By Kirk Petersen
& Mark Michael
The planting of a tree in the garden of Lambeth Palace August 3 marked the symbolic launch of the Communion Forest, an environmental initiative that the Anglican Communion hopes will take root all around the world.
The 650-plus bishops at the Lambeth Conference have been challenged to take the Communion Forest project back home to implement in a way that makes sense in the 165 countries they represent. “Local expressions might be about trees but could equally be about grasslands, wetlands or coastal habitats,” the brochure states.
At a press briefing before the ceremonial planting, Bishop of Norwich Graham Usher said “I give a little hazel sapling to every confirmation candidate as a symbol of their confirmation, so they can see this tree grow as their faith grows.” Usher, who is the Church of England’s lead bishop for environmental issues, said a diocese in Kenya has planted 50 million trees.
“Climate change will cause wars before it causes loss of environment,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, because of fighting over water and land. “Wars mean people don’t work on climate change, and then climate change causes more wars,” he said, underscoring the urgency of addressing climate change.
“I will be asking the faith leaders today to do everything within their power and capacity to urge world leaders, private citizens, and the business community to act on this interconnected… climate and pollution and food crisis,” said climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti of Kenya, founder of the youth-led Green Generation Initiative.
African bishops testified about the problems climate change already is causing in their countries. “We are having problems with the drought,” said the Rt. Rev. Solomon Scott-Manga, Bishop of Bo, Sierra Leone, in the Province of West Africa. “We are now in the dry season, and in the capital city, Freetown, it is difficult to find drinking water because the source has been exposed, evaporation has taken place, and they don’t have enough water to supply the whole city.”
“We are seeing a lot of drought. We used to have rain in a very specific time, but these days, we do not know when the rain will come. When it comes, it [lasts] about two or three months. It was [lasting] five or six months,” said the Rt. Rev. Dr. Elias Chakupewa, Diocese of Tabora, Anglican Church of Tanzania. “Most of our people are depending on small farming, but we are not sure if we will get the crops, and there is great anxiety about getting the crops.”
“This is the natural way to refresh the air. Anything we do that’s beyond just talking is a step in the right direction,” said the Rt. Rev. Matt Gunter, Bishop of Fond du Lac. “I look forward to going back to Wisconsin and encouraging people to plant some trees.”
The Communion Forest was designed as the centerpiece of Lambeth 15, its importance emphasized by a day-long field trip in the midst of a string of days broken into more than half a dozen modules each. It’s intended to be a lasting enterprise, supported by a website, collateral materials, a resource guide, and a staff of two.
The official launch is in the garden of Lambeth Palace in London, but the project has a heavy emphasis on Africa and the Global South. The two staff members listed on the website have the titles Global Coordinator and Africa Coordinator — and both are based in Kenya. The video stories of environmental efforts featured on the site are from India, Brazil, the Solomon Islands, Aotearoa & Polynesia — and not from Europe or North America.
The Anglican Communion owes its global distribution largely to British colonists who were focused on extracting resources from conquered lands, so the Communion Forest can be seen as an effort to make amends. If successful, it may foster collaboration between the Global South and North. It represents the best chance for this Lambeth Conference to be remembered for something other than conflict over sexuality.
Oh, and it could make a modest but tangible contribution to saving the planet. As the brochure says, “Forests help to stabilise the climate, protect from flooding, sequester carbon, sustain biodiversity and generate food and livelihoods for communities across the world.”
How Many Trees to Recover from Lambeth?
TLC asked Bishop Usher to address the irony of focusing on the environment at a conference where 650 bishops have flown in from 165 countries. Wouldn’t reducing travel be better for the environment than planting trees? His response is worth quoting at length.
“These are real challenge that we need to work out. One of the things we’ve been able to do at this Lambeth Conference is the pre-conference work on Zoom, which obviously has a much, much lower carbon footprint than traveling,” he said.
“One of the joys, actually, of the learning that we’ve done in the last few years has been able to use technology to meet and to have much richer conversations. So I’m doing far, far less traveling than I ever did before. So when I’m doing international conferences, I’m generally joining online or speaking online.
“But there’s also something really relational that’s missing when that happens. And I think some of our work as a global Communion benefits from the fact that actually we can sit down and speak with people. Yesterday’s Call on Human Dignity only landed as positively as it did because we had spent time talking to each, listening attentively to each other, one to one, actually making each other a cup of tea. There will always be that balance.”