‘It was a privilege to be part of the Pilgrimage to Paris’

Giles Goddard, Vicar of St John’s, Waterloo, in central London, writes on the first anniversary of the Pilgrimage to Paris. 

On a drizzly Friday November 13 a year ago, a group of pilgrims set off from St Martin-in-the-Fields to walk to Paris. Sweatshirted, booted, breakfasted and waterproofed, we walked anxiously down Whitehall, across Westminster Bridge and through South London into the countryside of Surrey.  We came from across the country, the oldest of us aged over 70 and the youngest under 20 years old. We were united in our concern to make sure that the voice of faith was heard at the forthcoming COP 21 climate change talks in Paris.

Sent on our way by Bishop Nicholas Holtam, the Church of England’s lead Bishop on the environment, we were apprehensive but full of hope.

We slept the first night on the floor of a church hall in Banstead, Surrey.  The news when we awoke was sombre; terrorist attacks in Paris had killed over a hundred people. Suddenly we were walking not just as a visual and physical statement about climate change, but in solidarity with all who had been affected by or killed in terrorist attacks across the world.

There was doubt about whether we would be permitted to cross the Channel. But as we walked on through rain and wind towards the coast, after a couple of days the news came through that we would be able to board the ferry in Newhaven and carry on across the north of France to Paris.

I left the Pilgrimage in Newhaven – parish duties called – so I missed the journey through France. But I was told by those who walked the whole way how moving the pilgrimage was: how they were welcomed warmly into people’s homes, fed and watered and given huge encouragement in their journey by people who were touched and inspired by the witness of the pilgrims.

And then, in Paris, they met other pilgrims from all over Europe and beyond. Someone who had come from Canada by bicycle (and ship).  Others who had walked with the visionary Yeb Sano, who had inspired pilgrimages around the world. And others who had simply and quietly made the journey because they cared.

A Petition, signed by over 1.8 million people, was presented to the Executive Secretary of the COP 21 talks, Christiana Figueres. She was very clear that the witness of faith groups in the run-up to Paris had made a material difference to the success of the talks. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for every single step.”

The Paris Climate Agreement was made more possible because faith groups all over the world lifted their voices and said – “This matters. The talks must succeed.”  On 4th November this year, the Agreement came into force. It’s a remarkable achievement. As I write this, 193 countries have signed the treaty, of which 102 have ratified it.

But many say that it does not go far enough. The commitment of countries to reducing their carbon emissions may be insufficient. That’s why the next set of talks – COP 22, in Marrakech, which started on Monday 7th November, is so crucial.  The challenge to all the countries is how to put flesh on the bones of the Paris Agreement. Or is it too little, too late?

The voice of faith leaders will be there again. A statement signed by over 170 eminent faith leaders, including the Dalai Llama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Bishop of Salisbury, will be presented to the President during the talks.

There is hope. Not only because the technology for a carbon-free future is advancing in leaps and bounds. But also because, globally, things are changing. The Church of England is one of many organisations which have begun to divest from the most polluting fossil fuels, and is engaging and challenging the major oil extraction companies. To much surprise Shell predicted on Friday 4th November – the same day the Paris Agreement came into force – that demand for oil might peak within five years.

Above all because, all round the world, people and congregations are saying that they want to help make a better world for them and for their children.

It was a privilege to be part of the Pilgrimage to Paris. Perhaps the best moment was late on the first day, when the rain cleared and suddenly a rainbow shone over Croydon. In a world full of fear, we were given a sign of hope.

Giles Goddard
Member of the Church of England’s Environment Working Group

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