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The Magazine: Divest. Re-invest. Rejoice.

The Magazine: Divest. Re-invest. Rejoice.

The Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels.

I write that sentence and lean back in my chair, beaming in amazement. I’ve been working toward this moment for a long time, and lo, it is here. I can hardly believe it.
The Episcopal Church now becomes the third national faith group in the United States to divest from the fossil fuel industry, joining the United Church of Christ, which divested in 2013, and the Unitarian Universalist Association, which divested in 2014.

Other faith groups are also moving forward on divestment. To cite some examples, last year the World Council of Churches, which represents half a billion Christians worldwide, decided to divest from fossil fuel companies. In January, the United Methodist Church announced that its $21 billion pension fund would divest from coal. The Church of England is divesting from coal, and Anglican churches and dioceses in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom have divested from fossil fuels.

So far the Episcopal Church is the largest denomination in the U.S. to divest from all fossil fuels, and surely it won’t be the last.

The decision made by the Episcopal Church’s 78th General Convention on July 2, 2015, came as a surprise even to the most ardent supporters of the divestment resolution. Several members of our grassroots network of activists, Episcopalians for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment, attended the convention, which was held in Salt Lake City. A friend tells me that shortly before the House of Deputies took the vote that sealed the deal, she and another activist exchanged a look of amazement and confessed to each other their tentative hope: Maybe the resolution will actually pass! 

Not only did the resolution pass – it passed by an overwhelming margin of 3-1.

I had the sweet responsibility of informing Bill McKibben. It turns out that one of the greatest satisfactions in the life of a climate activist is to be able to give Bill McKibben some good news.

Bill called the Episcopal Church’s decision “unbelievably important.” He added: “The Episcopal Church is putting into practice what the Pope so memorably put into words. It’s an enormous boost to have communities of faith united on the most crucial question facing the planet.”

Why is this decision such good news? Because the Episcopal Church is sending a powerful message to the world: it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet.

Divesting from fossil fuels and investing in clean energy will accelerate the transition to a just, healthy, and low‐carbon future. Engaging in stockholder activism isn’t good enough – not when an industry’s core business model needs to change. Changing light bulbs isn’t good enough – not when an entire social and economic system needs to be transformed. Waiting, watching, and wringing our hands isn’t good enough – not when the Earth cries out for healing, and when the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, cry out for justice and mercy.

Averting climate catastrophe requires that at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves remain where they are, in the ground. The only way to keep them there will probably be some combination of carbon pricing, governmental regulation, and strong international treaties. How can we build the spiritual, moral, and political pressure to accomplish that? We can divest from fossil fuels. We can align our money with our values. We can make it clear that fossil fuels have no place in a healthy portfolio if you’re hoping for healthy kids or a healthy planet.

I don’t know to what extent the release of the Pope Francis’ encyclical several weeks ago affected the divestment decision that was made by the Episcopal Church, but I do know that countless people the world over have been inspired the Pope’s bracing reminder that the climate crisis is not just a scientific, political, or economic concern, but also an issue that raises fundamental moral and spiritual questions.

What kind of world do we want to leave our children? What does it mean to live with reverence for the living, intricate, beautiful biosphere into which you and I were born? What responsibility do we have for ensuring that the web of life continues intact for generations yet to come? What responsibility do we have for the poor? How can we possibly love God and our neighbor if we scorch and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care, and dislocate, drown, and starve our neighbors, beginning with the poorest?

The Episcopal Church resolution commits more than $350 million for divestment, and it urges all parishes and dioceses in the Church to engage the topic of divestment and reinvestment within the coming year, potentially unlocking an additional $4 billion in assets. The pension fund, which manages $9 billion, was not included in the final version of the resolution. Episcopalians for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment looks forward to ongoing conversations with the pension board, recognizing that all of the Church’s assets are called to serve God’s mission and that the Episcopal Church is now on record in recognizing that restoring Creation is at the center of God’s mission today. (For more discussion of the resolution, here is an interview I gave to our local newspaper.)

Sometimes it seems that human beings are determined to careen toward catastrophe. Oddly enough, it gives me hope when I consider that no one knows whether or how we will save ourselves from disaster.  I keep thinking of a piece of wisdom that has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Not knowing what, if anything, will make humanity change course gives me energy to be persistent and creative, even if my efforts seem insignificant. Maybe this letter to urge divestment, this phone call, this lobbying for carbon pricing, this climate rally, this campaign to stop new pipelines, this vegetable garden, this decision to walk rather than drive, this willingness to borrow rather than to buy – maybe each small effort will combine mysteriously with other people’s efforts and suddenly we will surprise ourselves and society will shift to a life-sustaining path. I can’t argue with a remark that country music singer-songwriter Naomi Judd once made: “A dead end street is a good place to turn around.”

Unexpected changes, shifts, and transformations happen. Call it chaos theory. Call it an expression of “punctuated equilibrium,” Stephen Jay Gould’s term for the way that a system can look completely stable even though an unseen tension or energy is secretly building up. Suddenly it bursts forth, producing a new species, moving tectonic plates apart, or generating abrupt, rapid, and unforeseen changes in society. (For a wonderful essay that develops these ideas, see David Roberts’ “For a Future to Be Possible: Hope & Fellowship.”)

History is like that: non-linear and full of surprises. So, too, is the Holy Spirit. She blows where she wills, opening minds and touching hearts, making all things new.

The prophet Isaiah was right. Awakened to the presence of a merciful, dynamic, and ever-living God, Isaiah heard God say: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

We just saw it happen: the Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels.

Want to know what will happen next in the ever-expanding, unpredictable, and non-linear movement to save the planet? Find out. Jump in and join the struggle. Do what you can, even if it seems insignificant. And get ready to be surprised.



From the blog of the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-JonasMissioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts   

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Stephanie Johnson

Rod, I so agree that so many people have been working on this issue around the Communion for a long time. It just doesn’t get the media coverage it perhaps should. Yet at the same time, I can’t but be inspired that this environmental ministry is helping God’s Kingdom in so many ways .

Stephanie Johnson

The Baptismal Covenant proposed language came out of a working group, of which I was a member, in the Diocese of Connecticut which conducted a discernment process of prayer and reflection on possible new language. The Diocese forwarded it to General Convention requesting trial use for the next Triennium, which is allowed under the Canons. At the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) legislative hearing on the resolution, four people (all from Connecticut) spoke in favor of using the language for trial use. SCLM. SCLM decided not to act so it was referred back to them for future review in light of the proposed Prayer Book revisions. We have heard that at least one diocesan bishop has allowed his congregations to use this language for trial use. We hope that in the next three years that other dioceses may also do the same.

Climate change, in fact, was a topic at GC as exemplified by the fact that a new legislative committee, the Environment Committee, was formed to deal with all the environmental resolutions that were put forth for consideration. Along with passing the divestment resolution, a task force to respond to the issues of climate change was formed, there was a resolution about eco-justice and there was an increase in funding for the 5th Mark of mission from the earlier budget proposals.

Rod Gillis

Stephanie Johnson, tks for this detailed reply. The papal encyclical ( rightfully) grabs a lot of attention; but it is more difficult to get news on climate change initiatives from other churches. Notwithstanding, folks have been working on the issue in The Communion for some time.

Rod Gillis

Thanks for this story about fossil fuels investment policy. The questions this article poses such as, what kind of world we will leave for future generations, what are our responsibilities to care for and reverence the earth, are important moral questions.

Canada’s baptism liturgy uses the baptismal covenant from the American BCP. Recently the questions in the covenant which follow after the Apostles’ Creed were revised with the addition of the final question regarding the environment. (See below). Perhaps the TEC will do/is doing something similar?

Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s
creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of
the Earth?
I will, with God’s help.

Ann Fontaine
Rod Gillis

Re, Michael Hartney, tks for the further update. I meant to ask if it had been adopted. What is the CCAB, and what is the process? Was there, as we would ask here, any debate on the floor about the motion? Judging by the press coverage, I’m guessing climate change was not a big ticket item this time around?

Michael Hartney

This resolution was referred to a CCAB. It was not adopted.

Rod Gillis

ok…Thanks for the update.

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