Africa’s first commercial scale solar PV farm opened in Rwanda in 2014, a huge plant that added 6% to the country’s electricity supply. It’s installed on land belonging to an orphanage, and it was organised by the Jewish NGO the Interfaith Centre for Sustainable Development. It started a conversation about churches and other faith groups collaborating around energy, sparking a scheme for Faith Inspired Renewable Energy, which pleasingly abbreviates to the ‘FIRE project’.
Church leaders in Burundi and Zambia are now cooperating with NGOs and solar firm Gigawatt Global to make land available for solar farms. Conversations are ongoing in the DRC, Swaziland, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. It’s early days yet, but apparently the idea is getting an enthusiastic response from African bishops. And why not? The church gets to share revenues to support their work, and brings electricity to the communities they serve.
Contrast this to the Church of England, which was in the news this week because it has been notifying landowners that the church lays claim to any mineral rights under their land. There are a host of ancient land rights and exemptions around the church in Britain, some of which date back to feudal times. The church has been dusting these off and sending letters, even for land that it used to own and has now sold off. Since 2010, half of all mineral rights claims in Britain have been made by the Church of England.
The Church says it has no plans to exploit these resources, and that it is only formalising rights it has always had. But as the Times article points out, many of these claims are in areas that have been licensed for fracking. Under British law all oil and gas underground belongs to the government, but the church would benefit through compensation if any of its land was fracked. In 2016 the Church of England issued a briefing paper offering qualified support for fracking, and suggesting that it could be morally acceptable if regulated properly and used as a transition fuel.
The church commissioners insist that they have “no official policy either for, or against” when it comes to fracking. But that just means fracking by default. When an oil exploration company asked if it could survey church land in Lancashire, they said yes. What will they say when the results come back, and the requests to frack start to land on desks? Does the church really want to embroil itself in this? Fracking may be ‘morally acceptable’ if you slice it right, but is it wise? Is the best use of church land? Isn’t the church called to more than this?
The Church of England should learn from the church in Africa, and take the opportunity to do good through renewable energy. It has already made some steps in this direction – many individual churches have solar panels, and there are solar farms and wind farms on church land. So why not get off the fence on fracking and commit to the transition? The church could take those prized mineral rights and commit to keeping them in the ground.
The church controls half a million acres of mineral interests in Britain – taking that out of consideration for fracking would send a powerful signal. And by releasing land for renewable energy instead, it would do more than stand against fracking. It would demonstrate moral leadership for something too – for clean energy, for long term stewardship, for future generations, for a stable climate, and for a church on the right side of history.