The Green Bishop

February 24 2020 | by

THE BISHOP of the Diocese of Salford, which encompasses Manchester and a large part of North West England, is a man who has taken Pope Francis’ teachings on the environment very much to heart.

When, in December 2014, the Rt Rev. John Arnold was installed head of such a large diocese, he moved into Wardley Hall, the ancient house that serves as his palace. Boxed in high trees and busy roads, it sits in a discreet 90-acre pocket of countryside only a short drive away from Old Trafford, the home ground of Manchester United Football Club, a virtual green oasis in the heart of a vast urban metropolis.

Pope Francis published Laudato Sì, the landmark 2015 papal encyclical on “the care for our common home,” just six months after his appointment, and Bishop Arnold began to look at the world differently when he opened his curtains in the morning to gaze at the surrounding woodland and pastures. It dawned on him that Wardley Hall and its grounds offered him the opportunity to preach the core principles of Laudato Sì in a country which, for example, has seen its numbers of breeding birds plunge by 44 million in about 40 years as a result of pollution, urbanisation, changes in agricultural and woodland management, and the introduction of invasive non-native species.


Laudato Sì Centre


Four years on, Bishop Arnold has created the world’s first Laudato Sì Centre at Wardley Hall with the objective of trying to reverse such damage by putting the document’s teachings into practice, and to inspire others to do the same.

He is overseeing the transformation of vacant buildings, a courtyard, gardens and woodland into a place in which people can learn how they might be able to help birds, insects and plant species to flourish. His improvements have so far included the installation of two beehives, each with a colony of 10,000 honey bees, as well as building ‘bug hotels’ to provide environments for other species of insects to thrive.

With the help of Cafod, the Catholic development agency of England and Wales, he has also launched a project to build thousands of bird or bat (BOB) boxes either as nesting sites for birds or as roosts for migrant bats in summer. The award-winning boxes were designed by Steve Burrowes, a Cafod employee working at the Laudato Sì Centre with the help of Catholic students from the Savio Salesian College in Liverpool.

Selling for £10 each, they have already been installed at such places as Buckingham Palace, the residence of Queen Elizabeth II; 10 Downing Street, home of the British Prime Minister, and at Windsor Castle.

“We have to look after our world and all the creatures in it, just as we are to look after each other and never forget or ignore the needs of the people in the poorest countries of the world,” says Bishop Arnold. “The BOB boxes gives us a real opportunity to connect with nature by helping endangered birds and bats that are so important to our local environment,” he says. “And by buying the boxes we provide much needed funds to help the poorest of people to have clean water and build sustainable livelihoods for themselves. BOB box is local. Its impact could be global.”


Long way to go


An orchard, fruit gardens and a vegetable garden have been planted out at the Laudato Sì Centre, along with a medicinal herb garden. A visitor centre, woodland trails, and teaching areas for children and space for a campsite are under construction.

The project aims to take children and adults, according to diocesan literature, to “the heart of Laudato Sì in ways that will help them undertake and ecological conversion of prayer and action in their everyday lives.” It will introduce them to the possibilities of living a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle in the hope that it will inspire them to do the same in their own lives.

Bishop Arnold serves as the lead bishop on the environment for the bishops of England and Wales, and says he wants to use his office to show leadership because, in spite of the global interest in Laudato Sì, he was aware that even many Catholics still had “a long way to go” in responding in a practical way to the demands of the document.

“To read a text is one thing, but to actually respond to it and take the necessary steps that Laudato Sì requires is quite another matter,” he says, adding, however, that he has been encouraged by the response of the people in his own diocese to a pastoral letter he issued in March 2019 in which he suggested that they assisted in conservation by living more simply.


A pastoral letter


In his letter, Bishop Arnold told to Catholics to “shop more carefully, particularly choosing local produce, so saving the expensive transportation costs and use of fuel,” to walk or take public transport instead of using a car, and to share car journeys, to “turn lights off in unused rooms, hang washing out to dry rather than using energy-expensive drying machines,” and “reduce the waste we make and re-cycle more.” He said that Catholics should also turn down heating in their homes and instead “wear a pullover in the house” when it was cold. 

Catholic schools, he said, took his letter to heart, with thousands of children subsequently introduced to projects to conserve the environment.

Bishop Arnold also wants to reach their parents, however, because he believes many gardens have become sterile and artificial, with people choosing flagstones, wooden decking and even plastic turf over lawns, floral borders and hedges as they sought to keep their properties tidy with minimum effort.

“We could be making a real gift to the local environment by allowing nature to thrive in our own back gardens,” said the Bishop, heeding the example of St Francis of Assisi, who asked his followers to leave an area of each friary overgrown for wildlife.

To inspire other people to welcome nature, Bishop Arnold is not only “rewilding” part of the 90 acres his residence occupies, but is actively seeking to attract insects, birds and mammals by allowing plants to grow naturally, and by introducing others known to be beneficial to the eco-system.


Memorial forests


Bishop Arnold is working with a number of conservation charities, such as the Woodland Trust, the Bat Conservation Trust and the Wildlife Trust as he transforms Church land into an example of practical conservation.

“What we find here, with this project, is that the more people know about it the more experts are coming and offering advice and wanting to be part of it,” the Bishop said. “Whether it be trees, wildlife or the woodland trail, it seems to be capturing people’s imagination.”

One of the most recent developments of the project has seen the opening on the site of the Laudato Sì Wardley Hall Memorial Forest.

In this instance, the diocese has entered into a partnership with a charity called Life for a Life, which aims to grow forests by inviting bereaved families or individuals to a tree in memory of a lately deceased relative or friend. Over time it is envisaged that 42 new forests will spring up in the north west of England, and eight in the south west of the country.

“People experience bereavement and loss in different ways,” observes Bishop Arnold. “Memorial forests offer a particular way to cherish and remember a lost loved one. These plantations offer a quiet place of reflection and peace and can provide an alternative focal point in the journey of grief for an individual or a family.

“They also offer the opportunity to make a very positive impact for the care of our common home. A tree provides a lasting testimony of affection as it nourishes the air we breathe.”

Bishop Arnold added that he hoped in the years ahead all of the parishes of his diocese will be in some way practically attuned to the demands of Laudato Sì.


Guardians of Creation


The Bishop of Salford is encouraged by an August statement issued by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales called “Guardians of God’s Creation.” Collectively, the bishops warned Catholics they were facing an “unprecedented ecological crisis,” and told them they sought “good practice for dioceses, parishes, schools, families and individuals.”

“We need a more considered relationship with our God, our neighbour and the earth through the way we manage our resources as a Church,” they said, adding they were inviting people to engage “in this urgent challenge, so that together we show leadership by our actions.”

Accompanying the statement were examples of leadership from the Catholic Church in caring for the environment. It includes the conversion of 20 of the 23 dioceses of England and Wales to renewable energy under a scheme pioneered by Inter-Diocesan Fuel Management, an energy procuring group of the Church. It means that more than 4,500 Catholic churches and schools have switched to renewable gas and electricity, making the Church one of the largest single consumers of green energy based on annual volume in the UK. Another example offered was Stanbrook Abbey, a Benedictine convent in Wass, North Yorkshire, which has won awards for its ecologically-friendly design, consuming little energy and relying on a wood chip boiler, rain harvesting, sedum roofs, low energy lights and sustainable building materials.


Global caring


Bishop Arnold said that Pope Francis wanted not only the Church, but the world to learn from Laudato Sì. “If we are going to say it is for everybody, we have to take a lead by showing by example,” he said. “The policy of the bishops is now concerned with diocesan level, parishes, schools and individuals.”

Bishop Arnold continued, “It’s a way of engaging with everyone, to say there is a crisis and we have got to be very positive and hopeful because there is time to turn things around if we take responsibility for it.”

With the support of his brother bishops, he will soon appear in a film called “Global Caring: Living in harmony with God’s Creation,” which is being made mostly for use in parishes and schools.

Produced by Catholic Faith Exploration, it is being filmed around the UK and features Dr. Carmody Grey, Assistant Professor of Catholic Theology at Durham University, teaching about Laudato Sì alongside Bishop Arnold.

They are confident they are helping to meet “a fast-growing interest and activity, especially among young people, in understanding the damage we’ve done to the earth,” according to Bishop Arnold.

“We are recognising the extent of the challenge,” he says with a sense of urgency. “Let’s celebrate all that is being achieved and, with hope and determination, work to repair our common home.”

Updated on February 24 2020