It would be easy for inner-city parishes to dismiss Eco Church awards as a project for churches in leafy, rural areas with large churchyards.

But St John’s and St Stephen’s in Newtown, Reading – an Urban Priority Area – have proved that’s not the case. The church, which shares its premises with St John and St Stephen’s School, became one of the Diocese’s first Eco Congregations in 2009.

Shortly before lockdown in March, Jo Duckles visited Reading to hear about this urban church’s Eco journey.

Jackie Davies, the Diocese’s Assistant Social Responsibility Advisor, described St John’s as a shining example of what can be achieved in an urban setting. “It shows what can be done. It’s all about intention.

“Everything from the tiniest bit of change, like not having plastic cups at your toddler group through to getting the whole church on a sustainable energy tariff is important. Inspiring young people and learning from young people is important. We want every single church to be an Eco Church and every single person to be as environmentally friendly as possible.”

Our drive to encourage more parishes to consider becoming Eco Churches comes as the Diocese of Oxford declares a Climate Emergency.

For St John’s, inspiration initially came from a couple working as medics in Bangladesh who saw first-hand the devastation caused by climate change.

Bangladesh is one of the most adversely hit countries in the world. This was 2006 when the environment was still seen as a peripheral issue by many people.

“They came back and put solar panels on their roof,” says Joanna Laynesmith, who has been heavily involved with greening St John’s. “They had seen the issues and inspired us to start working towards the Eco-Congregation award.”

St John and St Stephen’s was already a Fairtrade church, and a group was formed to think through how the church could become more environmentally friendly.

They considered solar panels on the church, but with youngsters hanging around and sometimes climbing on the roof, the idea was ruled out. Trees outside the church had to be felled too as they were providing shelter for drug dealers.

But two successful projects were changing electricity supplier to Ecotricity, a company that was recommended by Christian Aid and installing bike racks to encourage people to cycle to church.

There was also work to do convincing climate-sceptics and those who thought charitable work should be focussed on local issues, rather than global ones.

Joanna says: “People asked whether this was a gospel issue. The Bible doesn’t tell you to do anything. Using the Bible as justification is dangerous territory.”

There were also those with the fundamentalist view that if we are to get a new Heaven and new Earth, we don’t need to look after the planet we currently inhabit.

“I find that challenging,” says the Revd Claire Alcock, who became the Vicar last year. “At that time there was a theology of resistance and that’s changed over the last 10 years.”

“It’s interesting that the inspiration for this project came from people who had an awareness of being in a different culture.”

More recently the church held a rubbish clear-up that was far more than a litter pick. It involved removing white goods that people had dumped in their gardens.

Outside the church are benches, murals and a garden area with trees, bushes, daffodils and snowdrops. Children run clutter sales, and the church raises money for Water Aid and Christian Aid.

“We’ve done a lot of campaigning. We’ve been on various climate marches,” says Joanna.

The Eco-Congregation award was granted in 2009. That was before environmental charity A Rocha took over the scheme, re-launching as Eco Church.

The change meant re-doing the assessment. At first, Joanna thought the church wouldn’t qualify under the new criteria. “We thought you needed a churchyard with the possibility of letting wildlife come in, but I’d misread something. It turned out we did qualify.”

The assessment involved gaining points for different efforts to become more green, including reducing single-use plastic, encouraging people to walk and cycle and being energy efficient.

The ‘greening St John’s’ project is to continue. There are plans afoot for a Church Energy Audit, organised by the Diocese.

“We are trying to find two other churches in the area who can do it on the same day to make it easy for the assessor,” says Claire. They also hope to consider planting the right plants to attract bees and other insects and wildlife.

Joanna writes a blog, Greening St John’s, all about the church’s Eco Church journey.