Carbon neutrality and the consistory courts

Our post Towards net zero carbon for churches reviewed the motion passed by the General Synod in February 2020 which called on all parts of the Church of England to draw up a plan of action to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) year-on-year, reaching net zero emissions by 2030. The recent Synod, held on 23-24 November 2020, was circulated with the paper Rising to the Challenge: reaching Net Zero by 2030, GS Misc 1262 (“Rising to the Challenge”) which updated members with the progress made since February; the paper itself, however, is not scheduled to be discussed.

The practical issues of reducing GHG emissions were considered in Re St. Mark Mitcham [2020] ECC Swk5, which concerned the replacement of an existing gas fuelled heating system. Mindful of Synod’s commitment, Chancellor Philip Petchey expressed a hope that those who involved in achieving the carbon reduction targets  would find the judgment helpful.

Re St. Mark Mitcham

The vicar and churchwardens sought permission to replace the existing gas-fuelled heating system with a new one, including a new boiler, pipework, radiators and controls, in the unlisted, twentieth century church [3, 4]. The basic components of the present heating system date from the re-ordering which took place in about 1980, but the current boilers date from about 10 years ago. In addition to other more recent shortcomings of the system, the two domestic boilers, which had been installed without faculty permission, proved inadequate. In footnote 2, Chancellor Petchey observed

“[t]he problems that subsequently arose illustrate why, even though it may be apparent that works will not affect the appearance of a church, it is still important to obtain a faculty (such works requiring, as they do, the expert advice of the DAC first to be obtained).”

When the specification for a replacement boiler was considered by the PCC in September 2019, questions were raised concerning the possibility of a “greener alternative”. The answer given was in the negative and the parish proceeded with a tendering exercise. Having received the tenders during 2020, the question was raised once again and the advice received was to the same effect. The DAC recommend the PCC’s proposals to the Chancellor having considered the suitability of the new installation, including its implications for the carbon neutral agenda [4].

In terms of heat generation and emissions, the proposed system will be considerably more efficient than the old, resulting in a considerable reduction in the energy consumed. Because the area to be heated can be better targeted, there will similarly be a reduction in energy consumed. If, in the future, new heating systems are developed based on the use of non-fossil fuels which are cost effective, it would be relatively easy to replace the boiler [5].

Moreover, the PCC is looking to be greener in terms of its lighting system, converting the existing fittings to take LED lights with a consequent significant reduction in energy consumption (which might be green sourced) [5]. However, “[a]ll this said, the petition seeks to install equipment that (i) one hopes will have a working life of more than ten years; and (ii) is not carbon neutral [6]”.

The Chancellor commented that challenges imposed by the Church of England’s carbon reduction target translate into a practical issue in 2020 for the parish of St Mark’s, Mitcham and for him as Chancellor in considering its petition [9]: he noted [emphasis added]:

“[10] In In re St. Michael & All Angels Blackheath Park [2020] ECC Swk 1 (2)3, [reviewed in our post here] I had to consider a proposal for floodlighting. Although the floodlighting was to be powered by “green” electricity and the amount of electricity which was to be used was small, it seemed to me that there remained an objection to the proposal because it was not carbon neutral.

The view I took was that, so long as petitioners before me had considered the implications of a proposal for the “carbon neutral” agenda, it was generally not appropriate for me to substitute my own judgment of the matter (whatever that might be). This is the approach I propose to take in the present case and it follows that a faculty will issue. The parish have carefully considered the implications of the current proposal; it is just that they cannot do anything about the disbenefits arising from it.”

[11]. I hope, however, those who have to consider these matters in the wider church will find it helpful to have this judgment. What one must hope is that as technology moves forward in the next ten years it will become possible to heat St Mark’s in a carbon neutral way at an affordable cost. However one just cannot know whether this will be possible.

In practical terms one may [be] putting off the day when, if carbon neutrality is to be achieved, difficult or indeed sacrificial choices will have to be made. The alternative is to miss the target. Subject to advances in technology helping out, the more that difficult or sacrificial choices are not made, the more likely it is that the target will be missed.

This is something that the Church needs to understand. I emphasise that, in saying this, I imply no criticism of the way the Petitioners in this case and the PCC have dealt with this matter. I hope that I have made clear the parish’s commitment to the achievement of the goal of carbon neutrality.”

Guidance Note

The Guidance Note The practical path to net zero carbon for churches was circulated on 28 April 2020 and added to the Advice and guidance for church buildings pages on the ChurchCare section of the CofE web site. The Note now forms Appendix III of the background paper from the Environment Working Group Rising to the Challenge which was circulated to Synod members in November 2020 to update them on progress since the February motion. This answered some of the questions raised in the Guidance Note – “How should the ‘net-zero by 2030’ be quantified?” and  “To what extent does the Note progress General Synod’s February commitment?” although the take-up within the Church remains a critical factor.

Our post on the Guidance Note observed that the “menu options” within the Guidance Note have an implicit expectation that “net zero” is not a goal for the whole of the Church of England by 2030; only actions under sections A and B are applicable to most churches. The critical the actions relating to “Getting to zero” under C are “bigger, more complex, projects, which only busy churches with high energy use are likely to consider”; those under D, “Only if”, are applicable to specific times in the management of church buildings; and those “By Exception” under E are “generally not recommended because of the risk of harm to the fabric, energy used, and/or the cost”.

The circumstances associated with Re St. Mark Mitcham clearly fall within the provision “[i]f there’s no alternative that does not run on fossil-fuels, then replace an old gas boiler or an oil boiler with a new efficient gas boiler”. The installation of a boiler with improved environmental performance will result in significant benefits to the church, and the only objections which might be raised are: its working life is expected to extend beyond 2030, making a further replacement unlikely in the short term; and it is not carbon neutral, although such an option is not currently available.


The judgment adopts a pragmatic approach to the proposed replacement boiler and clearly aligns with the Guidance Note. Heating boiler replacement comes within category D, (“Only if….”), which are applicable to “specific times in the management of church buildings”.

Issues such as these are unlikely to be unique to St. Mark, Mitcham, and similar balancing exercises will be necessary; the justification for similar replacements will become more difficult as 2030 approached. However, a strict application of the 2030 target would be problematic, given the manner in which it was agreed. The Bishop of Manchester commented [emphasis added]:

“Whatever ones views on the urgency of the climate crisis, it felt unsatisfactory that this was achieved through an amendment [from 2045 to 2030 as the target year] which was decided after less than ten minutes debate, by a majority of 15, with a turnout that meant fewer than a third of Synod members voted in favour of it. Many, I suspect, were caught in the tea room, not having expected a close vote. 2030 maybe the right year, but the process felt flawed.”

Nevertheless, regardless of what is chosen as the target year, such questions regarding the installation of new facilities are likely to occur. More important, perhaps, is the take up of the commitment to reduce GHG throughout the Church of England. As the “Next steps” section of Rising to the Challenge commented, “[m]ore work is required to cascade the ‘net zero carbon definition’ to deaneries, parishes, and schools and to encourage the journey towards net zero as well as the use of the many resources available to support this”.

David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Carbon neutrality and the consistory courts" in Law & Religion UK, 24 November 2020,


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