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Sunday, September 6, 2009

My speech to Canberra Ecumenical Breakfast on September 5th

I have come to ask you and your church to join me on a journey. Some of you may have already started on this journey, while others may still be standing on shore looking at the ship with trepidation. The first few steps may be hard, but I promise you it is worth the leap.

The journey I speak of is that of making our churches and lives more environmentally friendly and of reducing our impact on God’s creation. Church greening is a young and exciting movement. In the UK, and particularly the US it is rapidly taking off and gaining a lot of power as hundreds of churches and church leaders become engaged in environmental improvement projects and environmental certification schemes. Here in Australia, the movement is smaller, but already there are some really exciting stories coming from churches around the country. Currently a new church is being built in the grounds of an environmental education centre in Melbourne for a congregation who are so focused on the environment they chose their new minister for her ability to fit in with that philosophy. Another church in Melbourne, the Port Melbourne Uniting Church is running an eco-project including a community garden which provides food for their outreach programs to the local poor. They were the first church in Australia to achieve the Five Leaf Eco-Awards Basic Certificate and they have many more exciting plans for the future. Another example is St Luke’s Uniting Church in Geelong who achieved a 22% reduction in their energy use last year, and are planning to reduce this by a further 10% this year. In Sydney Project Green Church at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church have been running their exciting program for years and closer to home we have the community garden at O’Connor UC, some exciting greening work at the Greenhills Camp and Conference centre and the solar panels recently installed at Kippax Uniting Church.

It is an exciting journey we are on, and as with all journeys, we must find stars to navigate by. In this case, as in many others, the Bible acts as our guide.

In Genesis 2:15 the Bible says, “The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and care for it.” I think it is worth noting that one of the first tasks God ever gave us to do, as a species, was to tend the garden of Eden and to act as stewards of the earth, and all the life in it (Genesis 1:28). It was not until much later that we were given the Ten Commandments, and only thousands of years later that we were given the great commission. As stewards of the earth we are expected to care for God’s creation, as any good child cares for their parent’s things.
Pearl Bartel once said that “I fail or succeed in my stewardship of life in proportion to how convinced I am that life belongs to God.” So, maybe we all need to read Psalm 24:1 a couple more times, or even just the Bible in general. I don’t know how many of you have seen this, but this is the ‘green bible’. Similar to the popular red letter Bibles, this one has any verse to do with the environment highlighted in green. It turns out there are over a thousand, which is more mentions than even grace or love.

The Bible says that God cares for creation by providing for the various creatures (Psalm 104:10-13) any has his eye upon every sparrow (Luke 12:6). All things are held together by God (Psalm 119:91), and remain to praise the Glory of God and proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1-4).
In Deuteronomy 20:19 God tells his people not to destroy the trees, even during war, as they are not our enemies. If God is concerned for nature even in times of war, should we not also show a similar vigilance for creation?

There is an interesting paraphrase of Haggai 1:4-8 which goes like this: “Is it a time for you to be living in panelled houses, while the earth needs replenishing, and people are too busy to worship in my house? Consider your ways. You plant gardens but waste food. You eat when you're hungry, and continue eating when your stomachs are full. You eat just to eat while people are starving. Because you never seem to have enough to drink, many families suffer. You wear designer clothes and leave price tags showing to brag of their cost, but you are not warm. You work, work; and spend, spend, spend the money you earn. You rob the earth of its resources and deplete the ozone. This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Consider your ways. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor. Go plant trees; replenish the earth, so my creation will honour me. Make time to worship in the house of the Lord." Chris Seaton (1992), Whose earth? Crossway books (London)

Jeremiah 12:4 laments “How long must this land weep? Even the grass in the field has withered. The wild animals and birds have disappeared because of the evil in the land." Indeed, my question would be, how long are we going to leave the land to weep? Or are we going to get up today and do something about it? After all, the small selection of Bible verses I have already shown you indicate quite clearly that caring for creation is, as the former Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulbourn once said, core Christian business. It is not a peripheral task, but a core task of all Christians who love the Lord.

If we believe that creation belongs to God (see Psalm 50: 10-11), then to damage that with which we were entrusted is the ultimate disrespect to God, and to the responsibilities he has given us. One of my favourite quotes puts it nicely, “Imagine how you would feel about meeting Leonardo Da Vinci if you knew you had set fire to the Mona Lisa!” Yet that is exactly what humanity has been doing by putting its own needs and desire for ‘progress’ ahead of the needs of the natural world which sustains us. In some circles the church is blamed for allowing and even encouraging this abuse. As Alistair Macrae, the president elect of the Uniting church Assembly has said of environmental issues, "Unfortunately we are seen as ‘Johnny-come-latelies’ to this issue, but from our own deep theological reserves we should be showing leadership on issues of the environment and sustainable living.” "Whether it is questions of the abundance of life, the future of the planet, the nature of life, stewardship, justice — all the big theological issues are caught up in the environmental issue," he says.

According to Mr Macrae "Mainstream churches in Australia and elsewhere are in a crisis situation. Do we go into shutdown and fear mode, or consider that maybe God wants us to do and be something different?” "Our position in society has radically changed. Most of us see the threat in that but we need, as a church, to see the opportunities. I want to say ‘park the fear and trust God’.”

Mr Macrae wasn’t talking specifically of the environmental issue here, but I think his comments are still applicable. I believe God is calling urgently for us to act in the area of creation care. It might be a little new and scary, but we need to step out in faith and act.

So where are we headed on this journey? What does it mean to be a green church?

To be a ‘green’ church can mean different things to different people. I see a green church as a church that has taken a leadership role in their community’s progress towards sustainability. This involves two main steps; firstly, the church must put its own house in order by becoming as sustainable and ecologically friendly as it can; then it must promote and empower its congregation and the surrounding community to practice sustainability. On their own, most churches do not have a large ecological footprint (a measure of the impact of a person or organisation on the environment), however they have the potential to make a huge difference by influencing their communities.
My dream, and yours might be slightly different, goes something like this:
On Sunday morning I drag myself out of bed and ride my bike over to my local church. As I enter the solar panels on the roof glint in the sun and I can see a rainwater tank peeking around the side. I am greeted by a smiling face and handed a newssheet printed on recycled paper. I flick to the environmental tips and events section and scan the offerings. Then I move to a table to place some native flowers and a box of fruit from my garden on it for distribution.

Next I grab a cup of Fairtrade coffee and sit in the sun to enjoy the building’s passive heating. In worship we sing thanks to God for the wonders of creation and, as it is September and we are doing the Season of Creation, we have an interesting sermon about the need to follow Biblical practices and values in our lives in order to reduce our environmental impact. When we share communion it is with tasty, fresh, home-made bread baked with organic flour and environmentally friendly grape juice. The gentle light of beeswax candles and sunlight illuminate the scene.

In our prayers for others our weekly endangered species prayer is for the endangered frogs we had a talk about at the youth meeting on Friday. We also thank God for the way he has blessed and added to our church through our environmental work.

After the service I pack up my copy of the Green Bible and join the communal lunch. Fresh, local, vegetarian food abounds and is shared with the homeless. After the meal I quickly make a couple of arrangements for the clothes, book and tool swap next week. Then I meet up with the church green group and we head out to Greenhills Camp and Conference Centre for a working bee. Our Canberra Christian Environmental Action group is going quite well, with our church teams and local conservation groups making quite a difference around Canberra by dedicating a few hours per week. It is a testament to the way the church has now taken leadership in the environmental arena.

Ok, so we are probably still a long way off. Yet I have not mentioned anything that is not possible, nor anything that could not, in theory, be started today. The church could, and I think should, become a leader in the future development of the environmental movement. Especially here in Canberra; where we have a highly educated population, with one of the highest incomes per capita in the country, and also one of the highest levels of awareness of environmental issues. These privileges come with a responsibility to lead the country in environmental efforts.

Along this journey you might need some help, so let me introduce you to some of the crew and tools available to you:

Uniting Earthweb
Uniting Earthweb is a network of Uniting Church people within NSW and the ACT who work for a greater connection between ecology and Christian faith and practice, including through theological study, the arts, worship, and practical projects and campaigns. The Uniting Earthweb website can be found at and includes many awesome stories of what other churches are doing in NSW and the ACT to care for the environment. Why not add your story? Also, don’t forget to sign up to the monthly bulletin of faith and environment events...

The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is a multifaith network committed to taking action on climate change. They believe that the religions of Australia have a shared sense of moral purpose on climate change. Each of our diverse traditions has a common concern for our world and a deep reverence for life. We strongly acknowledge the interdependent relationship between our welfare and that of the planet, and between social justice and ecological integrity. We recognise the threat posed to these by human-induced climate change. While celebrating the uniqueness of our different traditions, we stand together in working for an ecologically and socially sustainable future.
Become a member of ARRCC today at

‘Five Leaf Eco-Awards’ Canberra Pilot
The Five Leaf Eco-Awards are an ecumenical environmental award program. We inspire and assist churches to make their buildings, worship, congregation, outreach and leadership more environmentally friendly.
Our Mission: “To bring people closer to God by bringing them into a right and faithful relationship with creation as its appointed stewards.”
The Five Leaf Eco-Awards include both a basic and an advanced program which provides a framework and goals for churches to improve their environmental performance in the five areas and gives them recognition for doing so.
In the future we also hope to offer a range of additional yearly awards such as Best Eco-Sermon Award, Energy Saver Award, Water Saver Award, Creature Care Award, Australian Christian Eco-Hero Awards, Church Eco-Hero Certificates, Greenest Church Award and Church with the Biggest Improvement Certificate.
So why not start working towards one of these with your church?
We are also looking for more churches to join the Canberra pilot, so if you are interested please email me on or talk to me after this.

Five Leaf also offers a range of extra services to individuals and churches interested in church greening. These include speeches and workshops at churches, the monthly Five Leaf Newsletter - Salt and Light, the Crown of Thorns blog written by Five Leaf founder Jessica Morthorpe : and the Church Greening and Christian Environmentalist Network on Facebook :

Now, it’s probably a good thing that we have some help, because as we all know, this ship of ours is taking on water. Climate change, species extinction, desertification, ocean acidification, salinity, introduced species, deforestation, fragmentation... our planet is in a bit of a mess and we must act now to save it. If you want to help, but don’t know where to start, here are some ideas:

At your church: Do a review of your pew sheets or newsletter. Is it printed on recycled paper (reflex has a 100% recycled and Australian made product out now if you can find it)? Is it printed on both sides? Do you need to have physical copies at all, or can you email it to some of your congregation? And do you have a weekly environmental tip included? Why not help your congregation on their sustainability journey too?

Another thing you can consider as a church is the ethical and environmental aspects of the food and drinks you have. Do you use Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance tea and coffee? And when you have communal meals, what kind of food do you encourage people to bring? Is it home grown, Local, Organic, Unprocessed, free range, Less packaged and is any seafood certified sustainable? If you have never been to the farmer’s markets at EPIC on Saturday mornings, why not try it when you leave here? Better yet, is it vegetarian? I know many people love their meat, and I won’t ask you to give it up, (although if you reduce your intake by one 150g serve of red meat each week, you'll save 10,000 litres of water and 300kg of greenhouse pollution in a year). But I must admit, as a vegetarian myself, I always feel a lot more included in a celebration when everything is vegetarian and I don’t have to spend five minutes peering at the food before I eat it.

We can also follow the Pope’s example and get solar panels on our roof.

At home, please remember to turn your appliances off when you aren’t using them, and unplug them so you don’t lose energy to the vampires. Appliances on standby can account for 10% of your electricity use, and turning just one off at the wall can save 45kg of greenhouse gas each year.

Also, think about your heating and cooling. This is an area where you can make big dividends for not only the environment, but also your pocket. By ensuring you keep the heating to eighteen degrees in winter, and the air conditioning to twenty four degrees in summer the average house can save $90 a year. Where you can, try and heat or cool only one room, or better yet, use clothing to moderate your temperature and save another $90 a year. Using a quilt, hot water bottle and warm PJ’s instead of a heater at night can save you $150 per year on your heating bill.
Heating is also a big issue in churches, so make sure you are using the most efficient system possible.

Ok, so hopefully that has given you some ideas of where to start, but remember this is a journey, you can’t reduce your footprint to nothing tomorrow and it is not a good idea to turn this into another type of legalism. I know how hard it can be to change some of our behaviours that have a negative impact on the earth, and like all sins, if you try to do it on your own you probably won’t succeed. Pray, ask God for help, and if you can, get together with other people on the journey who can support you and keep you accountable, motivated and educated. And remember, as Lao Tzu said, “The longest journey begins with a single step.”

So I think it’s time for this ship to leave the harbour. Are you and your church on board?

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Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+