Faith Communities and Environmental Activism

Report for Church of Scotland and Eco-Congregation Scotland

18 – 20 May 2017, University of Edinburgh

The conference brought together academics, practitioners, students and others from around Europe and beyond. It was organised by Edinburgh University with the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment (EFSRE) and the European Christian Environment Network (ECEN); with financial support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) .

While the conference ranged widely in the content of papers presented and discussion groups a repeated theme was research carried out in Edinburgh University during the Ancestral Time project. Researchers who contributed to the project, which was in large part a study of the activities of Eco-Congregation Scotland, are now writing up their findings and these formed a significant part of the proceedings.

Summary of contributions

Michael Northcott introduced the Ancestral Time study and how it explored whether this concept of time was helpful to explain the contribution of congregations to environmental action.

There were presentations from Adrian Shaw, Eszter Kodascy (Lutheran church in Hungary) and Alice Hague, PhD student in the University of Edinburgh researching the work of eco-congregations in Edinburgh. These were followed by a site visit to Arthur’s Seat to explore the idea of deep time in the work of James Hutton. The visit was led by Alan Werritty and followed by a visit to Duddingston Kirk and its gardens - an opportunity for participants to see the work of an eco-congregation.

Julie Hutchison of Standard Life described the growing interest of churches in divestment and reinvestment. She noted UK charities collectively have £100 billion of investments and that the law on fiduciary duty empowers charities to divest from fossil fuel companies if ownership of such shares contradicts the charity’s objectives. Henrik Grape of the church of Sweden described how that church had now divested completely from fossil fuel shares with no financial loss or political controversy.   

A series of parallel papers explored a range of themes.  These included the following.

  • Issues of identity for green Christians (an environmentalist  in church can be lonely: not quite a Christian, not quite an environmentalist)
  • Eco anxiety and faith communities (environmentalism is a cruel religion; always demanding more but never offering forgiveness)
  • The theology of oil (richly present in the bible but today a source of destruction)
  • The theological dimensions of the energy transition (and the possibility that it might offer redemption and renewal).
  • Eco-theology in Calvinist thought (key figures in American environmentalism have been  associated with the Presbyterian church)

Andy Atkins gave an address arguing that churches in the UK should make a much greater contribution to environmental movement and to do so should set higher targets and aspirations.   

The conference concluded with presentations from Elizabeth Bomberg on the differences between secular and Christian approaches to environmental issues with secular group stressing threats and crises and faith groups expressing greater hope in the face of challenges; and Jeremy Kidwell summarising the main themes to emerge from the conference. 

Concluding impressions

  • The conference was a great success in bringing together different interests who were able to communicate effectively.  Having a contribution from the finance sector was particularly significant.
  • The work of Eco-Congregation Scotland took centre stage; an opportunity to celebrate its success in success in building a movement of 400 congregations and to reflect on how we can grow and develop.
  • The sense of hope and optimism that faith groups can bring to the debate, despite the scale of the challenges is important, as is the possibility that economic or technical transformation could be accompanied by spiritual revival.


Adrian Shaw, 22 May 2017