Starting an eco journey with your church


Paul Heppleston from Wellspring Church in Wirksworth, Derbyshire shares his insights into church and community action on environmental issues.

I’m writing this on World Environment Day – June 5th - an appropriate time to take stock and to see where our churches are in relation to the climate chaos that seems to be just around the corner. There are many people proclaiming climatic doom; but there are equally people, especially those of faith, who retain the word hope in their vocabulary.

Wellspring Church in Wirksworth is an LEP (Methodist/Baptist) inaugurated in 2014. When the climate crisis became evidently and potentially severe I, as a one-time ecologist, started the process of an eco-journey with my church.

Our first action was to become an Eco Church. Many of you will be familiar with its purpose – A Rocha’s award scheme for churches in England and Wales (Eco Congregation is the Scottish equivalent) who want to demonstrate that the Gospel is good news not just for humanity but for the Earth.

The bronze, silver and gold award system is simply an incentive; but another incentive springs from our experience, wisdom and our concern for our environment and for all of God's creation. That’s why churches become an Eco Church. 

Our eco-church journey (still continuing three years on) began with common sense as our God-given guide-book. It wasn’t long before we reached bronze level and I believe at least 50% of churches could reach that level with little difficulty simply by taking stock of what they’re already doing. There are five categories within which one can work. You can find details of these here.  

We allocated each of the five separately to members of the congregation; that didn’t mean that they had to do all the work – our intent was that it be a congregational commitment and therefore congregation members could, and should, be involved as much as they wish.

At this point we began a series of three Climate Sunday services in the year September 2020 to September 2021. They track our progress through the year but also enable us to present different emphases on each of the three occasions; the final one will be just five weeks before COP26 begins in Glasgow.

One of the key things is to keep people informed – not just the five section leaders but the whole congregation; this can be done through weekly news-sheets, on the church website and even delivered paper-based information to those without internet. Keeping people informed equates to keeping them encouraged and that is vital. It’s easy to lose track and enthusiasm if you let it drift and that was our challenge, as it would be for many churches.

As it happened it didn’t take more than one further year to reach the silver level in April 2020, but of course that was at the beginning of lockdown and little further progress was possible. There are some suggestions in the Eco Church scheme that require funding, and churches who have limited funds might struggle a little to reach a certain level. But if there is encouragement and commitment even that obstacle can be overcome. In tackling some of the suggestions that we haven’t yet touched we are doing ‘what we can, with what we’ve got, where we are’.

One of the focus points on our continuing Eco-journey is COP26 in November. Homing in on that huge climate conference gives us purpose and momentum as we engage in other projects which we started at the end of 2020 under the banner of Hope for the Future’s Make COP26 Count programme. It is a highly supportive scheme with guidance on communicating effectively with your MP on climate issues, taking further actions in one’s community and coming up with creative ideas to raise awareness. This we decided to do ecumenically, engaging with and involving others from different churches who have special gifts to bring to the months of action.

We started by using Operation Noah’s Tenants of the King Lent course 2021 in all the town’s churches, which gained much publicity and was effective in getting people to begin the thinking process needed from a faith perspective.

Our Conservative MP responded (over Zoom) very positively to our requests for information and promises of action-letters to government ministers (I needn’t have been anxious!).

As a church we are re-wilding our old cemetery and making it wildlife-friendly and somewhere for people to sit and reflect in carefully-planned surroundings.

Our team is setting up an Energy Switch programme in June/July where information will be offered to all in the town, through various media outlets, on how simple and beneficial it is to switch to a ‘greener’ electricity tariff. It’s not a topic without problems but we’ll do our best to get people thinking...

In early October we shall be holding a large Eco-Fayre in conjunction with the local (very popular) farmers’ market. Present will be groups and individuals who have a passion for environmental improvements, whether it be electric cars, solar panels, re-wilding and so on.

A Statement of Climate Concern was written and circulated to as many groups in the local area as possible, asking people to consider adding their name to this Statement which in effect summarised climate concerns and fears – but also hopes. The final document (with names) will be given to our MP and local councillors simply to give an indication of the depth of climate feeling present amongst ordinary people. We deliberately did not make it churchy in any way.

A personal symbolic act was my own contribution beyond the group actions. Since my mind (one of many) has been ‘moving towards Glasgow’ this year and since there is so much hope resting on COP26, I decided to ‘move’ in another (virtual) way to Glasgow, by counting up all the miles I walk in my normal, active life pattern from February onwards (including holidays), aiming to cover the 300 miles from my home to the Armadillo in Glasgow. I am hoping that through JustGiving people might feel able to support me as I in turn acknowledge the huge support we have all gained from Hope for the Future and Operation Noah (50:50) in helping us through this kairos year.