Greening our churches

Published on: 1 March 2017

"Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth" The Anglican Communion's fifth Mark of Mission.

During the course of many conversations I have had with parishes one question is raised fairly frequently: “What can WE do to make our church and churchyard more environmentally friendly?” Now that’s an interesting question!

For most of us in the Diocese of Norwich, our local churches were built in the middle ages, when life was quite different from today. No one had concerns regarding carbon footprints, or energy-efficient heating systems, bio-diversity or even whether churches had lavatories or not: a bush in the churchyard would have to suffice! Health and safety was unheard of, life expectancy was low, infant mortality high and the general population very definitely knew its place in the grand scheme of things: it was a very different time to be alive.

From that world, we have inherited an amazing number of ancient, beautiful, important and challenging church buildings, created to glorify God with their wonderful architecture, yet erected long before the comfort of congregations and global warming ever entered the collective consciousness.

Balancing the historic nature of churches with the needs not only of the local community but of the building itself can be quite challenging. To give some sense of perspective, the Diocese of Norwich contains the greatest concentration of medieval churches in the world and the City of Norwich a higher number of medieval churches than any city north of the Alps. Over 90 percent of our 656 churches are listed, with the majority being grade I or II*, meaning that they are either exceptional or particularly important, sometimes on an international level.

This does not mean, however, that adapting them to make them greener can’t or shouldn’t be done, nor indeed that it hasn’t been carried out to great effect in many places. Listing and historicity are not necessarily barriers to initiating changes. Many ancient and venerable churches throughout England have benefitted from being made more environmentally friendly, making the buildings greener, congregations holier and treasurers happier!

One of the best ways to make our churches more sustainable is to increase the amount of use they receive. Designed and built for a time when a far greater proportion of the population attended services, our churches are often larger than the current worshipping congregation requires. A great way to achieve a more ‘efficient’ building is to increase its occupancy. Perhaps opening the church to use by local community groups or an adjacent school could be a way forward, or holding cultural functions (such as concerts or art exhibitions) inside the building in addition to regular services would create greater sustainability.

A parish could decide to undertake a heating/energy audit, such as St Michael’s in Cumnor (Diocese of Oxford). Set up primarily to manage and reduce costs, the scheme saw a reduction in CO2 emissions from the church. By carefully tracking their use of energy substantial reductions were made by putting in stringent controls when it came to their heating and electrical output. According to John Blackie from the parish: “The lesson in all of this is that by reading the meters once a week, every week of the year, one of the larger costs the parish carries is managed. One is ‘on top of it’. And someone has to think about why any particular reading is what it is.”

Another way to reduce carbon emissions and costs is to install ground source heat pumps. St Michael’s in Reepham (Diocese of Norwich) was refurbished in 2011 and now acts as a thriving community resource. Rosie Foottit, PCC Secretary, offered the following thoughts: “The installation includes three deep, vertical shafts in the churchyard, from which the heat is transferred by an electric pump to under-floor pipework. This results in the church being kept at a reasonable constant temperature, boosted when necessary for special events. It is helped by insulation in the roof. It is good for the fabric as well as people. The running costs compare favourably with oil, and of course it is very good environmentally. The church now provides an excellent and well-used venue for church and social events.”

St Mary the Virgin in Grundisburgh (Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) installed solar panels on their hidden south aisle roof. Clive Willetts, PCC Treasurer, states: “The electricity generated in this way makes a contribution to reducing carbon emissions and is therefore in line with the ‘Shrinking the Footprint’ aim of a reduction of 40 percent by 2050. At a parish level it makes an immediate contribution to the running costs of our church as all electricity generated by the panels will provide a payment, reducing the financial burden of growing energy bills on us. Plus any electricity used from the panels will be free to us

and any electricity not used by us will go to the national grid.”

Closer to home, St Margaret of Antioch in Thorpe Market (Diocese of Norwich) looked creatively at encouraging biodiversity in the churchyard. This arose partly by accident, as Churchwarden Geoffrey Hunter explains: “The impetus for going back to the traditional management of the churchyard was really financial. Back in 2000 there were insufficient volunteers to keep the churchyard mown, the mower had just packed up and the PCC couldn’t afford another one, and to pay a contractor was out of the question. So the churchyard was left for a year, and all these flowers appeared!”

Reacting to this remarkable situation the parish decided to produce a conservation management plan and this has promoted much greater diversity and a more sympathetic environment. Blessed now with numerous rare wildflower species and burgeoning other wildlife, the churchyard in Thorpe Market is a testament to how simple commitment and management can encourage both greater understanding and appreciation of our world.

Many further green avenues are open to parishes to explore, such as energyefficient lighting, flexible heating systems or biomass boilers. As each church is unique so are the solutions available: what is right for one may not be right for all. What is open for everyone, however, is the ability to start the conversation: what can WE do to green our church?!

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