Prayer vigil at Church House calls on CofE to divest ahead of Exxon and Total AGMs


On the eve of the ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies shareholder meetings, Christian climate campaigners held a prayer vigil outside Church House in central London – the Church of England’s headquarters – to pray for the Church of England to divest from fossil fuels.

Organised by Operation Noah and Young Christian Climate Network, the vigil was led by Revd Helen Burnett, a campaigner and the vicar of St Peter & St Paul, Chaldon. She said that the vigil was not just a time to pray for change, but also a time to lament the fact that the Church of England was continuing to profit from fossil fuel companies despite the incredible harm fossil fuels were doing to people and the planet, and despite these companies’ plans to explore for new oil and gas against the explicit warnings of scientists, the UN and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

‘Continued extraction of fossil fuels is ruining millions of lives and habitats which are part of the interconnected world that is ‘of God’ and ‘from God’ – a world in which we as humans are invited to flourish alongside all of creation. But the awful truth is that fossil fuel companies are raking in record profits while millions at home and abroad face poverty,’ Revd Helen Burnett said. She continued: ‘These same fossil fuel companies continue to explore for more oil and gas at the very moment we need to drastically cut emissions to avoid further catastrophic loss of life. The Church of England – of which I am a part – must divest now if we’re to live out the command, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”’

Revd Helen Burnett, a campaigner and the vicar of St Peter & St Paul, Chaldon, leads the vigil

Revd Dr Darrell Hannah, Chair of Operation Noah’s Board of Trustees and rector of All Saints Church, Ascot, said: ‘Our vigil today was a lament for the Church I serve – one that continues to engage naïvely with fossil fuel firms, seeking to bring change to the industry, but in fact giving such companies unwarranted social license and moral cover in the midst of a climate crisis. We need to be clear about the fact that fossil fuel companies are not operating in good faith or transitioning to renewables at anywhere near the scale or pace required. Because of that, and because of fossil fuel companies’ plans to explore for more oil and gas when we need to cut emissions, it’s not ethical, wise or helpful for the Church of England to stay invested.’

According to the International Energy Agency, new fossil fuel developments threaten the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, while the UN  said last year that global greenhouse gas emissions must be nearly halved by 2030 to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Last year, over 20 Anglican bishops in Africa accused fossil fuel companies of human rights abuses and called for an immediate halt to all new oil and gas exploration in Africa

Despite this, the Church of England’s Church Commissioners and Pensions Board continue to invest in fossil fuel companies, including in ExxonMobil and Total. The CofE has approximately £55 million invested in fossil fuels at a national level, while at a diocesan level, 15 dioceses are still invested in fossil fuels. In February of this year, the Guardian and DeSmog both published articles on the CofE’s fossil fuel ties.

But things are changing: over the past 12 months, 10 Church of England dioceses have divested from fossil fuels, and earlier this year, 136 CofE clergy, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, called on the Church Commissioners to divest from ExxonMobil. In April 2022, over 500 UK Church leaders, including 68 bishops, called for an end to all new fossil fuel developments, as did the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly on Wednesday 24 May. 

However, in January 2022, the Church Commissioners’ said they would continue investing in Exxon, despite the CofE’s National Investing Bodies putting ExxonMobil on its list of ‘restricted’ investments. The Church Commissioners ignored the advice, deciding instead to continue investing in ExxonMobil given that three new Exxon board members were elected in May 2021.

Despite years of shareholder engagement and the election of the three new board members, ExxonMobil has continued to undermine action on the climate crisis. In June 2021, a senior ExxonMobil lobbyist was caught on camera revealing that the company works behind the scenes to water down climate legislation in the US, while recent research from Global Witness and Oil Change International showed that Exxon plans to spend $83 billion on new oil and gas up to 2030.

The Church of England has stepped back from its position as the co-lead engagement with Shell, which held its first AGM in the UK yesterday. The meeting was paused following disruption from Chrisitan Climate Activists.

The Shell AGM was held at Methodist Central Hall in London, much to the dismay of many Methodists. Mark Pengelly, the superintendent minister of the Chelmsford Methodist Circuit, criticised the Church for allowing Shell’s AGM to go ahead in its headquarters. He told the Guardian: “I feel embarrassed and I feel sad, really, that my Church is here as the backdrop to this AGM today, and it seems to totally contradict what the Methodist Church is trying to say about the climate emergency.” The Methodist Church divested from fossil fuel companies, including Shell, last year. 

Oil and gas are also fuelling global conflict, from violence in Mozambique to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Church Commissioners wrote in March that they would ‘need to consider our position as shareholders in TotalEnergies if further steps are not forthcoming’ to stop purchasing gas from Russia, yet the Commissioners have not divested despite Total refusing to stop buying gas from Russia.

Young Christian Climate Network’s Molly Clark said that while she welcomed the progress that the CofE had made on divestment, ‘We find the exclusion of ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies [from the Church’s divestment] unjustifiable. As young Christians, we believe the Church is called to pursue climate justice. Divestment from fossil fuel companies is not only a pragmatic and proportionate response to the climate emergency, but also a statement of solidarity with people all over the planet, particularly in the world’s poorest communities, who are already suffering the devastating effects of global heating.’

In February, 136 CofE bishops and clergy signed a letter urging the Church Commissioners to divest from Exxon, adding their support to an open letter from the Young Christian Climate Network (YCCN).

Divest your church: Join the next global divestment announcement

If you would be interested in getting your local church, regional Church structures (dioceses and equivalents) or religious order to make a divestment commitment as part of the global divestment announcement on 5th July, we would be delighted to hear from you.

Please get in touch with Bokani Tshidzu on bokani.tshidzu@operationnoah.org before 28 June 2022 for further information or to register your interest.

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