Churches turn over new leaf as they ‘go green’

Published July 3, 2007

Volunteers Suzanne Brooks (left) and Marlene Fader tend the garden at Toronto’s St. Thomas Anglican Church.

Behold the cabbage.

Where most would look at this leafy vegetable without much thought except perhaps how to serve it for dinner, Rob Kennedy sees in it a deep connection to the divine.

“Just to hold a cabbage, with its colour and shape, that you’ve seen grow from a seedling that then you’re going to serve, that’s really special,” said Mr. Kennedy. “It’s connecting with God’s creation.”

Mr. Kennedy is one of several parishioners at St. Thomas Anglican Church, Toronto, who helped construct the parish garden. During its first harvest last fall, the 45-square metre garden yielded 800 servings of fresh produce that served the church’s Out of the Heat meal program.

[pullquote]”It’s such a consumer society these days that you think more holistically, in a way, when you get connected with the garden and with green initiatives,” said Mr. Kennedy.

“The guests of our program got very excited about the vegetables and it’s different for them because they get access to fresh produce that they don’t normally have access to. So it makes them think more about food and growing food. It’s environmental justice in a way,” said Suzanne Brooks, another parishioner.

She adds that parishioners are using the garden as a springboard for projects to turn this church, nicknamed “Smoky Tom’s” for its liberal use of incense and known for its music and high church liturgy, into a green, sacred space.

“We’re increasing our composting and looking into harvesting rainwater,” said Ms. Brooks. The formation of a “green team” is being considered and interest is high. The garden has about 30 volunteers; recently, an anonymous donor gave St. Thomas $45,000 to fund green initiatives.

As concerns about global warming and the fragile environment grow, more and more faith communities are acknowledging that they are part of the problem.

“Combating climate change, for example, you have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can’t just tell people to do it, you have to work with them, “said Rory O’Brien, of Faith & the Common Good (FCG), a national organization that encourages inter-faith action on social and environmental concerns.

Faith buildings (30,000 of them across Canada) are among the biggest wasters of energy. An FCG study of about 150 faith communities found “quite a lot of inefficiency” in their buildings, said Mr. O’Brien. Many are old, use a lot of heat in winter, are not well maintained and have boilers that are at least 50 years old.

There is no data on the collective energy expended by houses of worship in Canada. But in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that if 300,000 congregations cut back on their energy use by 25 per cent, invest in more efficient heating and lighting systems, and adopt other environment-friendly practices, they would save more than $500 million annually. The efforts would also prevent more than five million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from polluting the air, or “the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road,” estimates the agency.

Aware that while faith communities may want to “go green,” many do not know where to begin, the FCG, with some funding from the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the Ontario Power Conservation Fund set up the Greening Sacred Spaces program more than a year ago.

“Greening is, of course, much more than energy conservation. It’s the entire range of changes. In particular, we wanted to develop an attitudinal change such that the decision-makers within the faith community would put the environmental considerations much higher up in their priorities,” said Mr. O’Brien, who co-ordinates Greening Sacred Spaces.

The program provides information packages and offers grants that offset the cost of energy audits. (An energy audit can tell a church where energy is used and how it can conserve by changing behaviour or structural systems. Audits cost between $2,500 to $3,000 for small to medium-sized buildings and for larger ones, between $5,000 and $8,000.)

The green revolution has swept many Anglican churches across Canada. In 2004, St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church, Ottawa, implemented an energy efficiency program that aimed to reduce its natural gas and electricity consumption by 45 to 50 per cent. The parish obtained an energy audit the year before, which recommended retrofits (changes to the heating system, insulation) that were expected to yield an annual energy saving of over $8,000. The estimated cost of the retrofit was about $105,000.

Through an event sponsored by Kairos, an ecumenical eco-justice coalition, the church discovered that it could receive up to 25 per cent of the retrofit cost through EnerGuide for Existing Buildings, a retrofit incentive program for buildings run by the federal department of Natural Resources of Canada.

Funding difficulties have prevented the church from completing the retrofit but it has achieved “substantial energy savings,” of about 30 per cent, said its former warden, Ted Dunstan.

Other initiatives within the Anglican church include: the Green Church Award and the Environmental Eucharist developed by the diocese of Ottawa; a workshop on “125 Ways to Green Your Parish” and the development of green energy alternatives in the diocese of New Westminster; the Footprint Files resource for education and action in congregations in the diocese of British Columbia; a geothermal heating project at the churches of St. Andrew and St. Mark, Dorval, diocese of Montreal.

Green initiatives span all faiths – mosques, temples, synagogues and other houses of worships have signed up for the Greening Sacred Spaces. Among them, Newtonbrook United Church in Toronto’s North York area, which embarked on an energy conservation program by replacing an old, inefficient boiler, caulking or replacing windows, insulating its roof and replacing an old freezer and refrigerator with energy saving appliances. Rodger Thompson, chair of the church’s administration committee, estimates that the cost of the two new boilers would be recovered in seven or eight years from energy savings.

Those who wish to embark on much greener initiatives such as retrofits need to be aware that it involves not just money but time, said Mr. Dunstan, a retired engineer. “Early on it was frustrating because the demands of a lot of paperwork and planning to be done and properly documented and signed by numerous people seemed to be never-ending.” He stressed the importance of having “willing volunteers who have the right expertise to get this kind of program underway.”

Mr. O’Brien said FCG is examining ways of finding capital (whether loans or more grants) for the longer-term green initiatives. There are still no banks that offer loans for churches wanting to switch to more energy-efficient buildings.

But while the financial benefits are an incentive, most would agree that it is the connection between faith and the environment that spurs them to action.

“Let’s go back to one of the Psalms – ‘By restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit,'” said Rev. Brian Nicholson, one of the ministers at Newtonbrook United. “We’re not going to have the opportunity to rest by those waters because they might not be there or there might be an abundance of waters, they might not be restful.”

For Mr. Dunstan, “I really think that God has told us to be good stewards of our environment, to do whatever we can to preserve his creation. We’ve done a lousy job up to now and we have to recognize that and do what we can to restore the earth to a state of balance and repair the damage we’ve done.”

While not every church might be able to finance a retrofit or build from the ground up (like St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church, Toronto, dubbed the greenest church in North America for receiving the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification), there are still lots of things that can be done.

Deborah Chute of Newtonbrook United said simply looking at where things are laid out helps. “We did a walk-through audit and saw that the original freezer was next to the heating vent, so that didn’t make sense,” she said. Other initiatives can include using reusable or recyclable plates, cups and utensils for church events.

Mr. Dunstan said encouraging the priest or worship leader of the church to introduce prayers and sermons that address creation and stewardship is important.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who drives a hybrid car and has urged the Church of England to put the environment on its list of priorities (he has called for ecological audits of churches), offered what he referred to as “simple, accessible ways of learning again what it is to be part of the created order – Receive the world that God has given. Go for a walk. Get wet. Dig the earth.”

After all, he once wrote, “We are not consumers of what God has made; we are in communion with it.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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