“If I had known what I was taking on, I doubt if I would have started….” People probably think that more often than they say. But the commitment is made, and you don’t intend to back out. For me it’s Abingdon Hydro.
I have tried in small ways to encourage churches down an eco friendly path, but I didn’t feel I was getting far. The usual ‘way in’ is the appeal of the natural world, but my expertise lies in the physical sciences, so I have not been able to organise the kind of activities that might attract a congregation.
However I do know about climate change, so I have been part of Abingdon Carbon Cutters, one of the many Community Action Groups scattered around Oxfordshire. We decided to focus on three areas: education, energy, and food, and I found myself taking responsibility for the energy group. I had not intended to, and I didn’t know where to start. In a town as big as ours, it looked a bit overwhelming.
I don’t remember where the idea of a flagship project came from, or when hydroelectric power from the Thames was first mentioned, but it seemed to fit – it would be a very visible example of renewable energy, in a very public place. As soon as I started talking about it, I found people who were interested.
Then there was a period of about 6 months when helpful events started popping up in front of me, and I was carried along by a feeling of knowing what to do. There were meetings at just the right time, and I met the right people. Then I sensed that it was time to take the plunge, and see if anyone wanted to join me in making it happen, because I knew I could not do it on my own. To my surprise and relief (“oh you of little faith…”) 6 people responded.
So we became 7 directors of a Community Interest Company. There is much to do, and we are quite a mixed bunch, but we seem to get on OK, and it is good to have a variety of talents and points of view. I am prepared to do a large part of the work, because I am the only one who is fully retired, but I also have to make sure I involve them and ask for help as much as possible, and to see that decisions are properly talked through. If you would like to see what we aim to do, it’s at www.abingdonhydro.co.uk.
After a lot of preparatory work, including big tasks like planning permission and an Environment Agency licence, there will be a share issue. We want to raise about a million pounds, but it’s a good investment. As a community project, part of the income goes to the shareholders and part into the wider community. How we work that out will raise interesting questions, but you could say that getting the community relationships right is the key thing, and the rest is just project management.
I believe God has called me to do this. It is mission, out at the pioneering end of the spectrum, but we are all called to go and make good use of the resources God has given. In that sense it is spiritual work, just as much as teaching, caring and the more traditional Christian vocations.
There has been a sense of momentum in the way this project started, but a question remains, that bothers me: should I have persisted within the church? What if they had decided to endorse and encourage it? A good team could have been assembled. It would be clearly identified as a local church project, and probably more widely known than it is now. Assuming it had the same legal status as we are adopting, “for the benefit of the community”, it would give the church a very positive image, and attract people who otherwise would have nothing to do with the church. Church members would have the opportunity to invest, and tell others about it. It would produce a community share that could be reinvested in other projects, with the approval of the shareholders. At the site there will be an information centre, for educational purposes, but what if it had included an explanation of why this was a church initiative, and how our belief in a creator God motivates us to look after his creation, and make good use of its resources? Just suppose….
There are more opportunities out there. The Big Society is not just a slogan – central government really is trying to devolve responsibility downwards. Of course part of the motive is to save money, but it’s no good just sitting back and complaining about it. Government will step back, and legislation is removing barriers to community groups. Did you know that Abingdon Town Council’s motto is “Faith and industry”? Churches can make a difference in the public arena. There will be vulnerable people needing help, and churches will need programmes to look after them, but our environment too is vulnerable and in need of protection. If we don’t, future generations, even our own children, will be amazed at how foolishly we took for granted the creation of which we are part and on which we depend.
The community action group in West Oxford recently organised the planting of 1000 trees in SW Oxford. It was to be done by volunteers, and it gave the organiser sleepless nights. What if nobody turned up? What if 1000 people turned up and most had to be sent away? In the event it was cold and wet, and about 100 people turned up and planted all the trees. They had a good time, and felt they belonged, and were making a difference in their community. Now they form the nucleus of a new group in South Oxford. This is pioneering work being done by a secular group, who want to change the culture of the whole city to a low carbon future. So they know they have to think big and take risks. Surely there is a lesson there for churches?
Richard Riggs is a member of the Oxford Diocese Environment Group and member of Christ Church Abingdon.
For more information on Abingdon Hydro visit www.abingdonhydro.co.uk