Church of England governing body approves divestment policy

The Church of England’s governing body has thrown its weight behind efforts to slow climate change by backing the move earlier this year to divest its resources from from companies involved in extracting two of the most polluting fossil fuels.

In May, the Church Commissioners, who manage investments worth £6bn, took the decision to divest from tar sands oil and thermal coal – the first time they had ever imposed investment restrictions on environmental grounds.

But a series of votes at the General Synod meeting in York on Monday were about more than just rubber stamping that decision. The debate took in potential future divestments, Arctic drilling, energy efficiency of church buildings and even the CO2 emissions connected with the internet.

The Archbishop of Canterbury urged caution on the exploitation of Arctic oil reserves and pushed for disinvestment or engagement with companies in certain areas such as Arctic drilling. However the Synod turned down a motion which would have committed the church to threaten disinvestment from all oil companies if they had not committed to ceasing oil exploration within three years.

“We are to be exemplary in what we do ourselves,” Welby told the Synod, adding: “It comes down to the use of our buildings, how we use and invest our finances, and how we heat and light things; the amount we travel.”

He said however that the issue “was too big for most people to get their minds around, including us here. It is an issue for the whole people of God, not just the clergy.”

In this spirit, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, had proposed that church member should try to fast on the first day of every month, but this was defeated after Archdeacon Jan MacFarlane pointed out that a “mischievous journalist” might ring round a selection of bishops and synod members after a few months and ask if they were actually observing the fast.

Margaret Swinson, a lay member from Birmingham, urged Christians to do their bit by being careful with the use of cloud storage on the internet. The computer centres used for storage by companies like Google , Facebook, and Amazon use huge amounts of electricity, she said, much of it generated by burning coal. “Think twice before uploading onto your cloud storage another 100 photos, 25 of which are not in focus,” she urged.

But the hall rang with apocalyptic predictions. The Dean of Kings College, London, Richard Burridge, quoted from the book of Leviticus: “The land will vomit you out because you have defiled it.” Although the Biblical text refers to sexual rather than ecological transgressions, he went on to quote God’s threatened punishments for defiling the land.

“I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it ... Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit.” These things, he said, he had already seen in this travels in Malawi, where the evil effects of global warming are to be seen already.

The bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev David Walker, praised the work of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group in pushing companies towards more ecologically responsible policies. They had filed shareholder resolutions on climate change at the AGMs of both BP and Shell, which he described as “an unprecedented action by institutional investors. The resolutions set a new, demanding, and ligally binding standard in reporting on climate change strategy for oil and gas majors.”

He pointed out that: “Many activists deeply concerned about climate change – including the Guardian newspaper – believe that the ethical investment answer to climate change is … to divest from all companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels.” However, he argued, along with all the othe senior figures in the debate, that engagement and guiding the investments of energy companies was much more likely to produce the desperately necessary results.

The Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground campaign has been highlighting the case for fossil fuel divestment. It has called on the world’s two largest health charities – the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - to divest their assets from fossil fuels.