The biennial national gathering of the United Church of Christ approved an emergency resolution on climate change Monday, denouncing President Trump’s plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord and urging the church to take action.
Written by the Rev. Jim Antal, the head of the church’s Massachusetts conference and a longtime climate activist, the resolution urges clergy to preach on “the moral obligation of our generation to protect God’s creation” and exhorts individuals to take political action and “make decisions of integrity on our energy choices.” It appears to be the first formal action taken by a major denomination in response to Trump’s decision on the Paris agreement.
“It was important that the church be on record as declaring we are now in a new moral era because of the administration and the ways in which it is compromising truth,” in particular on denying the science of climate change, Antal said.
But he said the resolution is also important because it is directed at the church: “What’s the church going to do differently?”
The resolution, entitled “The Earth is the Lord’s, Not Ours to Wreck,” is part of a growing effort by people of faith from across the religious spectrum to stop global warming from worsening. Pope Francis injected renewed urgency into the international discussion on climate change two years ago with his letter to the worldwide church on the environment, Laudato Si.
The practical effect of the UCC resolution is unclear. The Protestant denomination has about 900,000 members across the country — about 70,000 of whom live in Massachusetts, where it is the largest Protestant denomination — and it has no authority over its churches. The resolution provides no funding for renewable energy retrofitting or other efforts that could reduce the church’s carbon footprint.
But UCC leaders said the resolution offers moral backing to clergy who preach on climate change, serves as a guidepost for members, and may lend support to other religious organizations that want to formally respond to the president’s policies.
The final resolution reads in part, “Now is the time for congregations and for every person of faith to set a moral example through our own words and actions. As individuals and as communities, let us commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, undoing the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor white communities around the world, even as we commit to hold all religions, political, corporate. and global leaders accountable to do the same.”
Many UCC clergy, here and around the country, have already been involved in climate change political activities. Polling that the church conducted earlier this year found that its members cited climate change as the most important issue for the future of the church, said Antal, who was among 16 clergy arrested in an interfaith civil disobedience action at the West Roxbury pipeline construction site last year.
The Rev. Ian Holland, pastor of First Church Swampscott, wore a life preserver over his robe when he preached on climate change earlier this spring. He spoke about how coastal flooding from rising sea levels threatened to affect the coastal community, potentially cutting off major commuting corridors from the North Shore to Boston.
“We have a moral responsibility to become aware of what the science is telling us,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Antal wrote the resolution in 90 minutes at the request of the denomination’s president, John C. Dorhauer, so that it could be approved by the Southern California-Nevada conference, which was meeting the day after Trump announced he would withdraw from the Paris agreement. The accord is a global action plan signed by 195 nations in 2015 that aims to put the world on track to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change by limiting global warming to below 2°C.
Sixteen other regional UCC bodies, including the Massachusetts conference, approved the resolution in advance of Monday’s vote.
The Rev. Gordon Rankin, the UCC’s South Dakota Conference minister, said many members of the church in his state have been involved in protesting the construction of two controversial oil pipelines, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“We needed to put our mouth where our feet have been,” he said.
The annual meeting of the UCC’s Northern Plains Conference, which includes fossil-fuel-rich North Dakota and extends into Canada, also approved the resolution last month in advance of the national conference.
The Rev. Gretchen Deeg, a pastor in Bismarck, said that some North Dakotans supported it because of firsthand experience with damage to land and water by fossil fuel extraction. Others felt fossil fuel companies were taking advantage of the state, she said, or believed that renewable energy would create more and safer jobs.
“However,” she said, “I think most people voted for this resolution because our faith demands we care for the earth.”