CHURCH of England clergy were among the more than 1000 people arrested in London while taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests calling for the Government action to tackle climate change. The protests, which received the backing of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams (News, 18 April), brought parts of central London to a standstill throughout Holy Week.
In one of the highest Easter temperatures ever recorded in the UK, the Revd Sue Parfitt, aged 77, from Bristol, was arrested while blocking Oxford Circus. She said: “It has been such a sweltering hot day. We have all been sharing sun cream and water, but I would really rather be at home in the shade.
“The only reason I’m here is because this is an emergency and we must take action now. That’s why I’m prepared to be arrested. If it makes people in power pay attention and it ends the suffering of climate breakdown, it will be worth while.”
Such was the scale of the peaceful protests across the capital that police had to be drafted in from elsewhere. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said that the demonstrations were different from what they were used to: “One thing that is unusual about this demonstration is the willingness of those participating to be arrested, and also their lack of resistance to the arrests.”
One of the most high-profile sites was Waterloo Bridge, which the protesters turned into a “garden bridge” adorned with trees and shrubs, while they also held talks, music, and workshops on a solar-powered stage.
St John’s, Waterloo opened its doors to the Extinction Rebellion: protesters were able to sleep in the crypt and use lavatories, showers, and kitchens, and to store trees in the churchyard in the days leading up to the bridge blockade.
The Vicar, Canon Giles Goddard, said that he had received only support from members of his congregation. He told The Times: “I think there is recognition that the time to act globally is now for the sake of populations across the world. Here we are in Holy Week. Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing he was going to be arrested, and believing that he had to be to bring about the change that was necessary.”
As part of traditional Maundy Thursday ceremonial, Christians from Extinction Rebellion, taking part under the banner of Christian Climate Action, washed the feet of members of the public and protesters.
The Revd Helen Burnett, an NSM in the Caterham Team Ministry, in Southwark diocese, bathed feet with water, soap, and oils at the Marble Arch roundabout.
She said: “Part of what Extinction Rebellion believes is that the climate catastrophe that we face is both spiritual and ecological, and that to reverse the effects of climate change we are called to fundamentally change the structures of the systems under which we live.”
The week-long protests coincided with the broadcast of a primetime documentary on BBC1 by Sir David Attenborough, Climate Change: The Facts, in which the 92-year-old broadcaster spoke of “facing a man-made disaster on a global scale”. Celebrities such as Dame Emma Thompson and Chris Packham, presenter of the BBC’s Springwatch, also took part in the Extinction Rebellion protests.
Mr Packham defended the disruptive tactics of the activists. He said: “Someone tweeted me last night and said they were late for their daughter’s birthday party. Of course, we all want to be at our daughter’s birthday party on time. But what about his granddaughter’s birthday party? Or his great-granddaughter’s birthday party? What is happening today is about tomorrow, not just the inconvenience today.”
The person who got the biggest cheer of the week was the Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who started the school strike for the climate movement last year, which, in a few months, has spread around the world (News, 22 February). She spoke to the crowds at Marble Arch before meetings with politicians in Westminster on Tuesday. She said: “People are slowly becoming more aware, but emissions continue to rise. We can’t focus on small things.”
This sentiment was echoed by Simon Hildrew, a Christian from south London who was arrested for the first time as part of the protest at Oxford Circus. Political action, he said, was what was really needed to tackle climate change.
“By convincing us that we should be solving the climate problem ourselves, they have eliminated the pressure on governments to take it seriously,” he said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t respond as individuals, but we need to wake up and realise that big-picture solutions can only be enacted by governments.”
On Thursday, the Climate Change Committee is expected to release a report advising the Government of the date at which the UK should go to “net zero” emissions. Charities such as Christian Aid and Tearfund, as part of the Climate Coalition, are encouraging supporters to sign up for a mass lobby of Parliament on 26 June when the public will have a chance to press MPs to take more action to tackle climate change.