The rural church of St Mary the Virgin in Ticehurst, East Sussex, has become the first in Chichester Diocese to gain the prestigious Eco Church Gold Award. The award recognises the top level of achievement as part of environmental charity A Rocha UK’s Eco Church scheme, which encourages churches to make changes to improve their climate impact, to care for the environment and to inspire and encourage others.
Penny Evans, the convener of the planning group at St Mary’s commented that “Our journey started with our concern about climate change and biodiversity loss. This led us to the belief that, as Christians with a concern for justice, peace and healing, we must be active and visible in caring for God’s creation in every area of our shared life together. The Eco Church scheme seemed the ideal vehicle to help us achieve this.”
While significant changes, still ongoing, have been made to the building of St Mary’s as part of their aim to become carbon zero, the major part of their energies have been directed towards their 3-acres of churchyard. With the help of expert advice and biodiversity surveys, they have developed areas into summer meadow, have planted native trees, hosted a small flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep, have installed boxes for birds, bats, bugs, hedgehogs and more recently, owls, with an ongoing project for swift boxes in the church belfry. In all sorts of different ways, their activities have inspired collaboration with the wider community.
In the context of the Covid19 pandemic and the lead up to the COP26 summit, the planning group were determined to work on raising awareness and stimulating discussion in church and community on climate change, a green recovery, and lifestyle changes. One of their major events last year was the hosting of the Great Big Green Week, a green festival which took place a few weeks before COP26 and involved a wide variety of community activities in the churchyard, participation from businesses and the local school, and a session in discussion with their local MP Huw Merriman.
All of their green initiatives are embedded in a commitment to deepen their theological understanding of God the creator, and their own role as change agents, through their worshipping life. This has included the launch of a new outdoor Forest Church, which provides a more direct hands-on encounter with the natural world.
St Mary’s church believe engaging with 21st century challenges around environmental sustainability is vital to their mission – this has led them to actively encourage other local churches to become Eco Churches, and they are keen to share this more widely.
Helen Stephens, Church Relations Manager at A Rocha UK, said “We are delighted to celebrate St Mary’s, Ticehurst Gold Eco Church which reflects that caring for God’s creation is integral to the church community’s mission and ministry and recognises the practical steps they are taking, including managing their land for nature and people. From installing swift boxes and an owl nest box, to the ongoing work to support the hedgehogs in the area, much in collaboration with the wider community. We hope that this award will prompt other churches to engage in caring for God’s world, to be part of a growing community of churches and other organisations, working together to restore and protect this precious planet.”