CAPTION: Jess Nicholls shared her story at Holy Ground, a monthly Sunday evening worship and discussion event which tackles hot topics

‘Climate Emergency: Protesting For Change’

Posted: 11th September, 2019

Chris Keppie, Church & Society Officer, reflects on Exeter Cathedral’s Holy Ground service on 7 September:

This month’s Holy Ground service at Exeter Cathedral was on ‘Climate Emergency: Protesting For Change’. It was extraordinarily powerful, both the hard-hitting content and challenges presented by the two guest speakers; and also the creative use of space for discussion, reflection, prayer, music and Eucharist after these talks, beautifully led by Canon Chris Palmer and a host of helpers.

Jess Nicholls, 15, goes to school in Exeter and is part of ‘Fridays For Future: Exeter’, a youth-led climate activist group. On hearing Greta Thunberg (the now world-famous Swedish schoolgirl recently commended by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby) speak to the World Economic Forum in January, Jess became convinced of our need to act now, “as if our house is on fire”.

Hyperbole? Consider some of the predicted events, given current levels of pollution and resource exploitation, which are well within her lifespan: 2030 (the UN’s critical point of no return), 2048 (all fish gone from the seas), 2050 (10% of the world’s population predicted to be climate refugees).

Jess set up a campaign group from scratch, her first local action was attended by 700 local young people, she has since done radio and TV interviews, worked alongside Greta at an event in Switzerland, and addressed policy makers in Brussels and America. All that while still at school.

Is it because Jess and Greta both have Asperger’s that they are particularly able to “see this in black and white, [while] too many others are still seeing in grey”? Or because more broadly, “we are the first generation to know what to do, and the last generation able to stop it”?

Certainly she combines stats (60% increase in carbon emissions since the 1995 UN climate summit is another) with a very clear response (‘terrifying’ a repeated adjective).

And, in the face of apparent oblivion or simple selfishness of the older generations to current and future ones, the ability to “turn that anger into empowerment”? What resonance of Christ’s teaching and example!

Exeter University professor, Tim Gorringe, who also spoke at the event, made explicit biblical references, suggesting that the four horsemen of the apocalypse are for our generation the twin crises of climate emergency and rapid biodiversity loss (another unforgettably terrifying nugget: phytoplankton produce 60% of our oxygen – at current rates of depletion caused by warming seas, his grandchildren would breathe air as thin as at the peak of Everest), plus overpopulation and depletion of vital resources (including water and topsoil).

Exeter climate change campaigner Jess Nicholls with Greta Thunberg

Professor Gorringe mentioned the Hebrew for “to keep” the Earth in Genesis 2 is the same verb as to “keep the commandments”; and that the Greek word first used for church, ekklesia, was originally a citizen body that made political decisions – ie being entrusted by God in what and how to do things, to keep creation as stewards, is a much truer meaning of church than buildings (even the splendid setting of the Cathedral!)

And in true Holy Ground ‘stimulating and open-minded’ spirit, Tim talked about Rudolf Bahro, an East German Marxist who later looked to Benedictine communities and spiritual discipline, believing that only by addressing our spiritual crises of greed, possessions and power, can we overcome societal and environmental crises.

Of course we will all have different views and nuances on theology and politics, and on details as to the rights or efficacy of ‘strikes’ from school or work, of disruptions and other actions.

This Holy Ground was a great place to begin hearing what some have chosen to do; there’s another bigger environmental conference currently being planned for the cathedral in February 2020, which will include workshops on a variety of responses.

Christian Climate Action is a rich online resource to explore a Christian rationale and spectrum of possibilities for non-violent direct actions.

You could also see this recent piece on Creationtide and opportunities to make positive changes specifically through our churches.

To my mind, the simplicity of Jesus’s core teaching and exemplar, to love God and to love our neighbours, is what should drive us as we respond to the environmental and other crises of our age.

However we do it, we must step up.

General Synod this year was clear that we must ‘accelerate’ environmental actions. The words of one 15-year-old Devon schoolgirl were even more powerful – both in demands for change, and encouragement to join, somehow, the “pioneers of this incredible mobilisation”.

Thank you Jess, Tim and all involved. Jess has kindly agreed to share her talk in full here. It deserves to be read, shared, and positively responded to. Please be inspired too.

(Chris Keppie, Church & Society Officer)