Helen Burnett shares her experience of being a visibly Christian rebel at the Easter Rebellion.
In October 2018, amidst increasingly alarming reports about climate change and with extreme weather conditions beginning to affect privileged white communities long after it had wreaked havoc with those most vulnerable to serious climate breakdown, a letter was written to The Guardian endorsing the use of non-violent civil disobedience as a necessary and reasonable response to what was increasingly referred to as the sixth mass extinction. The fact that Rowan Williams was a signatory to this letter added to my mounting feeling that words, petitions and marches were not enough.
The realisation that humanity is now the single biggest factor in environmental change, and a sense of deep despair about the future of the planet and what that meant for my nearest and dearest, found me standing in Parliament Square in October for the launch of a new initiative: Extinction Rebellion. Highly visible and all alone in a clerical collar, I was surprised to be approached over and over again by people pleased to see a visible Christian presence.
I went straight from the launch to an event at Southwark Cathedral where I ‘flyered’ the seats in the Nave during a clergy conference. I had permission from the Dean so it was hardly ‘disobedience’, but it felt like the beginning of something new…
When this goes to press Extinction Rebellion will no longer be the new exciting phenomena. It may have stumbled, given that as I write there is discord over proposed actions around Heathrow. How the ‘rebellion’ continues is not clear, but on two Saturdays in October and for a spell of 10 days over Holy Week and Easter I experienced something quite extraordinary.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is founded on the principle that the climate catastrophe we now face is the result of both a material and a spiritual crisis for humanity; that the disconnect between consumer and producer, the reduction of everything to economic value and growth compels us to respond to the crisis; and that the response must be grounded emotionally as well as practically.
XR has a flair for using symbols and ritual. As the first day of action, in which five London bridges were blocked, drew to a close, hundreds of protesters returned to Parliament Square for interfaith prayers and tree planting. The following week the celebration of peaceful protest on the bridges turned to a solemn funeral procession, including once again the use of ‘the pause’. Stopping all noise and sitting or kneeling outside 10 Downing Street protestors prayers, paused, fell silent, a young man placed his hand on my shoulder. If felt as if, as one, we all ‘held’ our grief and our planet in our hearts and minds and whatever each of us knew as God.
I have always been drawn to both contemplation and activism and I was discovering a place where my life and my ministry felt complete integrated. By the time I arrived at Marble Arch on day one of the Easter action I was both terrified and determined. At home I had preached on ‘crucifying creation’. I had sited Phil Kingston in sermons, and now I was a signed up member of Christian Climate Action and Extinction Rebellion.
From Palm Sunday to Easter Week I lived between my parish and Marble Arch, where the protestors gathered there created the most open, selfless and loving community I have ever experienced. This was ‘Kingdom’ living, and my theology and my life were fully assimilated. At times I was more frightened than I have ever been, not of arrest but of where I was being taken by events, catapulted into the limelight by virtue of a collar, called upon and applauded by people who would never dream of attending a church service. Speaking in Oxford Circus on the pink ‘Tell the Truth’ boat, praying as protestors were arrested, holding a whole situation in prayer – protestors and police alike, taking to the stage in Marble Arch on a daily basis to proclaim the ‘Vision Statement’, de-escalating a situation with the police by leading protestors in song.
Before the days of rebellion began a huge variety of actions were planned for each day. I was part of the XR Vision Sensing team tasked with holding the ‘heart centre’ of the rebellion, one of only two distinctively Christian voices in a group made up mostly of Buddhists and Pagans. This was Holy Week. When asked to give a Christian perspective on non-violent action and rebellion the material was right there – the Palm Sunday Procession as protest not parade.
Foot washing on Maundy Thursday would have been a weird intervention had I not been embedded in the community. As it was, by Thursday, I was known by the Marble Arch campers. My tent was on the front line of the Edgeware Road blockade, and so turning up with bowls and towels to wash the feet of rebels was entirely appropriate, received with gratitude and with interest. Grounding in the Tridium, commuting between leafy Surrey and the gritty realities of protests, never before has the liturgy felt so raw and so powerful.
We walked through the Passion to the crucifixion, and towards the active hope that Christ brings in the new creation. The horror of a creation that has been crucified – countered by a group of people living in love and seeking the risen life for all that lives and all that has been destroyed.
A thread that runs throughout the rebellion movement is the need for grieving, for facing the truth and sitting with that truth. Again and again I have turned to the Psalms to find the language of lament and protest, again and again I was struck by the process people had gone through to arrive at the point of rebellion, again and again we shared stories of lying awake at night gripped with fear for the future. Here was a place where that fear was named and acknowledged. Returning to ‘normality’, it is clear that the majority cannot face that fear, that we block the reality because it is too much to bear. I think that the church could have a vital role to play in walking alongside the world as it moves inexorably towards the sixth mass extinction.
But what is it we walk with? Are we accompanying a funeral carriage and hosting a wake, or are we midwives to something new?
I suspect we are a bit of both. I sense a shift in the vocabulary. The media have now adopted the phrase ‘climate emergency’ in place of ‘climate change’. Extinction is spoken of, lost species are listed. We have our prophets (David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg), we have our lawgivers (Polly Higgins), we have our thinkers (Jem Bendell, Rowan Williams), we have our politicians (Caroline Lucas), we have our activists (Christian Climate Action and Extinction Rebellion), and we as Christians have a unique narrative that we can offer as humanity faces the challenges wrought by our desecration of the planet.
Above all we have the Holy Spirit, something that as a liberal and non-realist I wrestle with, but I think I would be content to say that the spirit moved in central London this April, and that is something I want to witness again. A risen life for all creation is something for which I will disobey earthly powers.
Helen Burnett is an Assistant Priest in the Caterham Team Ministry and a member of the Council of Modern Church. This article first appeared in Modern Church’s newsletter Signs of the Times.