‘It’s still not high enough up the priority list’: Revd Dr Rachel Mash discusses how environmental issues featured at this summer’s Lambeth Conference

The tree-planting ceremony during the Environmental and Sustainable Development Day at Lambeth Palace during the 2022 Lambeth Conference. Revd Dr Rachel Mash is pictured on the far right. Photo: Andrew Baker for The Lambeth Conference. Wednesday 3 August 2022

From 26 July to 8 August 2022, more than 600 bishops from around the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. Joining them was South Africa’s Revd Dr Rachel Mash – secretary of the Anglican Communion Environmental Network and a member of the drafting committee that wrote the Lambeth Call on the Environment and Sustainable Development.

Environment was one of eight ‘themes’ of this summer’s Lambeth Conference alongside Mission and Evangelism, Safe Church, Communion, Reconciliation, Christian Unity, Interfaith Relations and Discipleship.

The Anglican Communion is an association of churches in 165 countries and one of the largest branches of Christianity in the world, making it an important global body that can take action on international issues like the climate and nature crises. 

Last week, Rachel – who in 2021 received the Cross of St Augustine from the Archbishop of Canterbury for environmental services to the Anglican Communion – spoke to Operation Noah about the role environmental issues played at the once-a-decade Lambeth gathering. 

In addition to the environmental workshops and speeches – one of which was given by Kenyan activist Liz Wathuti – the two biggest things that happened environmentally at Lambeth were the announcement of the Communion Forest (a global project to protect forests, reforest land and restore nature) and the Lambeth Call on the Environment and Sustainable Development. 

While most of the Lambeth Conference was held at the University of Kent in Canterbury, the Communion Forest project was announced on 3 August 2022 at Lambeth Palace in London as part of Environmental and Sustainable Development Day. Rachel said the location was fitting, given that ‘the grass in the garden at Lambeth Palace was absolutely burnt. Standing outside, it was too hot – everyone was hiding under trees.’ 

According to Rachel, the Communion Forest is not an offset project, but something much bigger than that.

‘We don’t want to give people the idea that our consciences are now clear because we have set aside a certain amount of money. Rather, this is the launch of a programme of ecosystem restoration.’

The Communion Forest website describes the project as ‘a global initiative comprising local activities of forest protection, tree-growing and eco-system restoration undertaken by provinces, dioceses and individual churches across the Anglican Communion to safeguard creation’. 

Rachel added: ‘The idea of the Communion Forest is that we’re forming partnerships with technical advisors so that bishops can say, “I would like to plant in Tanzania, what trees can I plant?” We’re also encouraging bishops to integrate tree-planting into their ministry, so every time you do a baptism, a wedding, a confirmation or a funeral, you have tree-planting.’  

Rachel said that Anglican bishops and dioceses would also be encouraged to start tree nurseries, and added that anyone proposing Communion Forest projects would first be encouraged to ensure that the trees being considered for planting were suitable, and that a watering programme was in place.

‘People can then give donations to the diocese they would like to help, and we will link them (through the Communion Forest website). We’ve employed someone to oversee the website.’ 

Rachel said that as part of Communion Forest, the Anglican Communion also wants to support communities ‘defending the forests’. To that end, the Anglican Communion plans to host webinars on a variety of issues integral to protecting forests and biodiversity.

‘What is the best way for the Church to be involved in raising the voices of indigenous people? We want to have a series of webinars on different topics like this,’ Rachel said.

The other important environmental news from Lambeth was a quietly radical document that Rachel and others wrote on the environment (the Lambeth Call on the Environment and Sustainable Development), which bishops discussed at the conference and commented on in small groups.

The comments from bishops were recorded and will be taken into consideration; minor changes may be made over the coming months before the final document is published. 

The Lambeth Call on the Environment and Sustainable Development calls on world leaders to enact ‘bold and urgent policy changes’, including, ‘halting new gas and oil exploration’, ‘achieving net-zero carbon emissions…to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’ and ‘fulfilling and substantially increasing their commitments to climate finance, including for loss and damage due to climate change’. 

It also states that ‘humanity needs a spiritual and cultural transformation. We must see the world differently: repenting of and rejecting an extractive world view, which regards the earth and all nature as something to be exploited, and embracing a relational worldview, espoused especially by indigenous peoples, which sees the profound interdependence of all creation.’ 

Rachel said that while environmental issues still need to be higher up the Church’s agenda, the climate and nature crises are now being taken seriously across the entire Anglican Communion.  

‘What really struck me in our discussions at Lambeth was just how many people are now being impacted across the board. It’s California, it’s South Sudan – everybody is being really impacted. This is now on our agenda, but it’s still not high enough up the priority list.’ 

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