During a recent meeting of the top governing body of the World Council of Churches (WCC), its Central Committee said "no" to investments in fossil fuels.
The decision was one among many made in a finance policy committee report that the body voted on last week, but one that confirmed both the long-term commitment of the WCC to caring for creation and reversing climate change, but also its stand on ethical investment.
Since the adoption of the finance report last week, climate change groups have rallied around the WCC decision while media have reported on its potential impact and significance.
The WCC is a fellowship of churches with 345 member churches in 140 countries representing some 560 million Christians worldwide.
Prior to this announcement some member churches were already committed to the divestment of their former investments in fossil fuels, including the United Church of Christ in the United States, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and the Church of Sweden.
The decision has also brought energy to an upcoming Interfaith Summit on Climate Change to be held 21-22 September in New York, prior to the United Nations Climate Summit.
"We are heartened to see the response to this single line in a longer finance report," said WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit. "Care for creation and justice is at the centre of the WCC's work on climate change."
"The WCC wants to be careful in its investments, avoiding what we see as unethical in businesses today, and through our investment policy give signals as to practices that we believe are not serving a sustainable future," Tveit said. "The use of fossil fuels must be significantly reduced and by not investing in those companies we want to show a direction we need to follow as a human family to address climate changes properly."
The WCC started working on climate change in the early 90s, and during the past two decades has actively helped to foster a movement for climate justice touching millions of people around the world.
As part of the first global day of action in 2009 organized by the international climate campaign 350.org, the WCC encouraged its member churches and congregations around the world to ring their church bells and to sound horns and other instruments 350 times for climate justice. More than 2000 communities from Kiribati in the South Pacific to Copenhagen, Denmark responded positively to the call.
During the past six months the WCC has been reaching out to member churches in Europe, encouraging divestment from fossil fuels as a way for church communities to help achieve climate justice in the absence of political leadership.
When former WCC staff member and South African archbishop Desmond Tutu called publicly for divestment and boycotts of the fossil fuel industry, it was a clear signal that more could be done, according to Dr Guillermo Kerber who coordinates the WCC programme on Care for Creation and Climate Justice.
The request to list fossil fuels as a "no-go" area for WCC investments came from younger Central Committee members who, according to Kerber, recognized the general ethical guidelines for investment that the WCC follows, but wanted to see fossil fuels explicitly mentioned.
"There are strong intergenerational aspects to climate justice, and it is encouraging to see that young people all over the world are starting to take a stand," Kerber said.
In the end the finance policy committee report said, "The committee discussed the ethical investment criteria and considered that the list of sectors in which the WCC does not invest should be extended to include fossil fuels"
While the WCC has a relatively small investment portfolio compared to many other institutions, it takes care in how it handles even these smaller amounts, according to the WCC Director of Finance, Elaine Dykes.
"The WCC holds 8.7 million Swiss Francs in endowment investments and 8 million Swiss Francs in short-term deposits and money-market funds," Dykes said. "There is no direct investment in fossil fuel industries."
"While the ethical investment guidelines apply to the WCC only, we are aware that they are a point of reference for others," she said. "From time to time, other faith-based organizations have requested to consult the WCC's policies."
The WCC's general ethical guidelines for investment had already included concern for a sustainable environment for future generations and for the CO2 footprint of individuals and organizations. The list of sectors in which the WCC does not invest includes, among other areas, weapons, nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms.
In adding fossil fuels to the list of sectors where the WCC does not invest, the governing body of the WCC "strengthened its commitment on climate change and gave energy to the upcoming interfaith summit," Kerber said.
The Interfaith Summit on Climate Change is being organized by the WCC and Religions for Peace in New York.
The summit, to take place immediately before the UN Climate Summit, will bring religious leaders from all over the world to express their concerns on the climate crisis, call on the international community for effective action in the process towards the Climate Conference (COP 21) in Paris in December 2015 and commit to involve faith communities in the needed response.