Transition Towns...and Churches?

March 23, 2011
Anne Ditzler
Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practices: Vital Posts Blog

The Holy Spirit is a renewable resource. It’s been fueling Christian communities for over 2000 years, since the first great unleashing at Pentecost. Fossil fuels are not.        

Although they’ve been fueling our modern society for about a hundred and fifty years, our consumption of them has skyrocketed in the last sixty. What took Creation millions of years to form we will use up in a few generations. We can’t replace them. A concern is growing that the global community has reached 'peak oil' – the point at which we’ve extracted the most we’ll ever get and hence begin a downward slope of production.  

Most of us are familiar with the science and statistics of fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions, and the resulting pace of climate instability. Given current political struggles in the Middle East and the precarious situation of the nuclear reactor in Japan, news about energy insecurity is before us every day. If you’re anything like me, this can feel overwhelming to the point of despair and paralysis. 

That’s why I’ve been excited to learn about Transition Towns, and I’ve been thinking about their relevance to our church communities.

The Transition movement started in 2005 by Rob Hopkins, college students, and local citizens in Totnes, England. What began as a class project has become a global network of hundreds of towns, cities, and neighborhoods. The purpose of these community-led initiatives is to address the 3-fold challenge of peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction by increasing local resiliency and decreasing local carbon emissions.

When I searched online to see if religious groups were actively involved with this movement, I found a little brochure by Churches in Transition that articulated a biblical basis for the involvement of Christians. It also states four key assumptions of the Transition movement:

  • That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
  • That our communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil.
  • That we will have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
  • That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet.

That last assumption really strikes me. Rob Hopkins writes in his book The Transition Handbook (a terrific practical resource): 

It is one thing to campaign against climate change and quite another to paint a compelling and engaging vision of a post-carbon world in such as way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it. We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of a positive vision of an abundant future: one which is energy-lean, time-rich, less stressful, healthier and happier. 

Transition Towns have created all sorts of fun, engaging projects for all ages and skills. They plant orchards, install solar panels, host re-skilling workshops, promote bike transit, and even create local currencies. They are reknitting the fabric of neighborhoods, one street at a time (literally – watch this video of neighbors getting involved). They are tapping the creativity and energy of local citizens. In a time when large governments and institutions are dragging their heels, these local initiatives give me hope.

So what’s the relevance for our churches?

First there are practical linkages. Many Episcopal congregations are looking for new ways to be engaged in their local communities. Through a Transition initiative, a congregation may be better equipped to prepare itself and its members for a new kind of future. Churches also have resources to share: space for meetings and events, properties in the center of towns, hopeful and dedicated community leaders, and awareness of the local needs of fellow citizens.

One example is the Rev. Peter Rood, Rector of Holy Nativity in the Diocese of Los Angeles, who has been a leader in creating Transition LA, a hub for initiatives throughout the metropolitan area.

Second, I wonder about applying some of the principles of Transition to our reality in Episcopal congregations. Statistics say we’ve been in a period of decline. Some would argue that we have to keep focused on growth – and change our models to make it happen. Powered by the Holy Spirit and led by skilled clergy and laity, I believe we can grow. But it will take facing the future directly, not shying away from the challenges, and sharing such a compelling vision of the Gospel that people want to follow.

But in some places demographic shifts make growth unrealistic. Change has already happened. But have we transitioned to it? Some of our congregations may need to scale back, reduce dependence on the old ways of doing things, and foster local resilience and resurrection on a smaller scale.

Finally, I think there is theological resonance. We are in the season of Lent, when we face reality, acknowledge our mortality, and practice realignment with our Creator. In a few weeks, on Good Friday, we will proclaim “it is finished” then shut out the lights and sit in darkness for a while. Easter for the disciples was not as rosy as we make it seem nowadays – they were bewildered and trying to adjust to a new reality. It was only at Pentecost when a new vision and a new power propelled a diverse multitude forward in faith. I find it interesting that in organizing for Transition, there comes a point when the steering team has built enough grassroots support to kick-off a community wide initiative. They call the event a “Great Unleashing.” Transition must be a Pentecost movement, and I bet the Holy Spirit is enjoying it.

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