Former Archbishop of Canterbury says Just Stop Oil stunts 'not doing many favours' to climate cause

van gogh - Getty
van gogh - Getty

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, who protested with Extinction Rebellion, has accused Just Stop Oil activists of having “unconstructive” and “unhelpful” tactics.

Rowan Williams, 72, said that while he found “that sort of activism understandable”, he would not “be throwing cans of soup on paintings” any time soon.

The Welsh Anglican bishop, theologian and poet was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 until March 2013 when he was succeeded by the current head of the Church of England, the Most Rev Justin Welby.

He has long spoken out about the impacts of climate change and in 2020 he campaigned with the Christians of Extinction Rebellion in Christian Climate Action in a march which started at Buckingham Palace and ended in Parliament Square.

However, speaking of the “shock tactics” deployed by the Just Stop Oil (JSO) campaign group, he said, they were “not really doing many favours” for the cause. Protesters have made headlines around the world for their controversial stunts in art galleries.

Lord Williams
Lord Williams

Lord Williams, who has repeatedly called on the Government to do more to combat climate change, said: “I think in terms of tactics, it's not really doing many favours if I’m honest. But there are ironies here, I think, about what we value, what we care about.

“Somebody spoke recently after one of the Just Stop Oil attacks about the vulnerability of great works of art. And I thought: well, yes, quite. But we're talking about the vulnerability of a global system here. And the frustration one finds in this expression. That sort of activism [JSO’s] is understandable. I find it, as I say, in terms of tactics and strategy, not particularly helpful.

“It doesn't seem to win people to the cause. Occasionally people will respond by saying, well we understand the urgency a bit better, but I find difficulty with it.”

In July, JSO activists glued themselves to the frame of a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci's painting, The Last Supper, at London's Royal Academy of Arts, before spraypainting "no new oil" across the wall below it.

In the same month, they glued themselves to the frame of John Constable’s Hay Wain at London’s National Gallery.
Last month activists targeted the same gallery again, throwing cans of Heinz tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers.

On Tuesday, two JSO activists were found guilty of causing criminal damage after glueing themselves to the eighteenth-century frame of another Van Gogh at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

Emily Brocklebank, 24, and Louis McKechnie, 22, caused just under £2,000 of damage when they attached themselves to the 1889 work Peach Trees in Blossom.

van gogh
van gogh

Lord Williams was speaking following the inaugural multi-faith environmental conference, the Climate Repentance Ceremony, where delegates and a variety of religious leaders from Egypt, USA, Israel, India, Spain and the UK met in London last week.

He said that he believds that JSO's intentions were about “reminding people of the urgency” of the climate crisis.

However, he added: “When people sense urgency and react rapidly, they don't always react in a way that's most constructive.

“I'd like the action taken to be one that draws more people in and allows more realistic decisions and more widespread ownership of this.... I've already said that I’ve got problems with it, but I'm not going to be throwing cans of soup, paintings.”

A JSO spokesman said: "Rowan Williams would do well to listen to the the Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd Mark Ashcroft, who said  'The prophetic voice of Just Stop Oil and other protesters must be heard and should continue to sound until urgent and concrete steps are taken to address the impending climate catastrophe.'

"We know that Rowan Williams understands the need for civil resistance and has joined actions with Extinction Rebellion. Maybe he should reacquaint himself with the clergy and Christians that have been arrested and imprisoned repeatedly this year for taking action with Just Stop Oil. They believe that life is precious and they have refused to walk by on the other side and see the suffering and destruction caused by oil and gas."