South Africa‘s “Green Bishop” Geoff Davies from Cape Town has just been awarded the country’s top environmental honour. Bishop Davies combines faith and environmental activism in a dynamic package.
Founder and executive director of the South African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) is Bishop Geoff Davies, a man who has willingly adopted the role of chief challenger and admonisher of those who do not acknowledge the fragility of our planet.
He is resolute in his belief that faith communities – be they Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Baha’i or Buddhist – have a major role to play in saving the environment.
“In many communities faith leadership is seen as more credible than political leadership,” he says.
Recently he received one of the country’s highest environmental honours, the Nick Steele Memorial Award as the SAB Environmentalist of the Year for his work.
In an address to the Religious Leaders for a Sustainable Future Summit in February 2009 he said: “There is an urgent need for the visionary voice of the faith communities to be heard, calling for a different kind of practice, based on morals and ethics, which are essential if we are to bring about a more just and sustainable future for all life on planet Earth, our only home.”
Known as the ‘Green Bishop’ Geoff Davies provides that visionary voice. He is not averse to using shock tactics and his favoured method of gaining congregants’ attention is by upending a black bin bag of rubbish from the pulpit – something he’s done in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town as well as York Minster in the United Kingdom!
“People were genuinely shocked,” says his wife Kate, “because he confronts them with the need for individuals to make a difference.”
So where did it all begin? Bishop Davies started out reading history and social anthropology at the University of Cape Town before joining the Argus Cadet School to train as a journalist. He walked that path for a brief period before heading to London and attending Cambridge as a theology student. His ordination as an Anglican priest took place at St Paul’s Cathedral and he served his curacy at a parish in South Kensington. “I was dubbed the apostle to bedsit-land by the News of the World,” he recounts while Kate chuckles at the memories of him photographed in stove-pipe trousers and with trendy long side-burns! “It was the late 60’s remember!”
But the retired Anglican Bishop notes two events as being pivotal in presenting him with his life challenge. Firstly, before leaving for London he recalled an old man telling him “that if I wanted to do some good I should stand up for the most defenceless – and that Nature had no voice”. Secondly he was transferred from London to Serowe in Botswana – and arrived to find a community crippled by devastating drought. “One year later we had the most abundant rains… and I realised the fragility of nature.”
While in Botswana he also took up the cudgels against a plan to tap water from the lush Okavango Delta to feed the voracious thirst of the gold mines on the South African Reef. Yet another turning point took place while he was on furlough in the UK in 1975. While trying to convince Christian Aid to take a stance on the environment he was told that we ‘can’t save the lions as long as there’s one starving child’.
“That epitomises our thinking – that our focus is human, but it should be on the wellbeing of all things. All nations, especially South Africa, state that the challenges facing government are economic development, employment, overcoming poverty… but if we don’t stop pollution, the horrific levels of erosion, eradication of species, we will never succeed with any of these goals. Instead of eradicating poverty we will simply make it permanent.”
His appreciation for the tangible differences that could be made by relatively small and simple changes grew during his 17 years as the Bishop of Umzimvubu from 1987 to 2003. Based in Kokstad and overseeing church activities in the southern part of KwaZulu-Natal, northern half of the former Transkei and the Eastern Cape he established the Umzimvubu Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Education Programme.
“A simple thing like a diamond mesh fence can make a tangible difference. With that fence you can keep goats and cattle out of the vegetable patch and improve food security. Money that would then have been spent on food can be utilised for other things.”
After taking early retirement in 2004 and settling back in Kalk Bay, Bishop Davies established SAFCEI.
Its objectives are to raise environmental awareness, engage in formulating policy and ethical guidelines within faith communities, facilitate environmental responsibility and action, confront environmental and socio-economic injustices and support environmental training and learning.
With a management board comprising representatives from all the major faiths in Southern Africa, this NGO has won respect as a vital role player for civil society.
Climate change is “probably the single most serious crisis facing life on the planet as we know it – and is a moral issue,” is Bishop Geoff’s belief. To this end SAFCEI has issued the following resolution: “As people of faith, we believe we have a responsibility to God and future generations to care for this planet – our home. We therefore call on the governments of the world when they meet at the UNFCCC at Copenhagen in December this year to take urgent and meaningful action to stem climate change.