You could hear the birds sing during lockdown. We all benefitted from less noise and air pollution. The Rev Peter Owen Jones, the vicar of Firle, told me that the gift of stillness had enabled him to offer online spiritual support to his congregation, which had tripled from the start of the pandemic. We agreed that our congregations were searching, reviewing their lives and longing for a way to understand the new normal.
As a long-time environmentalist, he shared the hope of others that we would emerge from this with a greater sense of urgency around our custodianship of the planet. While rebels had hesitated to demonstrate during the pandemic, invisibility was not an option.
On the last Sunday in August, some 75 people walked silently through Lewes to St Anne’s Church to illustrate their united belied in the sacredness of the planet and listen to speakers from the Christian, Jewish and Buddhist communities. The bishop of Lewes joined the march and vigil. In London, former archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams joined the Christian Climate Action Group in a march to Parliament Square where, under their banner ‘creation cries out’, they prayed and held a vigil for the earth.
Some were detained for their efforts. Among the arrested men and women of the cloth were Father Martin Newell, a Catholic priest from Birmingham, Methodist minister Rev Mark Pengelly and Sue Parfitt, an Anglican vicar from Bristol. For the sin of obstructing the highway, Fr Newell spent a night in custody. He defended his position, saying that ‘we are all called to protect God’s earth as Christians, to be stewards of this garden planet that God has given us rather than destroying it.’
Spiritual leaders and faith groups are increasingly aware of the threat to the planet and are supporting XR’s demand that the government pass the climate and ecological emergency bill, a cross-party initiative brought to parliament by Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas.
XR advocate a citizens’ assembly to allow people to engage in transparent and honest debate of available evidence, and to influence policy. They insist that governments and the media tell the truth. That is why they wanted a 24-hour embargo on papers prone to denying climate change. Through direct action at the printworks in Hertfordshire, they managed to stop the delivery of some of these newspapers. Arrests ensued.
Sue Hampton, a Quaker, was among the dozens charged with obstruction of the highway. From her prison cell, she scribbled this letter calling for the truth rather than fake news to be reported. “I am a Quaker determined to do what love requires of me, and serve the truth,” she said. “It is my sacred duty to rebel.”
There is also a shared concern that the government is using covid as an excuse to bring in legislation to suppress protests by introducing the ‘rule of six’, and a media blackout on reports about detainees. Who is aware that Roger Hallam, one of XR’s original leaders, is still incarcerated? Despite this, it is heartening that rebels will not be cowed. Peaceful civil disobedience is a basic human right in Britain – until, of course, it isn’t.
Ruth Urbanowicz, a Brighton-based chiropractor and ecologist, said she had joined the interfaith group called XR Meditators last summer, who allowed her to enjoy her ‘bigamy’ – being a Christian while following Buddhist principles. Last autumn, she met Ali Purbrick at Faith Bridge in London during the XR rebellion. Together they set up a local Christian climate action group.
Ruth joined both the Lewes and London vigils, spending 24 hours in prayer outside Downing Street, following an interfaith service at St. John’s, Waterloo. For her it was a deep and moving experience. A verse from the liturgy stayed with her and became a mantra: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.”
Ruth feels that all we can do, as a spiritual community, is to bring our individual light and shine it in the place of darkness. We must be the hands, the feet, the eyes and the heart of God. Where there is darkness, we must bring light. She insists that this has to be our response to this government’s ridiculous attempt to criminalise a movement that sees the planet as sacred, that has no impulse to do harm and whose members are prepared, like other freedom fighters before them, to sacrifice themselves for the common good.