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Danish Methodists help bring faithful to summit

A symbol of climate change, bleached dead coral from the Pacific, was
used in a Dec. 13 ecumenical worship service on the environment.
A UMNS Photo by Peter Williams, WCC.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
Dec. 18, 2009

A Danish United Methodist pastor helped ensure that religious representatives from around the world had a significant presence at the Copenhagen summit.

The Rev. Ole Birch, a United Methodist district superintendent and pastor of Jerusalem Church there, is coordinator of a working group on climate issues for the National Council of Churches in Denmark.

Their organizing efforts around the summit were part of a larger strategy to promote “gronkirke” – a green church movement.

That movement uses a Web site, www.Gronkirke.dk, to “inspire local congregations to build a green consciousness into their understanding,” Birch said. The site provides everything from worship resources to a two-step certification process for churches.

The Rev. Ole Birch

His working group coordinated with DanChurchAid, a faith-based, ecumenical organization, to promote the participation of faith groups at the summit.

“They made sure that church leaders, ecumenical leaders from Africa and the Pacific, could be here,” Birch said.

The Danish churches also helped young people from several European countries attend, providing them with room and board and arranging for their participation in workshops, demonstrations and other nongovernmental activities. About 60 young adults from Britain, Holland and Germany stayed at Birch’s church.

Danish Christians also sponsored a Dec. 13 ecumenical celebration, in collaboration with the World Council of Churches, which was broadcast live on Danish national television.

The fact that Birch, a United Methodist, gave the opening welcome to some 1,500 people crowded into the service at the Lutheran church also marked a significant moment in that country’s ecumenical relations.

“It wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” he said flatly. “It would have been impossible.”

Eighty percent of the Danish population has membership in the state Lutheran church, he explained, but it has only been in the past decade that a national structure for that religious body was created. Six years ago, the council of churches was formed, allowing dialogue between the Lutherans and other Christians, including the 2,000-member United Methodist Church in Denmark.

“To be able as churches to stand together” during that worship service – which also included the participation of United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, who is from Denmark – was a “very important” ecumenical outcome of the summit, Birch said.

In what they call “the climate relay,” Danish churches also have been passing around three symbols of climate change during the past year.

Those symbols – stones from Greenland “that have been under a glacier for thousands of years that are now exposed,” bleached dead coral from the Pacific and dried maize from a field in Africa that can no longer produce crops – provided “something tangible and visible” about climate change during the ecumenical service.

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Bill McKibben, a United Methodist environmental activist and author, said he started to cry when he saw those symbols carried down the aisle to the altar.

“As I watched them go by, all I could think of was the people I’ve met in the last couple of years traveling the world: the people living in the valleys where those glaciers are disappearing, and the people downstream who have no backup plan for where their water is going to come from,” he wrote in his blog.

“The people who live on the islands surrounded by that coral, who depend on the reefs for the fish they eat, and to protect their homes from the waves. And the people, on every corner of the world, dealing with drought and flood, already unable to earn their daily bread in the places where their ancestors farmed for generations.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Sound recording of the press conference at Copenhagen Cathedral (38 min, 36 MB)

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