Christian climate activist, Reverend Sue Parfitt, a retired Church of England priest, was cleared of the controversial 2019 Extinction Rebellion protest which stopped a train when she climbed onto the roof. She spoke to Erin Lister about a lifetime of faith and activism
In the early hours of an October morning in 2019, three Christian Extinction Rebellion activists halted a train at Shadwell DLR station, East London, refusing to move until police officers arrived. The action, which caused over an hour of disruption for rush-hour commuters, garnered controversy for the use of public transport in a protest concerning climate change.
Reverend Sue Parfitt, 79, and Father Martin Newell, 54, used a ladder to climb onto the roof of the Docklands Light Railway train, where they said some prayers for the Earth. The third protestor, 85-year-old Phil Kingston, superglued his hand to the side of the train.
Despite angry attempts to haul them from off the train, the activists managed to keep it from moving for 77 minutes, causing disruption to a total of 15 DLR trains.
In a decision that has been compared to that made in the ‘Colston Four‘ case in Bristol, the trio were unanimously acquitted at Inner London Crown Court earlier this month. The defence? They were simply exercising their right to protest.
“Of course, we were absolutely delighted with the verdict,” Parfitt told Eastlondonlines via Zoom from her home in Bristol. “It was a great feeling that the jury could see the bigger picture.”
This ‘delight’ she felt in the aftermath of the trial, she explained, was much more for sake of the cause than for herself and her fellow protestors: “It doesn’t matter to me what verdict they came to, and I said that to the jury. It was of no consequence to me whether [they found] me guilty or not, but of course, it is of consequence to the cause.”
One of the first women to be ordained in the Church of England in 1994, Parfitt worked for both the Bristol and southern dioceses as a priest. By professional training, she is a family psychotherapist – a job she continued to do for couples and families in her clergy after being ordained. Despite her busy working life, she has always still found time to be involved in activism.
For example, she took part in the Peace Movement in the 80s and she has more recently spent time in Palestine as a part of the Christian Peacemakers. She is also a member of Bristol Defend the Asylum Seekers Campaign; herself and her late husband, who was also a priest, would provide lodging to asylum seekers at their home in Bristol.
“Once you join something, you get caught up in it.” Parfitt said, reflecting on the feeling of unity within the organisation, which aims to persuade governments to ‘tell the truth’ and ‘act now’ in regard to the climate crisis.
“It’s a lovely group. We meet every morning, every day of the year, including Christmas Day. Not all of us, of course, but some of us between 9 and 10am. We just had our annual conference and [there was] a great feeling of solidarity and mutual support.”
“I’m elderly. I don’t have job responsibilities. I’m always able to say to the judge ‘it doesn’t matter at all what you do with me [because] there are no consequences for me’. There are lots of thing I can’t now do – I’m nearly 80 – but I can do this.”
When asked about her biggest motivations for being involved with protesting the climate emergency, Parfitt answered easily. Her Christian faith, she said, is what primarily drives her.
“We’re called really to lay down our lives in whatever way. That’s often done through people doing their nursing or teaching or whatever. But I mean, there is a sort of literal sense that if you’re lying down on the motorway, you are laying down your life.”
“We believe this is God’s creation – he made it, he grieves for its destruction – and that he wants his followers to do all that they can to at least slow down the climate catastrophe.”
Parfitt then told ELL that while she is worried we may be unable to stop the climate crisis, there is still a chance to limit its impact: “I’m afraid it’s probably too late now. We’ve passed too many tipping points to reverse this, but we may be able to slow it down for your children and your grandchildren.”
Unlike fellow Shadwell protestor, Phil Kingston, who explained to the jury in his defence statement last week that his primary motivation was concern for his four grandchildren’s safety and well-being, Parfitt does not have any children of her own. For that reason, she does not understand the suggestion that her action is ‘selfish’.
“I don’t really feel I personally have anything to gain from this. I mean, I should be dead before the worst effects of this come to this country, and then I don’t have children or grandchildren to worry about, so I don’t see that really this could be seen as a selfish act.”
Being arrested, Parfitt explained, is of no consequence to her. She retired from her role with the church in 2001 and has spent a large chunk of her time protesting since: “I’m free to do it. I mean, I’m elderly. I don’t have job responsibilities. It doesn’t matter what happens to me, and that gives you a freedom. I’m always able to say to the judge ‘it doesn’t matter at all what you do with me [because] there are no consequences for me’. I am going to do this because I think it’s what I’m free to do and able to do. There are lots of thing I can’t now do – I’m nearly 80 – but I can do this.”
As she told the High Court in December last year, where she was convicted of contempt of court for breaking the government’s M25 injunction in an Insulate Britain protest, Parfitt confirmed to ELL that she has no plan to halt her ‘civil disobedience’. In fact, she will be seen in court again in February, after taking part in Insulate Britain protests last year.
When she is not busy protesting, Parfitt told ELL she enjoys spending time out in her garden and looking after her cat, who joined us on the call for a little while. Otherwise, her focus remains solely on the issues she’s protesting for: “I don’t do much really, I just try and focus on keeping up to speed with [the] climate.”