil fuels is driving climate change.

Pressure on the Church of England to divest from fossil fuel companies has been building for several years, as an increasing number of clergy, bishops, and dioceses have made divestment commitments and called for fossil-free pension schemes.

Among them have been evangelicals bringing their own distinctive arguments and motivations to the campaign. For years, evangelically inclined organizations like Operation Noah, Tearfund, United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG) and Christian Aid have been calling for the Church of England to fully divest from fossil fuel companies

Ruth Valerio, director of advocacy and influencing at Tearfund, a Christian relief and development organization based in the UK, told CT that the church has a huge role in calling on policies and practices that do not harm the natural world, such as cutting down on carbon emissions, switching to green-energy providers, and divesting from fossil fuels.

“I often think of the church as being like a sleeping giant: We’re starting to stir from our slumber, but if the church could really wake up, we would be a massive force for good around the world,” she said.

Cameron Conant, a trustee with Operation Noah, said the Church of England’s divestment is a “very big deal” because of Anglicans’ global influence. But it’s also important, he said, because the campaign, which Operation Noah helped mobilize, has won the support of a wide range of Protestants. Prominent evangelicals in the Church of England backed divestment, including Archbishop Justin Welby, an open evangelical who previously worked as an oil company executive.

In a public statement, Welby said he has been moved by the science of climate change and the call of his faith.

“The climate crisis threatens the planet we live on, and people around the world who Jesus Christ calls us to love as our neighbors,” he said. “It is our duty to protect God’s creation, and energy companies have a special responsibility to help us achieve the just transition to the low carbon economy we need.”

According to Operation Noah, the change in the Church of England has been led by people in local parishes—grassroots organizers in the High Church, Low Church, and Broad Church wings of Anglicanism.

“Divestment campaigners have cycled hundreds of miles, prayed outside places of worship, circulated letters, submitted motions and pleaded with church leaders to stop funding fossil fuels,” said Darrell Hannah, chair of Operation Noah. “The world changed thanks to their efforts.”

One of those campaigners is evangelical mission priest Jon Swales. A church planter in West Yorkshire, not far from Bradford, the 46-year-old pastor regularly preaches on the perils of climate breakdown and Christians’ calling to do something about it as a matter of justice and discipleship.

Evangelical convictions aren’t at odds with caring about the climate, he said.

“If we take the Bible seriously and believe God speaks to us through it,” he said, “he is calling us to abandon the idols of our age.”

When Swales reads the prophets or Revelation, he sees direct lessons for Christians today. He compares the warnings about bowing down to Baal and Babylon to more modern principalities and powers, such as unrestrained capitalism, consumerism, and individualism.

“The Bible may not be directly about the Anglican church and divestment,” he said, “but there are parallels.”

Swales wasn’t always persuaded that climate change should be a major concern. He didn’t reject the science of global warming before. He tried to recycle and reduce the amount he drove his car around West Yorkshire, but in the end, he wasn’t all that concerned.

But he went through a change of heart about five years ago when his daughter was on a climate march and he went with her to hear some speeches. He heard one speaker who reminded him of prophets like Amos and Hosea, John and Jonah, warning that we need to act now to avert catastrophe.

“I realized climate breakdown was eschatological,” he said. “Unless Jesus returns, we face a catastrophic future.”

Swales’s conversion corresponds with a general sea of change in British public opinions on climate change and appropriate responses to it. Multiple polls since 2019 have shown an increase in the number of Britons reporting they are concerned. According to a November 2022 poll conducted by the UK-based research and analytics firm YouGov, more than two-thirds of the British public (67%) are worried, and a majority (62%) believe it will take “drastic change” to avert the worst impacts.

Another poll showed that many want to see a significant shift in the financial sector. Sixty percent of people in Great Britain would like banks and financial institutions to ditch investments in coal, oil, and gas.

Amid this momentum, Swales said evangelicals need to be asking about what discipleship will look like in a society heading rapidly toward collapse. “Divestment is one way to avert the worst-case scenarios,” he said.

Another parish priest who has campaigned for divestment is Vanessa Conant, rector of St. Mary’s Walthamstow in northeast London, where she has served for the last eight years.

Conant, who is married to Cameron at Operation Noah, grew up in what she called the “more evangelical wing” of the Church of England. She sees the divestment campaign, which Operation Noah has been leading since 2013, as a faithful continuation of the evangelical heritage of justice movements, such as efforts to expand education and abolish slavery.

“These were huge movements to integrate our faith in Jesus Christ,” she said, “and use our life to further the kingdom of God.”

As with those movements, much of British Christians’ climate change activism is rooted in the life of the parish, Conant said. In her church, she opens the Word and asks questions like these: What does it mean to lay down one’s life for a friend? What does it look like to pick up your cross in a warming world?

In response, she’s seen the congregation look for new ways to cherish what God has made and take steps to better care for their neighbors. Some of that looks like campaigning for divestment, but there are also quieter efforts to apply the gospel in context. Their churchyard has been set aside as a haven for biodiversity. The congregation has thrown itself into A Rocha International’s Eco Church program, marching to silver status. The laity lead a Climate Sunday service each year.

Divestment is just one piece of climate change activism in the church, she said. And she is encouraged to see how much hope Christians have, pursuing positive change as an act of faithful witness.

“So much of climate talk necessarily has a huge element of fear in it, and we have to recognize there is an urgency. But there is a huge amount of joy in responding to this call,” Conant said. “Although there is fear and anxiety, at the heart this is about returning us to the beauty of living in right relationship with God, creation, and others. We were made for this.”

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