Last week, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia became the first province in the worldwide Anglican Communion to vote to divest from fossil fuels. In this blog, Matheson Russell who is a member of Auckland’s Diocesan Climate Change Action Group and recently joined the board of 350 Aotearoa (the New Zealand arm of 350.org), tells us how it all unfolded.
Desmond Tutu’s impassioned plea to the assembly arrived some six hours too late. The General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia wrapped up its final session on the afternoon of Thursday 15 May. By the time the urgent missive penned by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Archbishop arrived, exhorting the Synod to pass the fossil fuel divestment motion before it, the debates had ceased and the votes had already been cast. The Synod representatives were packing their bags and dispersing. The General Synod would not meet again for 2 years.
Mercifully, Tutu’s letter of encouragement wasn’t needed to persuade the Synod to support the motion. The motion, introduced by Rod Oram on behalf of Auckland’s Diocesan Climate Change Action Group, was passionately supported by several members of the assembly, notably by leading representatives from the Pacific Islands including Bishop Api Qiliho. Not one representative spoke against the motion (although one or two notes of caution were voiced), and at the final vote not one ‘nay’ vote was cast against it. It passed overwhelmingly.
The result makes the province the first in the worldwide Anglican Communion to pledge to divest from fossil fuel companies. It was an historic day!
The General Synod vote was the culmination of an extraordinary year of climate action in the Anglican Church in New Zealand. Within weeks of Bill McKibben’s ‘Do the Math’ tour last June, members of the Anglican Church around the country (myself included) were preparing divestment motions and supporting documentation for upcoming regional assemblies. By the end of September, five Diocesan Synods had been presented with divestment motions and all five had passed.
The overwhelming vote at General Synod last week underscores the readiness with which the Anglican Church in the region has embraced the idea of fossil fuel divestment.
But why has the Anglican Church in New Zealand so rapidly and enthusiastically embraced the idea of divestment?
It is certainly not because of an unthinking ‘me-too-ism’. Comprehensive analysis and argumentation has supported the case for divestment at every point. Nor is it because those of us involved in the process have had more enthusiasm, talent, or clout than those supporting the movement elsewhere. We have not.
In my view there are five key factors that have placed Kiwi churches at the forefront of this global movement.
First, church leaders in New Zealand have an impressive track record of taking the issue of climate change seriously, and they have not been afraid to voice their concerns publicly. Among senior church leaders there is little doubt that climate change is real, that it presents an urgent moral and practical challenge, and that faith communities must be prepared to take steps within their power to be a part of the solution. Divestment presents a new opportunity to act on an issue church leaders (and the church membership at large) are already committed to.
Second, the science of climate change is less politicized in New Zealand than it is elsewhere. All the major Kiwi political parties accept the scientific consensus on climate change and, at least in word if not in deed, are committed to reducing carbon emissions. If the issue were more politicized in this country it would no doubt have been harder for churches to take the stand they have, since church leaders are understandably reluctant to take positions that would alienate large numbers of their own membership or be seen to be taking sides in a partisan political debate.
Third, New Zealand is a small country and access to senior figures is often within reach. The network of lay church members who have sought to raise the divestment option across the country (myself included) have had a number of opportunities to speak with senior church leaders and fund managers, and these face-to-face conversations have been invaluable.
Fourth, the structure of the New Zealand economy means that the shift away from fossil fuels is not seen as an economic threat here to the same extent as it is elsewhere. For instance, fossil fuel extraction and production is a not a large component of the New Zealand economy, and the bulk of domestic electricity is already sourced from renewables. It is therefore easier—some might say obligatory—for countries like ours to take the lead in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, New Zealand has deep social and cultural connections to the Pacific Islands, where the impacts of climate change are already being felt. If our neighbours are tangibly suffering from the reality of climate change, then can we really justify a stance of indifference on the issue? Here in the Pacific it’s harder for those who take such a stance not to appear callous and uncaring.
And rightly so. Jesus taught that if you see a person on the side of the road beaten and dying, and you walk on by, that’s false religion. The good Samaritan is our model: he or she stops, attends, and acts in love to help the person in need.
Who will be a neighbor to those in need? When it comes to the issue of climate change, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is showing how it’s done.
Well done to the General Synod! May their resounding vote inspire a cascade of similar actions by faith communities around the world. And may it give hope and encouragement to all our friends working hard for meaningful climate action in faith communities in other parts of the world. Kia kaha!