Will church bells toll for the climate?

The bells in this church tower in Lützelfluh outside Bern will ring for the climate

The bells of world’s churches are set to toll on Sunday afternoon in a bid to raise awareness about climate change but in Switzerland, many will stay silent.

This content was published on December 11, 2009 minutes

The Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) calls climate change an ethical and spiritual issue but the mass bell ringing, endorsed by Switzerland’s national church federations, has been rejected by the largest regional Protestant groups over questions of politicking.

At the halfway mark of the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, the WCC wants “churches around the world to use their bells, drums, gongs or whatever their tradition offers to call people to prayer and action in the face of climate change”.

However, in the same statement, the WCC admits that the campaign could turn out to be anything but a bell-ringing success.

"In some countries, the question has been raised whether churches have the right to use their bells for what may be considered to be a political campaign," said Guillermo Kerber, WCC programme executive on climate change.

That is the opinion of Switzerland’s three biggest Protestant church groups, representing most Protestant communities in northern and northwestern Switzerland.

“We are convinced of the importance of the climate conference but we are certain that ringing bells is nothing more than a publicity stunt. We want results, not just publicity,” Thomas Gehrig, spokesman of the Bern-Jura-Solothurn churches told

Silent bells

Although cantonal church umbrella organisations like Gehrig’s can only issue recommendations, most Protestant communities are paying heed and will keep their bells silent.

The Swiss Bishops Conference has taken a different approach, telling that it would do nothing itself to promote the campaign among the country’s Roman Catholic community, but that it had given permission to its charities, the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund and Caritas Switzerland, to make an appeal.

Patrick Frei of the Fund said he expects more than 400 Catholic churches across the country to take part, and even though this was less than half of the total, he is “more than satisfied” with the result.

He said the campaign has found greater support from churches than an action last year to fly white flags in solidarity with the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Catholic and Protestant aid organisations are also behind a counter proposal to say a prayer for the climate – a move which does have the backing of the umbrella organisations like the Bern-Jura-Solothurn churches.


According to the agreed text, Christians across Switzerland should pray on December 13 for an agreement in Copenhagen so that “threatened life on the planet can breathe a sigh of relief”.

While church leaders may be divided on how best to raise awareness of climate change, they are united on the urgency of the issue.

“What is being discussed in Copenhagen is really one of those that impacts humankind, and in particular the future of the poorer parts of the world,” Beat Dietschy of the Protestant charity Bread for All told

“Climate change is not only an ecological issue but also one of development in the poorest countries. We already see the impacts on harvests, especially in Africa. Estimates say they could be halved by 2020. This worsens the food crisis,” Dietschy added.

But Gehrig is doubtful Copenhagen will provide the answers.

“We have had a lot of conferences, starting with Rio de Janeiro 15 years ago,” Gehrig said.

“Copenhagen will not offer solutions for the climate. It’s just one conference, and there will be another next year. We can’t ring bells every time, otherwise the action will have no significance.”

Dale Bechtel,

Bell ringing campaign

On its website, the World Council of Churches says it “envisages a chain of chimes and prayers stretching in a time-line from the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific – where the day first begins and where the effects of climate change are already felt today – to northern Europe and across the globe”.

At 3pm on December 13, the WCC wants each church to ring its bells or other instruments 350 times. The figure symbolises the 350 parts per million that mark the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere according to many scientists.

Switzerland’s national Protestant and Roman Catholic church federations have endorsed the campaign, following the lead of the European umbrella organisations.

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