Sustaining Conversation: Renewing Church Land for People, Nature and Climate


At the end of February, Bright Now Campaign Officer Sharon Hall joined our friends Margot Hodson from John Ray Initiative (JRI) and Alan Radbourne from UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) to give a talk hosted by Hazelnut Community Farm in Bristol. The webinar was recorded and is available to watch via YouTube here.

Sharon started by giving a brief overview of Operation Noah’s report Church Land and the Climate Crisis. She highlighted the main campaign priorities of growing trees, protecting and restoring peatland and reducing farm emissions. She talked about how much land is owned by the Church of England in particular, and how a large proportion of this is agricultural land, which was the main focus for the evening’s conversation.

Sharon demonstrated the significance of emissions from Church-owned farmland by pointing out how, in 2020, more emissions were created by this land than by all CofE church buildings put together. She encouraged a broad view of who is responsible for these emissions by noting that around one third of food farmed is wasted, so that everyone can contribute towards reducing this impact by reducing their own food waste. 

Sharon explained the usefulness of farm carbon audits in taking stock of emissions created and stressed the importance of working collaboratively with farmers to make changes,as well as mentioning a range of ways of making farming more sustainable.

Alan introduced himself as an environmental scientist with UKCEH as well as a church leader and father of three small boys. He also mentioned the 12-acre smallholding they own. He talked about how he has been bringing these different strands of his background together, using his science to inform the way he works with churches to carry out the Biblical mandate to care for and steward creation. He spoke about how the Church has a missional opportunity in how it uses land to share our kingdom values.

He unpacked some of the key challenges for farmers at this time which include language around sustainable farming. While some terms can be interchangeable, the term rewilding can be offensive to farmers as it appears to be about abandoning land. He stressed the benefits for farmers of approaches to promote biodiversity which can increase soil health as well as reducing the need for pesticides. 

In looking at how the Church as landowners can influence farming practice, Alan highlighted that the land is typically leased to tenants, perhaps on a forty year contract leaving the Church limited influence until the lease is up. He also mentioned other limitations when only a small part of a farm is Church-owned, and some significant financial constraints on farmers including major costs of equipment such as a reduced-tillage drill.

Alan mentioned two Church of England Church Commissioners’-owned tenancies which have recently come under new contracts and include high requirements for sustainable agricultural practices. He noted how change is happening, although it will be slow if we have to wait forty years for some tenancies to be renewed.

Margot began by introducing herself as Director of Theology and Education at JRI and a rural vicar in the Cotswolds, drawing on a long background of rural ministry, including working with farmers. She shared about how many farmers feel at the moment, with many challenges brought by falling food prices, increasing overheads and the struggle to make a farm business profitable. These struggles lead to an increased risk of poor mental health, high rates of suicide, debt, isolation and concerns for the future of the farm as farmers age and may not be able to pass their farm on to the next generation. Margot gave an example of how fickle some contracts can be, and how a sudden cancellation of an order nearly led one farmer to bankruptcy.  

Margot stressed how farmers have to think long-term and make long-term decisions and how the recent uncertainties around changes in government subsidies have been particularly challenging. Margot did share some optimism about the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) and the way they are promoting sustainable practices, and picked up how these changes make it a key time to be engaging with farmers. However, she stressed how this needs to be done supportively; farmers are more willing to listen to rural people who show a depth of understanding about farming.

She encouraged a more relationship-building approach, emphasising how campaigning methods that might work for oil companies and big church organisations are less suited to this area, particularly where the targets might be small family businesses already struggling to make ends meet. 

Alan then returned with a more local focus, identifying how powerful the Church can be within the community. He recommended A Rocha’s Eco Church programme as a key source of education about what churches can do on these issues.  Alan gave some examples of local churches working to develop green spaces including living churchyards and projects he is involved with, both calculating carbon storage here but also citizen science supporting local wildlife alongside Caring for God’s Acre.

He also talked about ways that churches can support local farm tenants, especially those on Church land, from buying local farm produce to offering to help with harvesting or planting a hedge. Alan enthused about the difference that the local church can make and the hope we can offer.

Margot talked about an inspiring new housing estate called Kingsbrook in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The builder Barrett Homes had 11 separate landowners they wanted to buy land from, one of which was the Diocese of Oxford. Thanks to good cooperation and an equalisation agreement, they managed to get the same price given for each acre to each of the different landowners, but within the project, some of the Church-owned land was actually given over to become a nature reserve and can never be built on. 

Margot went on to encourage us, where there are local developments going on within our communities, to find ways of working with the developer, and where it’s glebe (diocesan-owned) land, to work with the diocese, seeking to enhance biodiversity. 

Sharon then briefly rounded up the evening by thanking Alan and Margot. She gave some suggestions for what campaigning on the Church Land topic could look like, from finding out how land in the local diocese is used, contacting an Diocesan Environmental Officer or Bishop to ask more about what changes they have identified could be made and celebrating positive steps in growing trees, protecting peat or increasing sustainability on farmland.

Sharon stressed how we want the campaign to be positive and to celebrate and share good examples and inspire others to engage in similar work. She concluded by reiterating the point about the importance of working together with other campaigners, with farmers and with landowners to see Church land used for the benefit of people, nature and climate.

If you enjoyed this blog, why not watch the full webinar here, or download the report here.  We are very grateful to Alan and Margot for sharing their stories and expertise.  Get in touch with Sharon at sharonhall@operationnoah.org to find out more ways you can be part of our campaign action on Church Land Use.

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