Over the past few weeks, a passion play of a very modern kind has been acted out in the North Devon countryside – one that may have implications for each of the 44 dioceses in the Church of England. At the heart of the drama is a clash between the Church (in the form of the Bishop of Exeter) and the inhabitants of three small villages with a total population of just under 1,400. The cause of the schism has been the bishop’s plan to build wind turbines on Church-owned land at the edge of each village (Chittlehampton, East Anstey and Black Torrington). What was never going to be a popular scheme at the best of times, stirred up a serpent’s nest of trouble when it was not so much announced, as leaked.
“The way we found out was when someone mentioned it to my husband Richard, when he was at the hairdresser’s in South Molton,” says Caroline Hopton, whose home would be closest to the pair of 75 ft turbines proposed for Chittlehampton.
The plan was news to the village churchwarden, Shirley Wood, too. “I was walking in the street, and someone came up and asked what I knew about the wind turbine scheme,” she recalls. “Although I’m one of the church wardens at St Hieritha’s (in the centre of Chittlehampton), I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.”
Surprise soon gave way to biblical-strength wrath. Incensed that the Church had applied for planning permission (on May 9) without any kind of consultation, the turbine-shadowed villages demanded that diocesan representatives attend public meetings and explain themselves. Within a week, clerics and environmental consultants found themselves standing up in packed church halls, explaining the good that these giant windmills were going to do. People didn’t like what they heard.
The main benefits of the turbines, it was said, was that they would generate much-needed revenue for the diocese (£50,000 per year, through selling the electricity to the National Grid), and help the Church of England meet its target of 80 per cent carbon-footprint reduction by the year 2050.
The villagers’ reaction to this wasn’t helped by the fact that, when the St Hieritha’s clock went wrong recently, it was they who had to pay up for the repair, not the diocese. The unanimous verdict at the meetings was that the warm, inner glow which would come from helping to balance the bishop’s books and lessen the C of E’s emissions guilt, would not, on the whole, outweigh the burning sense of resentment at watching these whirling giants slash house prices with every turn of their rotor blades.
Nor were the villagers convinced by the accompanying report from consultants Myriad CEG, saying that “in practice, turbine noise is often masked by background noise, such as wind, and leaves rustling”. Or by the turbine expert who pronounced that a mere 3.5 tons of concrete would be needed for these installations, only to be corrected by a woman in the audience who pointed out he had got his sums wrong, and the true figure was 35 tons.
It was at this point, claims the Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, that things got nasty, and, in a letter read out in North Devon churches last month, he made his feelings known. “I have been grieved by the way some of those most opposed to our proposals have resorted to abusive and bullying tactics,” he said, with the same defensive tone as that used by TV presenter Fearne Cotton when she responded to critics of her Diamond Jubilee performance.
“I and many of my colleagues have received very unpleasant letters,” continued the bishop. “And those who have attended public meetings, in a genuine effort to explain the thinking behind our proposals, have been shouted down, and called liars.
“It grieves me, too, that in many ways the scale of aggression and hostility generated from a small amount of people was so far out of step with what we proposed.”
His observations have not gone down well. They could have been served up with a big dollop of mea culpa regarding lack of consultation, plus a promise to drop the turbine scheme forthwith, but the bishop’s remarks left villagers feeling he had taken his message not from the Book of Lamentations, but from the Gospel of Sour Grapes.
“What’s that all about?” asks Caroline Hopton, who is responsible for a series of tongue-in-cheek “Have you got wind of the bishop’s erections?” posters. “One minute, he’s talking about bridge-building, the next, he goes boo-hoo and says he’s been bullied.”
Opinion in The Bell, at Chittlehampton, is firmly behind her. “It wasn’t the bishop who was being bullied, it was us,” says Marian Edwards, who chairs the parish council. “They were presenting us with this scheme, and saying that while they would listen to our objections, and pray for them, they weren’t intending to do anything about them. What’s more, it was us who had to ask for the public meetings ourselves, not them who offered it.”
“Feelings were running high, and strong words were spoken,” concedes seasoned turbine-denier Bob Barfoot, North Devon chairman of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. “But you’d have to be a real shrinking violet to classify that as abuse or bullying.”
Maybe so, but gentlemen of the cloth aren’t accustomed to accusations of arrogance, hypocrisy and betrayal, not to mention avarice and duplicity.
“At one level, it was sad to see senior members of the diocese, including the Archdeacon of Totnes, being publicly humiliated and laughed at,” says Peter Hine, one of the villagers who attended the Black Torrington meeting. “There again, they brought it on themselves.”
There is no question that the bishop’s men should have expected a rough ride, says local Green Party activist Ricky Knight. “If you speak up for wind turbines in this area, you have got to get used to being unpopular,” he sighs. “I’m always getting rung up by people who shout down the phone at me, saying how dare I support wind farms.
“I’m attending a wind turbine inquiry just up the road at Bishops Nympton, and each day, I’m sure my tyres are going to get let down. I’m sure the intimidation the bishop talks about is quite real. What I do ask, though, is, if we all keep saying no to wind farms, what are we going to do about seven-metre rises in sea level over the next 20 years?”
According to the bishop’s spokeswoman, there are others in the county asking the same sort of question. “We have had a lot of people contacting us, in the last few days saying they were behind the turbine scheme, but were too intimidated to express their opinion,” says Rebecca Paveley, while making it clear that the bishop does not want to discuss the issue with The Daily Telegraph.
One clergyman who has spoken up is the Archbishop of Barnstaple, David Gunn-Johnson. “If we are to continue to appoint and pay priests, support Christian communities and meet commitments for our 130 schools, then income is essential to us, but finance has most emphatically not been the motivation for this scheme,” he declared, in an open letter. “The production of more renewable electricity in Devon would reduce our carbon emissions and protect our environment. Our own synod, consisting largely of people elected by parishioners and clergy in Devon, has endorsed this policy, which commits us locally to exploring a wide range of ways to achieve this change, and to care for God’s creation.”
And not just locally, either, according to Bob Barfoot. “Make no mistake, this scheme was a test case,” he says, pointing to a statement from the Church’s consultants, XY Associates, which describes the Bishop of Exeter’s plan as a “proof of concept” project.
“The Church of England has clearly been considering this kind of initiative in all 44 of its dioceses, not just Exeter.”
So in the light of what’s happened at Chittlehampton, the big question must be whether CofE wind farms now have a future. Or is this a pilot of which the Church will wash its hands?