A big church tries to deal with its big carbon footprint

deer park
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ What's left of Deer Park United Church, Toronto

Toronto’s Deer Park United Church was built in 1913; now it has gone to condos, with its front end “serving as a striking entrance gateway to the Blue Diamond Condominium Residences.” In some ways, it is better off than most churches; it has found a new use, even if it is just a glorified lobby. The United Church (a 1924 Canadian amalgamation of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregational churches) is in serious decline, losing 60 percent of its members since 1965, much like mainstream secular liberal churches everywhere.

For a number of years the Church has been trying to deal with its carbon footprint, having affirmed 25 years ago that “we are called by God to live in harmony with all of creation; and that a Stewardship commitment to care for the earth requires us to be aware of the present and impending threats to our environment and to take action to preserve the integrity of creation” But in a recent article, they admit that they are not getting every far in cleaning up their own act. And it is a big act:

The denomination’s 3,000 congregational buildings produce the equivalent of an estimated 135,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s about the same as burning 63 million kilograms of coal, or driving 30,000 cars, or powering 15,000 homes for a year.

The Church created funds for upgrades and low interest loans, but few congregations are taking them up on the offers. They are all too poor and their volunteers are too few and too busy.

Money may not be the only factor preventing congregations from going green. Low uptake on current loan or grant programs suggests that many congregations either don’t know about the programs, can’t tolerate debt (even at no interest) or can’t rationalize long-term financial commitments. Congregations that are struggling to meet payroll and fund minimal building maintenance are unlikely to take on projects with long-term benefits, says Rev. Ron Ewart.

It’s a shame, because it isn’t just about climate, it is about their financial future; these buildings are impossible to heat.

Lucy Cummings, executive director of Faith and the Common Good, says the carbon reduction report makes clear that carbon-producing energy use is a theological, environmental and ethical issue, as well as a financial issue for congregations. “The energy used to light and heat United Church faith buildings is one of the denomination’s largest carbon contributors — and one of its biggest expenses.”

In booming cities, there is always the opportunity for consolidation of congregations and condo conversions. They are often great buildings, often suitable for adaptive reuse. Sometimes the shrunken congregations even keep a piece and keep going in smaller renovated spaces. But it is not so easy in smaller communities, and the church wants to set a good example for others.

This TreeHugger may not be religious or even Christian, but I do admire their commitment; Former moderator (elected leader) Mardi Tindal travelled by low carbon train across the country, taking “warnings about climate change to church halls and sanctuaries”, probably in places where people don’t care or believe that it exists. But she persevered.

“We are making decisions that will make life better,” she says. “Our advocacy efforts ring hollow unless we are willing to walk the walk in doing what we are asking other people to do.”

More in the United Church Observer.

A big church tries to deal with its big carbon footprint
In an era of shrinking congregations, it's hard to think big about the environment, but the United Church of Canada is certainly trying.

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