Judith Russenberger recently shaved her head as an act of repentance during a church service in Southwark Cathedral. Here she explains why
On Sunday, I knelt before the altar in Southwark Cathedral during a Eucharist service and I allowed my son to cut off my hair. I did this as a sign of penitence. As I knelt head bowed, I felt weighed down by the collective grief and pain that is being inflicted upon God’s creation by human thoughtlessness, ignorance and greed. It was a deep sorrow that I could only express symbolically on behalf of myself for the generations to come.
To be penitent is to be contrite, to be sorry, for what we have done, and to want to make recompense, to make good, the damage or injury we have caused, and to want to reform our lives so as not to fall back into that sin again. To be penitent is not a means of earning forgiveness – God’s forgiveness is freely given – but is our heartfelt response to the generosity of God’s forgiveness.
In some cultures past and present, those who were penitent wished to make a clear statement of their decision – their need – to repent and would put on clothing made for sacking, would cut their hair, or go barefoot. Such action strengthened their resolve and was a witness to others of the importance of being penitent.
We need to repent and to reform our lives as individuals and as societies
Lent is an apt time to recognise our sin in failing to care for the Earth. For the ways in which we humans have harmed and damaged the living Earth: killing wild and indigenous plants, and replacing them with monocultures. Exterminating the insects needed to fertilise plants – plants that include many crops that provide us with food! Killing, directly and indirectly, wildlife in such numbers that we are now the cause of the world’s 6th mass extinction. Polluting the soil, the air and the water. Over filling the atmosphere with CO2, and so causing the first human-induced climate change. Disregarding not just animal life but also the lives and well being of our human brothers and sisters across the entire globe.
Yet it is clear that this is not so much the sins of individuals as the sins of whole institutions and nations, of people caught up in systems that perpetuate the errors of previous generations. I can confess my failure to care for the Earth; I can reform my life giving up meat eating, giving up flying, reducing what I consume and recycling everything I use; I can donate to charities engaged with ecology and justice; I can sign petitions …. but unless the institutions and systems, of which I am a part, change, then the consequences of human sinfulness will not diminish. We need to repent and to reform our lives as individuals and as societies.
When I knelt down in Southwark Cathedral as a sign of penitence, I was one of a group who are part of a bigger movement called Christian Climate Action. Fellow activists held a banner behind me, reading “CofE divest now from fossil fuels” while my husband read out a statement explaining our action and calling upon Southwark Diocese to rid itself of all its fossil fuel investments. Rather than continuing to finance the fossil fuel industry and its destructive activities, we called on the Church to make investments that will safeguard the environment and benefit our neighbours.
Our action was warmly received by the cathedral staff. We had waited until the notices at the end of the service, and were allowed the time to present our message. When we finished, we were applauded by the congregation, and afterwards, were able to talk further with those present. It was acknowledged that while the cathedral has divested its own investments, the Diocese of Southwark, which holds substantial investments, has not. The Diocese is now in a minority as more and more dioceses across the UK have divested in response to the prayers and campaigns of groups such as Operation Noah and Christian Climate Action.
An important part of repentance is the pledge to change our ways. As part of this, I extend an invitation to the whole Church to get involved in The Big One, outside Parliament from the 21st April. It is a protest designed for mass participation and there will be prayer and worship activities happening each day, including a pilgrimage of power across the capital.