Illustration by John Watson

The priest risking jail to protest climate inaction

Eighty-year-old Reverend Sue Parfitt on how Christianity inspires her eco-activism
March 1, 2023

The Reverend Sue Parfitt is back in court again. At the age of 80, the retired priest can’t remember how many times she’s been arrested. When we speak, she’s facing three trials in the next month alone. Keeping up with it is difficult: “They’re all in a muddle in my mind,” she says.

Parfitt is a climate activist and a member of Christian Climate Action, the unofficial Christian wing of Extinction Rebellion. She travels across the country bearing a crucifix and walking stick to take part in motorway blockades and other forms of direct action. 

“What can I do to help [at my age]?” she asks. “There are lots of things I can’t do. But I can sit on a motorway.” And for as long as she is able, she plans to continue. Recently, she climbed atop a train carriage at Shadwell station in east London and chained herself to the underside of a lorry at Marble Arch.

We meet on the eve of another Crown Court appearance, this time for taking part in the roadblocks that launched Insulate Britain onto the climate action scene in late 2021. The protesters are being tried in groups of four for causing a public nuisance, a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

 That’s a “scary thought”, she says. Yet when I suggest that a judge might be inclined to treat her more leniently because of her age, she says her sense of solidarity would not allow her to be spared if her comrades are not. In that scenario, “I would do my best to make him send me to prison,” she tells me. She declines to elaborate on how she might achieve that. 

The early Church was breaking the law all the time. So was Jesus

Days later, a jury exonerates Parfitt and the three others in her group. The next protesters on trial for the same offence are not so lucky. “It makes you realise that justice is very bizarre in this country.” 

Parfitt, who joined Christian Climate Action in 2017,  previously worked as a therapist while her husband served as a parish priest in Bristol. In 1994, she became one of the first women to be ordained in the Anglican communion.

“I’ve always seen the Christian faith as being a radical place to do with justice for the poor,” she says. “For me, that connects completely with climate activism because this is a justice movement.” 

Although that view is slowly becoming more mainstream in the Church, civil disobedience remains controversial. Parfitt was initially hauled into a disciplinary meeting by her bishop and told she risked losing her licence to officiate—although in the end she didn’t.

In her eyes, she’s doing nothing new. “The early Church was breaking the law all the time,” she points out. “So was Jesus.” She is frustrated that the modern institution isn’t doing more. “If the whole Church had sat on the M25 motorway, they’d have insulated the whole housing stock immediately, wouldn’t they?” she laughs, lamenting “the power we have but don’t use”.

She rejects arguments that motorway blockades are “selfish”—after all, she has little to gain and much to lose from taking part in them—and insists that they don’t block emergency vehicles, always leaving a lane free and clearing a path when necessary. “What’s selfish is being determined you’re going to continue making yourselves multi-millionaires” while the planet burns, she says.

As it happens, there may be fewer motorway sit-ins this year following Extinction Rebellion’s surprise announcement that it plans to “temporarily shift away from public disruption” to focus instead on conventional protests appealing to a wider section of the public. Parfitt is “in two minds” about this, because although she’d prefer not to use disruption, the fact is that “nothing [else] has worked so far. We’ve all done lobbying our MPs and writing letters and all that.”

But with those methods failing to push the government into action, her question to critics is: “What would you do? What would you suggest?” Because “the terrifying thing is that there comes a moment of no return—and it’s very close”.