'Live simply that others may simply live'.
This saying was the first thing to strike me when I and a second Livesimply assessor visited St John Bosco Church in Woodley in August 2012 to consider the parish for the Livesimply parish award. It's a strong Christian message but you don't often see it presented starkly in front of a congregation. Here, it was written in large letters behind the main altar of the church, which is near Reading in Portsmouth Diocese.
We were shown around the church site. "You can climb up this ladder and look at our new solar panels", suggested a proud parishioner. "That won't be necessary, I'll look at the photos" I retorted looking skywards, and was truly impressed to see shots of the parish priest up on the church roof in the wind blessing the 16 panels. They were fitted two months earlier and the £7,500 renewable energy project was funded by the parish itself. According to British Gas, churches in the UK could save as much as £34 million a year by switching to solar power. This would amount to an annual reduction in carbon emissions of up to 42,000 tonnes, or the same as that emitted during over 600 transatlantic flights.
The parish had also installed a new energy-efficient boiler in June 2011and all the church lighting had been changed to low-energy light bulbs. It reduced energy use, for example, in the winter, the smaller Lady Chapel was used for weekday masses and only this area was heated. Three boxes of food at the back were donated by parishioners for the local foodbank. Fairly traded goods were on sale in the parish porch after weekend masses. "They love fairly traded ginger biscuits" we were told when we asked about the most popular item. We saw acknowledgements from government ministers of parish letters urging Climate Change action, photos of walkers who undertook the annual Livesimply Creation Walk in nearby woodlands, evidence of systematic recycling, piles of parishioners' Livesimply pledges, and so much more.
This parish became the first parish in England and Wales to receive the Livesimply Parish Award for its commitment to live more simply and sustainably and to stand in solidarity with the world's poor. It was fitting that the award - a wooden plaque recycled from church pews - was presented during the annual Creation Mass a month later by CAFOD's Director, Chris Bain. "Live simply that others may simply live" was still displayed behind the altar. The flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables which parishioners had grown themselves and displayed on the altar were afterwards taken to a Reading drop-in centre for the homeless.
I've been so impressed by other parishes too which are among the 19 to have achieved the award in England and Wales. Petts Wood parish in Southwark Archdiocese created a beautiful and tranquil wildlife garden and worship space. It reduced the carbon footprint of the church by nearly 10 per cent by switching electricity supplies to a renewable energy supplier and encouraging 'leave the car at home' weekends. The parishioners have marked baptisms and other special occasions by planting more than 70 trees in British woodlands.
In Westminster Archdiocese, St. John Vianney at West Green has reduced energy use, encouraged walking to church, supported recycling through local charity shops and started a parish garden. Three parishioners were at the 1 June 'Pray and Fast for the Climate' ecumenical service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Holy Apostles in Pimlico is a beacon Fairtrade Parish, with all beverages fairly traded products and posters to inform visitors of this. There is significant greenery around the premises and all well maintained, demonstrating to passers-by that the Church cares for the environment. The parish invited CAFOD in for a weekend with the Confirmation Group focusing on solidarity with wider world issues. There is regular educational and reflective work on Catholic Social Teaching and discerning what it means to live sustainably in the world and according to Gospel values.
To support parishes and individuals, the ecumenical group Green Christian - whose chair Paul Bodenham is a Catholic - is running an 'ecocell' campaign where small groups strive for sustainable living in their personal lives. Steps are suggested towards 'carbon-free discipleship' and such issues as energy use in the home, food and travel are examined. Green Christian also runs an exciting programme inviting Christians to engage with 'building a just society within the limits of the Earth'. The last 'Joy in Enough' event I attended in Birmingham was packed out with energetic people willing to work towards 'a vision for a genuinely sustainable economy which promotes ecological, social, psychological and moral flourishing'. The Green Christian website offers a range of resources including worship materials.
Pope Francis has described modern society as a "throwaway culture". In the quest for bigger, better, faster, flashier, we have lost sight of what really matters. He has urged solidarity - with creation, with our poorer brothers and sisters, with the weak, the elderly and the most vulnerable. Many church communities and individuals around the world are giving a great example of what can be done to reduce the gap between rich and poor and to live more simply. If we in the wealthy world continue with our current consumption and production patterns we will need three planet Earths, which is not possible, so new ways of living need to be found and people of faith must play a role in that search.
In his 5 June general audience, Pope Francis laid down a challenge that brings together the separate pieces of Christian stewardship: "I would therefore like us all to make the serious commitment to respect and care for creation, to pay attention to every person, to combat the culture of waste and of throwing out so as to foster a culture of solidarity and encounter". This thinking will almost certainly be in the encyclical.
Well in my own little urban patch my family now recycles with passion and we grow some of our own food. Potatoes and onions are thriving at the moment - I decided against lettuce after the slugs ate the crop last year - and the purple sage plant is being visited by a bee as I write. Our friends in the trees - the birds - are singing the dusk-chorus. We use public transport far more than ever before and one son cycles everywhere. If working towards living simply can infiltrate my high-tech household it can infiltrate anywhere. We still like the occasional takeaway, even though appalled by the packaging that goes with it, acknowledging that our modern lifestyle is both destructive and addictive. Pope Francis will certainly be urging us to re-evaluate it.
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