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The Vicar, The Priest and The Former Probation OfficerJessica Townsend

Writer and activist Jessica Townsend.
Jessica Townsend
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A vicar, a priest and an elderly former probation officer sat on a train. Not in a train, you understand: on it. It sounds like the beginning of a joke but it’s not. Far from it. These are the facts that were established at the beginning of a court case in which three people of faith, two of them fairly elderly, were charged with the criminal offence of stopping a train on a weekday in London in 2019. The three comprised the Reverend Sue Parfitt, 79, Father Martin Newell, 54, and Phil Kingston, 86, a former probation officer who with Newell founded Christian Climate Action.

The case was moving. All three are people of such clear integrity with a deep concern about the climate and ecological emergency that the prosecution didn’t try to impugn their motives or characters. In fact, the three key lawyers, the judge, the prosecutor and the defence, referred to them as people of faith and moral example. Since the disruption had been limited and safety considerations uppermost, the judge ruled that it was for the jury to decide if they had a lawful excuse in line with their right to protest. The jury’s unanimous verdict of Not Guilty shows they thought the defendants had. 

The name The Shadwell Three sparkled in my head during the week. It seemed almost comical, like comparing them with a posse from a movie. Or Great Train Robbers, though it is true they did ‘hold up’ that train at 6.45am in 2019 by climbing on top of it. Seventy-nine-year-old Sue said in court she was surprised how easily she climbed to the top of the vehicle. Father Newell quickly followed but, the third of the group Phil Kingston was prevented from doing so by a passenger who barred his way by taking hold of the ladder. Not feeling safe enough to mount, Phil glued himself onto the body of the train. 

Being at platform level, Phil got the brunt of the passengers’ anger and demands to know why they were being prevented from getting to work or taking children to school. But when Phil explained he was a grandfather and what his climate concerns were, some people came on side. He was relieved when the people on the platform began to debate the issue amongst themselves. 

Meanwhile, on the top of the train, Father Newell and Sue Parfitt started to read a climate emergency liturgy they had devised for the occasion. It is too long to include here but this gives a flavour:


One: From the death of your gift of glorious diversity of life
All: Deliver us
One: From the madness of avarice
All: Deliver us

One: From the demonic waste of our addiction to growth
All: Deliver us
One: Deliver us, O God
All: Guide our feet to live lightly on the earth
One: In humility, we ask
All: Hear our prayer. That we may live lightly on the Earth


Having elderly defendants lent a certain flavour to proceedings. The Reverend Sue Parfitt needed to plug into the hearing loop and at one point she had it on so loudly that the judge asked the court officer to intervene. In the warm courtroom, she often struggled to keep awake. 

Their defence, in line with Human Rights Law and strengthened recently by the Supreme Court’s Ziegler ruling, required the jury to balance their right to protest against others’ rights. To this end the defence barrister asked Father Martin Newell in detail about a planning meeting he had attended before the actions and it was clear there had been a lot of preparation. Questions like what time to go, what train to get on, what transport alternatives existed were discussed, and the pros and cons examined. It was decided to stage the action early in the morning to impinge upon the beginning of the rush hour but not to be at the most disruptive time. An overland train was chosen rather than an underground that would have been much more dangerous to the passengers in trains behind the delayed one. The choice of line was deliberate: one that ended at Bank in the heart of the City of London where fossil fuel investment is centred. 

Sadly, I had to miss the afternoon when Sue gave evidence but was present for Phil’s. He was 85 then but is now 86 and a Roman Catholic with four grandchildren whose lives he fears are going to be ‘mighty difficult’.

Phil’s testimony is published alongside this blog. Because he is a little frail and because of the Omicron risk, the judge allowed him to take part by Zoom. His manner was gentle and thoughtful. When he mentioned the Amazon rainforest and the brutal murder of Berta Carceres, he teared up. 

For someone like myself who has been involved in XR since the beginning, Phil Kingston is a legend.  One of our early actions during the April Rebellion had been at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and a group from Christian Climate Action had been at the forefront of that. It was early days for XR, a movement that wasn’t yet sure of stimulating any kind of mass commitment to getting arrested. In this context, the Christian group seemed fearless. It seemed to me that their faith meant they lost a layer of doubt and neuroticism that most of us experience. It was inspirational to watch.

I also noticed Phil lock on at a roadblock during the same rebellion. The police dealt with him last and I wondered if his advancing age made them charry about handling someone obviously more physically vulnerable than other protestors. 

But he was most noticeable when Greta visited the 2019 rebellion. I had been keen to see her speak on that day and cut short an Easter Day with family to come back to London. 

I remember vividly the sunny day when we processed from Parliament Square where the police were methodically clearing the tents of the Scottish XR visitors. After a few hours of non-violent attrition, we marched towards Marble Arch taking a route through the parks. There was a New Orleans band playing and the Red Rebels were at the head. The jewel-coloured XR flags were backlit by the low light and seemed to float in the air. Extinction Rebellion was quite new and people stopped to watch us walk past, wondering what they were looking at. I felt very glad to be part of the procession rather than in the crowds at the side of the pavement.

I had come to hear Greta, but on that day she was paired with Phil Kingston so both youth and elders could be represented. To my mind his quiet humble speech about his grandchildren was the more moving of the two. 

Throughout the days of the trial, there weren’t many press representatives and it seemed a shame. As a former playwright, I find the court cases riveting, quite as vibrant as a play and even better than the kind of enactments that, say, the Tricycle did around the Butler Report and the invasion of Iraq. It is here in the small courts around the UK we witness not only legal miracles, but also history in the making.

The Not Guilty verdict was a great relief. I recorded an interview for the XR Podcast at the end of it. Sue and Martin were of course happy and a handful of journalists did appear. But this is not the end of it. Two of the Shadwell Three are also part of the Insulate Britain campaign and face further trials. They are fully prepared to go to prison for the cause if necessary.

Three Christians sat on a train to cause disruption in the early rush hour because they couldn’t think of a better way to get the news out about the climate and ecological emergency. Perhaps it is, after all, a kind of joke. But if so, it is a black one and the media and the rest of us don’t come out of it very well. 

I am going to leave this piece on that note, but with Phil Kingston’s kind words to the jury – in which he didn’t put any pressure on them to find him not guilty, he simply understood the predicament of the twelve human beings finding themselves in court for this particular trial:


In the last few years, I have realised just how central is our jury system in upholding British justice. I honour you being here today, whatever the outcome for myself. When you agreed to take part in this jury, you had no idea that its subject matter would be of an order which we humans have never had to face before, namely the possible extinction of the human race. My heart is with you in your deliberations.


Read Phil Kingston’s full speech here.