Columbans support ‘The Big One’ climate protest

Ellen Teague writes about the Columbans at 'The Big One', a four-day action from the 21st to the 24th of April 2023 in London.

Columbans with students from St. George's at 'The Big One'
Columbans with students from St. George's at 'The Big One'

The Columban Justice, Peace and Ecology team walked in pilgrimage with Church leaders last Friday as they crossed Westminster Bridge at the head of around 1,400 people of faith and carrying a banner, ‘No More Fossil Fuels – Amen.’ Church of England leaders, including Lord John Sentamu, had taken part in the packed ‘No Faith In Fossil Fuels’ Service at St. John’s Church, Waterloo, organised by Christian Climate Action. The team with the Columban banner was James Trewby, Fr. Dan O’Malley, Ellen Teague with Jane Lavery and Rhea Bose.

Afterwards, the Church leaders led the walk via Shell HQ to Parliament Square to join ‘The Big One’ four-day protest. Christine Allen, CAFOD’s Director and Ruth Valerio of Global Advocacy at Tearfund both were present. Shanon Shah represented the interfaith organisation Faith for the Climate. A Salvation Army Band played the whole route along the Southbank with Anthony Cotterill, head of Salvation Army UK. The crowd joined in singing hymns including ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Be Still for the Presence of the Lord.’ Shell called the police on Lord Sentamu when, standing out in his red Christian Aid top as its current chair, he tried to deliver a letter into the locked Shell building calling for the multinational oil and gas company, “to stop all new fossil fuel exploration and extraction immediately”. It was signed by Green Christian, Christian Climate Action, Operation Noah, CAFOD, Tearfund, Christian Aid and A Rocha UK.

Walking immediately behind the church leaders were the Justice and Peace group of St. George’s Catholic School in Maida Vale – eight in all plus teacher Peter White. They were alongside the Columban team, who did a workshop with them that morning about the impact of climate change on the Philippines and Fiji, and produced banners ‘Protect our Planet’ and ‘O Lord, guide us to Justice, Peace and Love.’ They joined in the chant of ‘Shame on Shell’ outside the HQ of the oil and gas company.

Justice and Peace campaigners in the pilgrimage were from the dioceses of Westminster, Birmingham, Clifton, Southwark, Plymouth, and Wrexham. CAFOD supporters were alongside representatives of Pax Christi England and Wales, the Archbishop Romero Trust, the Laudato Si Movement and the Young Christian Climate Network.

The Faith Hub in Parliament Square – one of 10 hubs – was the location for an intensely moving Mass last Saturday, celebrated by Fr. Joe Ryan, parish priest of London’s West Green parish. The Columban team was among more than 100 people gathered around with the congregation growing during the Mass. Fr. Ryan had a copy of the encyclical Laudato Si on the altar and referred to, “the pope who inspires us.” He said afterwards, “It was a privilege to be able to celebrate Mass in such a public place and in sight of the Seats of Power – what a wonderful witness!” The liturgy was organised by Laudato Si Animators. It followed a huge and colourful March for Nature, involving tens of thousands, to mark Earth Day which saw ‘animals’ – families in costume and large models of creatures – walk through surrounding streets highlighting Biodiversity loss.

Other prayer and worship activities included worship led by Black Majority Churches on Saturday and Sunday worship led by young people and another by the Iona Community. Every day at ‘The Big One’ the Franciscans led a prayer walk. The Coat of Hopes – a patchwork coat made for COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 and displaying peoples’ griefs, remembrances, prayers and hopes of people – was displayed throughout.

The Big One, which took place 21-24 April, saw at least 60,000 people gather around Parliament over the four days to demand an end to the fossil fuel era. It was a massive and peaceful mobilisation for climate justice designed for mass participation with family-friendly activities planned throughout the four days. The protest was organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and was supported by around 200 other organisations.

There were peaceful pickets at every government department in Westminster. Peace campaigners placed words of Bruce Kent on a gate outside the Ministry of Defence: “We did not make the planet, we do not own the planet, and we have no right to wreck the planet.” Passionist priest and peace activist Fr. Martin Newell said, “I invite my fellow Christians to stand alongside me as we say no to fossil fuel exploration.” Quakers called for demilitarisation and the money saved to be spent on care for people and the planet. ‘No Future in Fossil Fuels’ was the banner draped in front of the UK Department of Energy Security and Net Zero.

Among several ‘die-ins’ was one in front of Bank of America to demand ethical climate finance. Another at the Home Office highlighted “the evil” of the new Refugee Ban Bill. One in Parliament Square on Saturday saw participants “lie down in silence, in memory and mourning for the heartbreaking 70 per cent decline in wild animal populations since the first Earth Day in 1970.” A huge one on Horse Guards Road demanded that the UK government meet its climate targets.

However, on Monday evening, it was clear that four days of powerful and peaceful activism had failed to elicit the hoped-for pledge from the government to ban new oil and gas projects. Campaigners noted it also failed to attract the mainstream media coverage that disruptive direct action draws.

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