THE Church of England should see climate activism as an aspect of mission and stand in solidarity with protesters, an open letter sent on Tuesday morning argues.
Twenty clergy are among the 79 signatories to the letter, which was sent to the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, in his capacity as the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment.
The letter, which is endorsed by the campaigning group Green Christian, notes that the C of E’s fifth “mark of mission” is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.
Climate protesters, it says “are clearly striving to safeguard the integrity of creation and acting to try to enable humanity collectively to sustain life on earth, and even eventually to renew it. In other words, they are acting in concord with the fifth mark of mission.”
The letter highlights the fact that, at many climate protests, “a number of the protesters are Christians”, and suggests that “we might think of them as missionaries.”
The letter asks the Church to be more vocal in its support of such protesters, especially in the light of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed despite opposition from faith groups and bishops in the House of Lords (News, 17 September 2021).
The Act, the letter says, “would likely draw a wider cohort of activists into the ambit of prosecutorial action. This might include, for example, those who offer hospitality, practical support or in other ways enable protest actions to take place.”
Bishops should “make their support for climate activists known”, and policies should be introduced to ensure that people involved in climate action face no barriers in being employed by the Church.
Several C of E priests have been arrested for their part in climate protests. In March last year, the Revd Helen Burnett, Team Vicar of St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon, with St Luke’s, Whyteleafe, and the Revd Mark Coleman, who had recently retired as Vicar of St Chad’s, Rochdale, were both found guilty and sentenced to a fine and a six-month conditional discharge for “obstruction of the highway” during an Extinction Rebellion protest (Comment, 29 March 2021).
Responding to the letter on Thursday, Bishop Usher expressed his “wholehearted commitment to “doing all we can to abate the climate emergency” in the wake of the General Synod motion in 2020 which committed the Church to reaching net zero by 2030 (News, 12 February 2020).
Meeting this target was “vital to the credibility of our voice in the public square”, he said. This included “the right to peaceful protest”, which he supported.
“Bishops have held this issue to the fore, not least in challenging the Government during the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Act 2022, where the Bishop of Manchester underlined the balance of allowing the public to exercise their rights and freedoms while maintaining good order.
“We will continue to press for this balance to be fair,” Bishop Usher concluded. Clergy were free to take part in protests, as long as they did so “peacefully and legally”, he said.