Canada: Alberta Anglicans urge engagement over divestment

By André Forget
Posted Mar 16, 2016

[Anglican Journal] When it meets July 7-12, General Synod will be asked to consider a resolution asking that a task force be created to “review the investment policies and practices” of General Synod assets and those of the General Synod Pension Plan, “in light of the church’s faith and mission, including [its] social and environmental responsibilities.”

The task force will also be mandated to build on previous work “to address environmental, social and governance practices of corporations and industries in which our church invests” and to “develop guidelines for constructive dialogue, and where necessary divestment, leading towards a low carbon economy.”

Members of the creation matters working group introduced the resolution at the spring meeting of Council of General Synod (CoGS) March 12 and invited speakers representing various perspectives on the issue of ethical investing.

Terry Leer, archdeacon for mission development in the diocese of Athabasca, questioned the assumption that divestment is an appropriate Christian response to environmental concerns over global warming by sharing the work of a task force set up by Athabasca Bishop Fraser Lawton to look into how the church might better engage with the oil industry.

“This wave of support for the policy of divestment seems to us to roll over the hopes, aspirations, future and even the faith of many Anglicans without consideration for any impact on their lives,” said Leer, referring to the thousands of jobs that have been lost since the 2014 downturn in the oil industry.

“While divestment appears to be an easy action to take, the process behind it has neglected and hurt people,” he continued. “The actions of some seem to cast aside the needs and futures of many Anglicans, and in fact have driven some away from the church.”

In recent years, this call to invest ethically has often—though not always—been synonymous with divestment.

In 2015 alone, two dioceses (Montreal and Ottawa) voted to divest from fossil fuels; a third, Quebec, completed its divestment process, and the Church of England withdrew £12 million from tar sands oil and thermal coal.

But Leer doesn’t think divestment is necessarily the most responsible way to answer this call.

“The purpose of disinvesting relatively small shareholdings is not to hurt companies directly, but rather to translate moral judgment into action,” he said. “An Anglican oil worker who reads reports of divestment actions taken in other dioceses, or other parts of the Anglican church, understands that he or she is being shamed and rejected.”

Though he acknowledged that there are times when the church must call out members who are guilty of wrongs, “when it comes to the environmental impact of fossil fuel production…all are implicated,” and so “the shaming of the producers amounts to a form of scapegoating which undermines the church’s teachings on both moral and environmental responsibility at a fundamental level.”

Instead, Leer presented a set of suggestions from the Athabasca tar sands working group, among which were calls for the church to “examine and confront the fundamental failure of the policy of divestment to address fossil fuel consumption as the driver of climate change, and so offer alternatives that actually meet the needs” and to “encourage the development of workable alternatives to fossil fuels and hydrocarbons.”

Anticipating concerns such as those aired by Leer, Canon Ken Gray, co-chair for the working group, noted that the motion CoGS was sending to General Synod “does not advocate any particular strategy” for fulfilling the goal of moving toward a low carbon economy.

“Both engagement and divestment are named…the motion, however, does not favour one over the other,” Gray said in a pre-recorded message to CoGS. (He was moving from the diocese of British Columbia to the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior at the time of the meeting.)

The presentation also featured more technical advice from Rob Saffrey, chair of the investment committee of the consolidated trust fund of the General Synod, who explained the Anglican Church of Canada’s current ethical investment process, which is contracted to Sustainalytics, a company that provides research, analysis and advice on how to invest ethically.

Saffrey noted that while divestment as a strategy has its merits, the church needs to take its limitations seriously.

“It would be good to see [the conversation] broadened from just the investment side of things to include many of the damaging environmental practices we as a church engage in,” he said. “We consume fossil fuels: we drive, we fly, it’s all part of our lifestyle, so we feel the focus should not simply be on the supply side of fossil fuels; there needs to be an equal focus on the demand side.”

Henriette Thompson, director of public witness for social and ecological justice, explained that the resolution evolved from a declaration made at the Joint Assembly of the Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran churches in Canada in 2013, which committed the churches to, among other things, “advocate for responsible and ethical investment and actions by individuals, faith communities, corporations and governments both in Canada and around the world. ”