People’s stories: Rev Helen Burnett

Helen and family at Chaldon

I’m a Vicar in the Church of England with a parish in Chaldon in the Diocese of Southwark. As soon as I heard that COP 26 was going to be held in Glasgow I had an overwhelming sense that I needed to walk there and to make COP the focus of my action and contemplation during 2021. St Peter and St Paul’s is a ‘pilgrim church’ lying at the half way point of the Pilgrim Way from Winchester to Canterbury it stands as living proof of the roots of pilgrimage and that the pilgrim journey is a vital part the Christian tradition and it helps that I love walking ! 

Through ‘Camino to COP’ I have found a way to fulfil my dream of walking to Glasgow, so from September to November I will juggle home, church and Camino, traveling between parish and pilgrimage walking 3 days each week and ending with 12 days of prayer on the streets of Glasgow as the conference unfolds.

When considering pilgrimage as a living spiritual practise I think of all those who have passed through our ancient parish, carrying with them their burdens, their physical, emotional, spiritual and mental baggage. Throughout history people have walked for so many causes and now I too will set out on a journey, a journey for the future of the planet which will take me through the parish network of England and Scotland, each a local unit that is home to people and species directly affected by climate changes which will be far greater than any other change their parish has ever undergone.

As well as being a priest and teacher I am mother to 4 adult children whose lives will be impacted by climate change long after I am dead. While I will largely escape the societal collapse that will ensue as a result of the policies of wealthy nations, they will live to see the results. 

My heart breaks when I look ahead and imagine what will unfold, and so like so many people before me I am turning to the simplest act of all – putting one foot in front of another, carrying a crucial  message, working out my grief and rage along the way, something done by so many when faced with seemingly insurmountable problems. In times of crisis and injustice people have chosen to set out on foot to demand change but walking does so much more, it slows you down, you notice more, you see the minutiae of the world, you see the detail, you become a tiny part of a much bigger picture, you show solidarity with your fellow walkers and with the communities and landscapes you walk through. 

Camino to COP is part of that great tradition setting out to draw attention to the climate emergency but also a form of resistance involving a journey from one seat of power, Parliament, to another power brokering assembly- COP26. Each and every step intentional, every step a footmark, every step a determined movement towards change. 

Maybe nobody will notice, for sure, lots and lots of people won’t notice! But I sincerely hope that we can create some sense of solidarity with all those who see COP 26 as a critical moment, with all those who cannot afford the time, with those whose voices may not be heard, with all those other walkers and activists, with worried parents, with those who mourn and those who watch and hope against hope  – with those who make the decisions that affect us all. I know full well that the political decisions are being made now, that that the 10 days in Glasgow will largely be rubber stamping, but I remind myself that people on the ground have made a difference in the past and I look to those examples for inspiration. If I don’t do this now, if I look back and I haven’t committed in some way my body, my energy, my time, to affecting change I will not have lived out the call to love my neighbour, to care for the vulnerable, to cherish all of creation – a call common to so many faith traditions and central to the disruptive teaching of Jesus Christ. We’re all so small in the context of climate change as individuals, as citizens, as humans, occupying this amazing planet how can we begin to overturn the damaging systems that feel monolithic? It feels overwhelming, and the systems and the corporations and the political machinery seem impenetrable, it reminds me of long mountain walks and summits that seem too far away, yet by putting one foot in front of another you eventually get there and it feels worth doing, even when the horizon is shrouded in mist. So even though the outcome is unknown I’m walking to COP to show how much it matters to me that we change the way the world operates. I set out from Chaldon on Sept 5th leaving straight from our Sunday morning service, take the train to Parliament Square and step out with others witnessing to the criminal injustice of climate breakdown and a new chapter will begin in my personal pilgrim journey as minister, mother and activist.

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