An Interview With Sister Elizabeth Yates FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary)
Liz Yates RIP, 11th January 2021
Five years ago Elizabeth Yates came with three other FMM sisters to live in Brixton, the multi-racial area of south London where, the previous year, the tensions had produced a series of violent riots.
The four sisters live in a terraced house near the heart of Brixton. Community itself – to be rather than to do – is the priority for the group. To earn their living they have taken part-time jobs in the locality. Frances teaches in an Anglican school; Molly works with the mentally-handicapped; Joan, the senior member of the community, gives her time to ‘Age Concern’, a welfare group, and Elizabeth herself is a part-time community nurse in the area. What were the considerations which led them to Brixton and what does their presence there mean to local people?
“For most FMMs for a lot of the time in their lives the commitment to an ‘option for the poor’ is often worked out in the context of a mission to a country which has greater needs possibly than the one we’re coming from. Now that option for the poor has come a lot closer to home for many of us, so we have found ourselves returning to the West for various reasons. It so happened that there were five or six of our sisters who had come back from Pakistan, India, African countries, who said we’d like very much to have an insertion into a multi-racial area where there was a notable lack of peace and where we felt that our backgrounds from Third World countries would give us a chance of integrating there and so opting for a specific type of poor person in this country.
“The priorities of our community have a lot to do with open house hospitality, to take those who come to our door or who we bring to our home within whatever context – homelessness, youngsters in trouble with drug addiction, people who have experienced violence, all sorts of things. The second priority is to listen to what is said to us in a place like this, and the third priority has been prayer, which has grown in every way in our own community and with other denominations because in an area like this all the churches come together in the face of the problems of violence, unemployment and discrimination.”
These local churches unite to form the Brixton Council of Churches, led by an impressive Caribbean woman, the Rev. Esme Beswick, Pastor of the New Testament Church. “Down the way we have the Methodists who also have a well-mixed congregation and their church is actually on Railton Road, which we call ‘the front line’ and which I think most African and Caribbean people understand to be where the problems have occurred. Then there are smaller churches which are Pentecostal, which we have also been involved with. There’s a lot of solidarity witness in a place like Brixton. On Good Friday, for example, we walk through Brixton in a procession carrying a cross and there is always an ecumenical service. Most of us don’t go any more to our own church: we go and make our witness procession together. We pray a lot together and we also help in a practical way.”
There is no mosque or temple in the area and the opportunities for interfaith dialogue are fewer than, for instance, in a city like Coventry in the Midlands where another FMM community is living. “But,” says Elizabeth, “we also have a very high percentage of people who don’t practise any type of structured religious activity. We have a lot of marginalised people in the religious context and I think this has brought us together as Christian groups. Not that there are any problems with other people’s religious way of being. It’s not within the Brixton community itself that problems of racism and discrimination occur. There’s a violent element, anti-authoritarian, which perceives authority as a source of oppression and racial harrassment. Otherwise, no one really cares where you come from, who you are, what you do. So Brixton itself is a very free area really. In this context it’s not poor at all. That’s what you find out.”
For Elizabeth one of the most dramatic results of her coming to live in Brixton has been her growing involvement in the peace movement. Earlier this year she was arrested and imprisoned after a peace liturgy and act of civil disobedience in London. What developments had taken her along that road?
“When I think of myself in the 1960s in relation to the peace issue – I just didn’t think about it. I spent years in Pakistan during an unjust war – I was in West Pakistan when they raped East Pakistan. I’m amazed that these things didn’t cause extraordinary changes in me. They didn’t, although they must have come to bear their fruit. Coming to Brixton had a very serious effect on me in the context of what I understood to be reconciliation and the need for understanding: how, for example, an African woman and a woman from this country might come to understand one another. I had lived in both countries. This developed my awareness of what was meant by peacemaking.
“What I experienced in Brixton, and had already experienced in Liverpool, was that whole sections of our society were suffering abominably due to lack of funds and input to enable these people to live as full lives as possible. Knowing poor people, I realised that in the face of nuclear weapons we are all poor.”
Two other experiences also helped to change her thinking. “I had problems with the person in authority over me at work and I found myself enlisting the support of other colleagues to take my point of view. I suddenly realised what I was doing – that I was building her up into an enemy figure. So with thought and prayer I tried to change and to make peace. I asked forgiveness of all the people whom I thought I had wronged.”
The other moment of insight came on a beautiful spring day when Elizabeth was out walking with friends on nearby Clapham Common. “The blossom was magnificent. A friend said to me ‘Do you know that Clapham Common has been designated as a burial ground in the event of a nuclear war?’ and I thought: it’s all true. Our Government actually has the intention of using nuclear weapons.”
In 1984 Elizabeth went to South Zaire (Shaba) for six months to work on the Angolan border with other FMMs setting up an emergency post for the many refugees coming into Zaire. Afterwards she felt called back to Brixton and to be more involved in work for peace. “I felt that apart from my work locally and our presence here as a community, I had to be part of a national effort to oppose these nuclear policies.” So she went in search of the peace movement. She joined Pax Christi and also a small group called Catholic Peace Action whose focus was on the need for both dialogue and resistance – two things which Elizabeth feels should always go together.
With others from this group, Elizabeth took part in nonviolent civil disobedience when they chained themselves to the doors of the Ministry of Defence in London during a religious service held outside. At that stage few other Franciscans were involved in the peace movement but after this act of witness an Anglican Franciscan, Terry Tastard, wrote to Elizabeth. They met and formed a network called ‘Franciscans for Justice and Peace’. 80 Franciscan women and men, Roman Catholic and Anglican, now belong and they have held their own events and prayer vigils.
In undertaking civil disobedience, Elizabeth became engaged in a difficult and sometimes painful dialogue with her own sisters. “The sisters in this province have over a period of years come to an understanding that there are some people who find it impossible to refuse the call to make some sort of statement about what is really God’s will and what is the will of human authority. If there’s a clash that statement has be something quite serious – a statement in which a law is broken which is considered an immoral law, in fact an illegal law.
“I don’t believe in confrontational acts without dialogue. That’s not Franciscan. One perhaps has to make a rather startling statement but not without dialogue. At no time can I as a human being confront and judge the truth of another human being who has perceived something differently. Without dialogue ‘Franciscans for Justice and Peace’ and civil disobedience don’t even come together – and they must.”
On Ash Wednesday 1987 300 Christians from various Christian groups came together for an act of worship to be followed by an act of civil disobedience. “At the act of worship we prayed for forgiveness for our sins individually and as a nation and we took the blessed ashes and marked our foreheads with the cross, like Christians throughout the world. Then as a worshipping community we went to the Ministry of Defence, the ‘nerve centre’ of all plans for nuclear war and any other use of weapons. In prayer, we marked that building with the same sign of the cross, using the same blessed ashes, in acknowledgement of the sin of our society of which we are a part.”
For that public action 45 people, including Elizabeth, were arrested and charged with criminal damage. Those involved considered civil disobedience to be ‘holy obedience’ – an assertion that God’s law is above human law. At her trial Elizabeth told the court that she would not pay any fine once she was found guilty by the law of the land. Having acted in conscience on behalf of the poor, she felt obliged to accept any punishment in the same way a poor person would have to. The court’s decision was to send her to Holloway women’s prison for a week. What was prison like?
“I personally didn’t suffer in a way I might have suffered had I been younger. I was ready, prepared spiritually, in a way I might not have been before. I can’t say that what I saw appalled me, I suppose because I’ve seen so much worse. I know what really oppressive regimes can do. Nevertheless I was considerably distressed by the knowledge of the forgotten, which is what all these women were. They were forgotten women, for whatever reasons they had landed there, and some of the reasons were pathetic. One was that she hadn’t paid her television licence. Another one was offered bail of £2,000 and she had only received £8 worth of stolen goods. Other people had been involved in crimes of violence and many were involved in addiction. One little woman hadn’t been able to speak to anyone for three months because she didn’t speak English. She spoke Urdu and I happened to speak Urdu…
“The experience was that of the forgotten. There appeared to me to be vast numbers of women for whom much more could be offered which would be therapeutic rather than punitive. It seemed to be a vast lost opportunity because what I experienced most among the young women I was with was that they had no inner resources. So to be left in a room on their own – which you are in the first couple of days while they’re sorting out where you should go – some young girls couldn’t cope with being alone. One kid completely destroyed all the bits of furniture she had, screaming and howling with almost fear of herself. It would seem to me that this could be a place where people might learn something about inner resources which would build them up.”
Did Elizabeth find any common threads of faith or community amongst women from such diverse backgrounds as she met in prison? “There were problems as regards cultures which is perhaps new to the prisons. There was no problem with anybody’s faith at all, but neither did it surface in any way. There was a friendship and kindness one towards the other pf people in a common trouble, but ultimately it didn’t happen quickly. People were very wary. Then little things started to happen. Odd things were said to me like ‘It’s almost like having my mum in prison, you know, with you to look after me’.
“I felt guilty that I had only five days there when people had five years, ten years, fifteen years and I couldn’t get over the generosity of those women when they said on the Monday ‘You’re out tomorrow. Wonderful. Think of us.’ – I couldn’t get over their generosity. All I could offer was a kind of solidarity and a caringness and I think gentleness. I wanted to be gentle. I felt pretty meek. It would have taken me a lot longer to know what I could give really.
“It was an experience of solidarity with poor people. If you feel called to make a statement against that which is making us all poor, and it is the nuclear weapons which make us all poor, then of course it is part of the programme to know the poor in their poorest way. I feel grateful more than anything.”
On her way out of prison Elizabeth met a Quaker woman who was being released at the same time. In the peace movement Christians of every denomination come together because of their common purpose: “However we may be perceived socially, the authenticity of the Christian peace movement lies in that we come together in the name of Jesus Christ, with all our weaknesses and with all our differences. The other things don’t even get remembered when that happens.”
Work for peace by building up the local community in a place like Brixton and by building up the global community of the whole world is integral, Elizabeth believes, to the FMM calling. “We have had quite a period of renewal and we have emerged, I am happy to say, from the last few international meetings with four important themes: evangelising community, option for the poor, inculturation and dialogue.
“We’re asked to go to where the poor are and that can change constantly. We’re asked to try to become part of that, and we’re asked to try and keep all the doors and windows open, in the name of, and the Lord, Jesus Christ, and in the style that our foundress Helene de Chappotin, and St Francis of Assisi, offered. So I don’t personally believe that if that is what you follow that you can at any time avoid the issues of peace and what peace is about in the international situation today and in our local situation. I don’t think you can turn your back on the problems of racism and discrimination because of what we are asked to do. I don’t think you can ever opt out of choosing life rather than death, which brings you into the area of abortion, euthanasia, etc. I don’t think you can ever forget those who are unemployed, those whose lives are so limited – the elderly, the handicapped, the Aids sufferers, the outcasts. You can’t avoid what’s happened to the Third World, where Western aid is going, the refugees, the expense of the arms race. All this you can’t avoid if you follow what we have been asked to live.”
Liz Yates, may she rest in peace, died on 11 January 2021.
During any form of active peace-making groups of people from all sections of society are thrown together in a common vision. For us the witness site was the Ministry of Defence in London and the vision was a nuclear-weapons free world. Below is a photo of a group outside Bow Street Magistrates Court in 1984. Second from the left is Liz Yates. This Court which closed in 2006 was often the court where those who were arrested for nonviolent protests against nuclear weapons were called to defend their actions.
We became familiar with the magistrates there and no doubt they became familiar with our arguments and our positions. Many were sent to prison from that Court for these protests and many were fined or “bound over to keep the peace”. That required signing a form to affirm protests would cease. If the defendant refused a sentence of seven days might be given and if fines were not paid a similar sentence might be given at a later time.
We call to mind and pray for Liz Yates whose vision of a nuclear free world we shared together. She had spent many years in Pakistan as a Franciscan missionary and midwife. She too witnessed in prison for a nuclear-weapons free world. The second photo is Liz with Sarah Hipperson and Carmel Martin on an Ash Wednesday service outside the Ministry of Defence. We call to mind Liz Yates and her special witness to serve the poor and work for peace.
May Liz rest in peace and rise in glory.
The three offered clear and moving accounts of their peace actions at the Ministry of Defence during Holy Week 2012 when they marked the building with blessed charcoal using words such as ‘Trident Crucifies the Poor’ and ‘Disarm Trident’. Reports from arresting officers were read out in court which affirmed that there actions had been
totally nonviolent and that they had not resisted arrest in any way. While not disputing the fact of their action, they all argued that they had lawful excuse and moral convictions for what they did.
Twenty-five supporters joined Dr Ray Towey, 68, Henrietta Cullinan, 50, and Katrina Alton , 44, for a time of prayer outside Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court today before a three-hour hearing which found them guilty of causing criminal damage.
Ray, Henrietta and Katrina explained the relevance of the time and symbols used: Lent, a time for reflection and repentance at both personal and community levels and charcoal, a known symbol of that repentance that is used within the Christian faith community. The protection of life and people was at the heart of their actions and they all stated that these were more important than property or buildings. Their intention in marking the Ministry of Defence building was to engage the Ministry and those who work there in critical reflection on the UK’s nuclear defence policy and the Trident programme in particular in order to change it and prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used.
Judge Susan Williams acknowledged her understanding of this in her questioning of Ray Towey, and again in her summing up saying that these were profound means used to highlight the folly of humankind.
The three, who defended themselves, were given substantial time to present their own evidence and outline why they did what they did. The Judge said that she needed a good amount of time to reflect on what she had heard and the legal implications and adjourned the hearing for almost two hours.
Before adjournment, Ray Towey made a short intervention inviting the Judge to discharge them and to stand outside the normal boundaries of the legal institution and set a precedent. On her return she gave a fulsome summary – showing that she had listened with great care to all that she had heard – but ultimately finding them guilty of criminal damage. They were each charged with paying £200 court costs. While the Ministry of Defence had put forward a claim for £400 cleaning costs the Judge refused to enforce this.
The three were given an absolute discharge. All of them made it clear that they could not in conscience pay the court costs.
Their action was supported by the London Catholic Worker, Catholic Peace Action and Pax Christi.
For Ray Towey the outcome of this trial would be finalised on 24 June 2014 when he was called to attend Camberwell Magistrates Court to explain why he had not paid the court £200 costs. He had during this time several letters from bailiffs requesting the money and he had replied that as a Christian to him nuclear weapons were immoral and that he could not in conscience pay the court as he considered his actions in 2012 justified and therefore he was not guilty. Usually this defence is not accepted and a prison sentence of about 7 days would be expected. The judge listened to his explanation and replied that she would not accept this refusal but would give him more time to pay. He asked her not to delay her judgement as he was not going to pay and he wished to resolve the issue that day. She told him to go away and consider payment. He therefore left the court disappointed that the issue still remained unresolved. As he was descending the stairs leading to the exit the Clerk of the Court called out to him to return to the court as there was now a possibility of another outcome which might be beneficial to him. On return to the court the Judge sentence him to one day in jail. A one day sentence means that he was confined to the court till the end of business that day. It is in effect a symbolic sentence which meant he had no longer any need of paying the costs and would be free that day to go home. Ray Towey thanked her when the court rose and went home as a free person.
“The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral.”Pope Francis
By Pat Gaffney
1 August 2019
Pat Gaffney (second from left) on a march against the 1991 Iraq War. Photo: Giovanni Scudiero
After 29 years of being the general secretary of the Catholic peace organisation, Pax Christi UK, Pat Gaffney stepped down in April. This first part of our interview with Pat covers the years before Pax Christi – liberation theology, death squads, direct action and new models of education.
The first time I took part in direct action was amazingly powerful, at every level. It was with Catholic Peace Action on 14 April 1983.
We decided we were going to pour our own blood over the doorway and steps of the ministry of defence in London, and scatter ashes.
The symbolism was: this is the blood that would be spilled and this is the ash that would be created if there was a nuclear war. Those things also have powerful meaning in scripture.
I remember several days before, one of our group decided he would take our blood from us. That was a pretty profound evening for us, where we were all literally giving our blood that was going to be part of a peace action, a pledge of our commitment and love.
We burned letters and memorabilia that meant something to us, that were also going to be part of this peace action. It was very powerful preparation.
On the day itself, I remember almost going into a zone, walking up these steps and just focusing on: ‘I want to shed this blood here, I want to spread this ash here, and then I just want to kneel and wait.’ I remember being very focused down into a zone to get you through what you’re doing. So that was my first step into civil disobedience.
Looking back, it was a very dramatic action to start one’s direct action with.
Four of us were arrested and that just began the whole sequence of being arrested and charged and then going through the court system and attempting to use that court experience to further tell the story of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what you’re challenging. Then taking the consequences of that further.
If I look back to the ’80s, when I was just beginning to discover nonviolence, through doing actions but also from practitioners in this country and also from the Americans, I suppose I was responding to it personally: ‘I’ve got to try and be nonviolent as a person, in my lifestyle, and in the way I act when I do peace things.’
That’s still there, because I do think nonviolence is about life choices, more than just nonviolent direct actions.
“We were all, literally, giving our blood that was going to be part of a peace action.”
Now, because we’re trying to grow it, in the sense that we’re trying to help more and more people better understand what nonviolence is about, I do also see that it is something that can be taught: we should be better at sharing skills and communicating about it, strategising about it.
I see that happening in the Global South and there is a lot we in Britain can learn from there. Nonviolence can be woven into the way we do things – in schools, in communities, politically. There’s a huge toolbox there and there’s a lot more we could do with it.
Keep your roots
I grew up in Hillingdon, in West London, which, in the ’50s and ’60s, had a lot of Catholic migrants. A very Irish Catholic community in the school and the parish.
I had a very strong Catholic Irish identity, very working-class as well. I had lovely parents, just one brother – we’re very close, we’re just two years apart. We had a fantastic, very normal working-class childhood, playing in the street, doing things with church, doing things with your mates, over the fields at night, a lot of freedom.
My dad at that stage of his life worked at Pinewood film studios in the property and sets department, so he had quite a glamorous job for those times. Before that, he’d been a coal miner in Scotland.
My mum, when we were growing up, was with us at home and then did cleaning jobs and dinner lady jobs to be with us.
She was remarkable. She came over here from Ireland at 20, never had a formal education, but she decided in her 40s she wanted to be a nurse. She went off under her own steam and registered and trained, then became a district nurse. She created a whole life for herself.
When I look back on it, it’s amazing.
“I was a little boring conformist! I absolutely loved school.”
My dad was a shop steward, he was full of the Keir Hardie sense of socialism. Because he was born in 1907, he had a very strong sense of that period of time in Scotland.
I grew up with that, and the sense that you keep your roots: you don’t stray from your roots and your roots keep you straight. ‘Always keep the common touch’, that was very strong in our community; ‘don’t get above yourself’. Not in an oppressive way but in a social way.
The fact that my mum was so committed to nursing, to the health service, to serving people in her professional work and beyond that.
That was part of the culture, working people do this, you work together and you work with other people. It came across in that way, in a very organic way.
I used to hear a lot about Ireland, especially from my dad, he had the Charter for the Irish Free State up in his bedroom. There was a bit of this dangerous romantic notion of Irish freedom fighters, and of Catholicism over and against everybody else.
I was always hearing stories about Mary and Elizabeth, Mary queen of Scots. It seemed a bit more special to be Catholic, something to hold onto.
I loved being good
I was at a Catholic primary school that was, at that time, still run by religious sisters. It was very strict, focused. I didn’t pass my 11-plus,* I went to a new secondary modern. It was the very early days of that style of education. It was still very much looked down on. A lot of my friends were going to grammar school.
It was called the Douay Martyrs (after 158 Catholic priests who trained in Douai, France, who were executed in England in the 16th century) and quickly grew into a larger comprehensive school.
When I look back on it, and even then I appreciated it so much, the teaching, the teaching staff, the opportunities, were absolutely fantastic – singing in choirs, taking part in school plays, and being taken to the theatre.
That was because it was small, about 400–500 students, we were in it from the beginning of the school, they treated people as individuals. I felt very nurtured, but my brother, who was at the same school, had a very different experience.
That was because I was a conformist. I loved school, I loved all the structure, I loved being good and being patted on the head. And I loved joining clubs and being part of things. I was a little boring conformist! I absolutely loved it.
And the people there encouraged me to apply to go on to higher education. They would take us to visit colleges. We were working-class kids, none of our families had ever been to colleges or universities. Even to go and visit was a huge thing. All those doors were opened for me.
My parents were supportive of me going on to higher education, but not in a competitive way. They were of that old generation that said: ‘So long as you’re happy….’ To them, that was the important thing – you were a good person and you were happy.
I always wanted to be a teacher. I think it was just bossiness!
I went on to Maria Assumpta College, a Catholic teacher training college – they don’t exist now, but they did back in the ’70s – it was part of London university, run by the Religious Sisters of the Assumption, it was all girls. It was a fantastic foundation.
“These models of education start with people’s lived experience, that’s the core.”
We don’t call it this now but it was vocational. You knew from the start that everything you were doing was to prepare you to work as a teacher.
You were doing psychology and philosophy, lots of practice, your own subject area, a lot of contact work with schools, a lot of good stuff about communication and how to teach, which, again, I don’t think is present today, but I felt provided me with skills way beyond my teaching. It was such a fantastic grounding.
You were constantly thinking about what it was to be a teacher and how you teach, and relationships, and the nature of education. We were reading Celebration of Awareness and Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
These models of education and working with people that start with people’s lived experience, that’s the core, that’s the working material for what you want to reflect on and build on. Using language and accessing people’s experience in creative ways that don’t just rely on language but could use other things as well.
Recognising the value of common sense knowledge and experience. Recognising that most people have the ability to analyse things and question what’s going on in their lives. Also, moving away from the elitism of education. Saying: ‘No, it starts somewhere else, and it’s about something else.’
It was extremely new and challenging, but also, in some ways, it resonated back to my dad talking about worker education in Scotland among the mining communities and the power of the library system, or the hedge schools in Ireland.
There was a link to the sense that, yes, everyone has a right to access to this information and how we share it and how we get it and how we use it. It challenged the way we look at education here in this country.
Pat Gaffney with a ‘Bread Not Bombs’ banner at the ministry of defence, Whitehall, during the 1984 visit to London of Mikhail Gorbachev, soon to be Soviet leader.
We were also hearing, in Latin America, about this great thing of ‘liberation theology’, of the Catholic church going in a very different direction, identifying itself with the poor, with the oppressed, with people who were in social struggle.
You had movements in Chile, and Brazil, and Central America, where there would have been a lot of social unrest at the time, a lot of social injustice.
People in the church, not the whole church, but some priests and lay people and religious, were returning to the gospels and asking: ‘What does this have to say about what is going on in our society, our workplaces, our communities?’
They were recognising that the message of the gospels was about a challenge to the status quo and those who want to keep you down or repress you. Challenging that through education, through engaging politically, and – for some at that time – it would also have meant engaging in armed struggle.
That movement of liberation theology, in the church and beyond, said: ‘Well, if we’re serious about overcoming injustice and lack of democracy, we have to join the people’. In many of those countries, there was armed struggle, and there still is today. There was a big tension.
Some went down the route of saying: ‘It’s our role to support, even if we don’t take part in it, to support that armed struggle for freedom, for liberation.’ Others said: ‘It’s our role to support not through armed struggle but through other ways.’
That was a huge eye-opener to me, to what was happening, to what religion can do in society, how the church can be a positive agent for change, and how people can use their skills and resources to serve that.
It also had implications back here, for us. It brought in new styles of liturgy and worship that reflected more that commitment to the poor and nonviolence and challenging injustice.
I find it really hard to talk about faith because I don’t think faith is something that you have and then it’s with you. I think it’s something that you are constantly renewing.
I don’t think I have the certainty, 100 percent all the time, that I have faith.
To me, there’s a part of it which is the tradition I’ve been brought up in, that framework of Irish Catholicism. That created a structure of ritual and values and practices that were good – for me – and that helped me reflect and have a sense of ‘There are other things in life beyond family, beyond what you do… there’s a big community of people who believe in God; they practice it this way.’
Until, probably, I was in my 20s, I didn’t think much about faith as something beyond all that structure and that ritual.
It was when I went to Maria Assumpta College that I was exposed to this other level: It’s more than ritual and it’s more than practice. It’s to do with values. It is to do with mystery, it is to do with something that is unexplainable. And that’s why it becomes so difficult to talk about.
It challenged me a lot that there’s something more serious to this faith thing. It’s not just about ritual, going to church, giving yourself a label. It is about your relationships and how you see yourself in the world, what guides that. And doing that with others who share that vision. And doing that out of a history and a tradition.
I was tremendously fortunate to be at a college that exposed us to what was going on in the Catholic church in the 1970s, in Latin America and in Africa in particular. Where the church was really taking off and seeing itself as really serving people.
The college also made us think: ‘Okay, what does this say to you, as you want to become a teacher? As someone who wants to be living in the world identifying as a Catholic person of faith?’
I suppose a bit of intellectual thought came to that but more of it was the practice, of people putting what they believed in into practice. That set the groundwork for me.
In my early teaching, my subject was science and biology, I wasn’t able to do a huge amount around that.
I was teaching in West London, in a Catholic comprehensive, the same school I had been to! It was very comfortable being there again, it was just like another phase.
I taught science, but we all had to teach religious education, I suppose that’s where I had a bit of a chance to bring in what’s going on in the world.
After about six years, we heard about the changes coming down the pipeline, the national curriculum and more administration. That didn’t attract me. I thought, either I could stay here in this school because it’s so comfortable, forever and ever, or I move now. I decided to move.
I had nothing other than my teaching background to offer, so I went and did another course for a year. It was a retraining course where we did some human resources stuff, economics, management. It was very useful but, half way through, I thought: there is no way I could go into business or commerce or anything like that.
I started writing round to Oxfam and Christian Aid and Amnesty. I wrote to all these agencies working on development or human rights issues. I just said: ‘I will come and do anything, I will stuff envelopes, I will do anything you like, I want to use my background, all these things I’ve done, I’ll just come and do anything.’
CAFOD, which is the Catholic aid agency, wrote back and said: ‘Well, we’re actually starting an education department, come along and have a chat.’ It was the era when you went along and had a chat. They said: ‘You can start next week.’ So that is what I did.
In 1980, I started working with CAFOD, which was a very small agency at that time.
Today, if you applied for a job in a development agency, you have to have three degrees, 20 years’ worth of experience, proven this, proven that, proven the other. I just got in on a letter and enthusiasm!
I was able to create an education programme, providing resources and teaching input on teaching about the causes of poverty and the causes of underdevelopment. I was just at the right place at the right time. I was very, very lucky.
I was exposed then to another amazing group of people and more amazing stories from the Global South. It was a deepening of all that stuff that started at college.
We were meeting people almost weekly who were coming over from El Salvador, from Nicaragua, who were living under death threats, who were challenging death squads, people from South Africa who were challenging apartheid.
We were meeting the most amazing people, whose lives were at risk on the ground, who were committed to staying where they were, working with the people they were working with, but who were also pushing us in the First World to say: ‘You’re part of the problem here.’
I then became aware of the role of education in opening up those stories to communities here, opening up those stories to young people to reflect on how systems work, what’s going on in the world, opening up opportunities for us as an agency, and then the church, to be a voice for change.
“Nonviolence can be woven into the way we do things – in schools, in communities, politically.”
It was just mind-blowing, really, to be in your late 20s and exposed to all these people.
You were seeing the real dark side of what was going on in communities but you were also seeing amazing push-through and hope and sticking power of the people.
These would all have been Catholics or Christians from other traditions, working out of a faith base.
I suppose that is when I started to become a bit more about the nonviolent dynamic as well, realising that a lot of these people were living in situations of violence, were experiencing violence, seeing what violence was doing to people, and were there on the ground trying to change that but not going down the armed struggle route.
I couldn’t frame that clearly in my head at the time, but I was very impressed with the sense that these people were ready to absorb the violence that is going on around them.
I do remember reading from the Philippines, there were some Filipino and Irish Catholic priests who were imprisoned at the time for doing human rights work, I remember one of them writing that one of the roles, he felt as a Catholic, was to absorb the violence around you and stop it being passed onto other people. I remember that sticking in my head for some reason.
It wasn’t in a ‘walk over me’ kind of way, it was: ‘By challenging, we are absorbing some of this violence – we have to challenge it’. It was just beginning to make me realise that there were other ways of doing things and people are taking risks and there was an element of sacrifice in there, though people wouldn’t say that.
It brings a different meaning to solidarity when you are with people in that way. It’s a different quality of solidarity.
Work was pretty all-consuming, but I didn’t see it like that. I didn’t experience it like that. It took a lot of weekends, it took a lot of evenings. It was great. I didn’t think of it as slogging work.
I was lucky, my work was taking me out and about. I was going into schools and doing stuff with young people and doing in-service training with teachers.
At weekends, doing adult education work. I was just meeting lovely people all the time, so it was just great.
Everything spilled over, there weren’t clear lines of: ‘Now I’ve got to have fun’; ‘Now I’ve got to work’. I was very lucky and I do acknowledge that very much. When you look at the way some people have to work, and the nature of work, I just think I’ve been so lucky.
In the ’80s, we set up Catholic Peace Action, all these things were interconnected.
In the 1980s, I met up with these great people who were, initially, challenging the militarism of the Falklands War, and we were meeting once every couple of weeks for discussion. We were reflecting on scripture, what was going on in the world, in order to prepare ourselves as an affinity group, a group that could begin to take more direct action against militarism.
We decided that, for us, because we were all London-based, the focus for any of our activities was going to be the ministry of defence in Whitehall.
We decided that, for us, the thing we’d be challenging would be nuclear war preparations because that was the era of moving from Polaris nuclear missile submarines to Trident nuclear missile submarines.
That was amazing, meeting specifically to reflect about what these policies of nuclear weapons and deterrence were doing to our country, to us as people.
We were also learning from what was going on elsewhere, from the peace movement in America, learning out of the Vietnam experience, of how they challenged that war. We were kind of building up experiences and practices that would help us begin to take action at the MoD in Whitehall.
It was a small group to start with, the core people were: Dan Martin and Carmel Martin and their young family; Sarah Hipperson, who went on to be a Greenham Common woman; Sarah Grayson, a mother in South London; Liz Yates, who was a religious sister, who’d worked overseas; Ray Towey, who was a doctor at Guy’s Hospital, who’d worked for many years as a missionary in Africa as a mission doctor; Tony Bartlet, a Catholic priest; Linda Frewin, a theology student; and myself.
We had a whole year of meeting, discussing, learning.
What does civil disobedience mean? What does nonviolence mean? What are the implications? How do we bring those into this arena, here in London? How do we frame activities that challenge? How do we create actions that take you over the line? How do we plan for the consequences of these actions? How do we communicate about it?
It was well over a year of all that before we did anything. Then we started taking action in the early ’80s at the ministry of defence, using religious days that had a significance and a meaning that could be both secular and religious.
Some of those actions continue today. For example, the actions we do on Ash Wednesday have been going on continually for 38 years, so we’ve created a tradition of Christians being at the ministry of defence on Ash Wednesday to challenge nuclear weapons policies, and we’ve maintained a community who’ve come and want to do that every year, which I think is pretty amazing.
Pat Gaffney marks the ministry of defence in London, Ash Wednesday, 1992.
That first arrest, after pouring blood on the MoD steps, came before the Ash Wednesday actions. It was a very dramatic action based very much on one of the US peace actions.
It’s quite hard to remember that far back, but my memory is the police were quite respectful.
It must have been a mystery to these poor policemen, coming into a place and seeing blood. How worrying that must have been. Where did this blood come from? Was somebody hurt? There must have been all those things going on in their minds, which I hadn’t thought about.
We were held in the old cells at the back of Rochester Row, very old police cells behind Portcullis House, as it is now. I remember just being there with other people and we sang, we prayed, we were released later that day.
Eventually we went back to Bow Street magistrates’ court. That first trial, we were partially represented – which helped make up our minds that we would never be represented by a lawyer again!
“I do think nonviolence is about life choices, more than just nonviolent direct actions.”
I think it’s very difficult for someone wearing a legal hat to represent you because they’re doing it through the lens of the legal system and you want to do it through a slightly different lens.
A strong plank of what we wanted to say was that we had a legitimate cause. We wanted to talk about motivation and the imminence of the nuclear threat. You can only do that speaking for yourself, it’s speaking out of belief.
A couple of us were charged with contempt of court on the day, for persisting in reading out our personal statements of intent, and taken down to the cells and brought back up. The magistrate was terrified – we had a Catholic priest arrested in our group.
I think the magistrate dealt with us very quickly to get rid of us. We got a conditional discharge which was to last a year; if we broke the law again it would be taken into account. [They didn’t receive a fine, or community service or a prison sentence – ed]
Subsequently, we always represented ourselves.
I found it very helpful when we were able to cross-examine one another, because that is a good way of further bringing out motivation and also clarifying the nonviolent nature of the action and clarifying the lack of threat that you were bringing to the situation, and all that was important to me as well.
That’s what I was doing in the ’80s in my spare time!
- The 11-plus exam (taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland when you were about 11 years old) decided what kind of secondary school you went to. A grammar school was for more academic students who were likely to go to university. A secondary modern delivered more basic, more practical education, and rarely offered A-levels. By 1975, most local authorities in England and Wales had abandoned the 11-plus, which was criticised as giving most children a sense of failure. Northern Ireland held its last 11-plus exam in 2008. — ed
Pat Gaffney has been arrested 11 times for her civil disobedience actions, and has been imprisoned three times. She has refused to pay fines and has been visited by bailiffs, but has never had any property seized. The second part of this interview with Pat will appear in the next issue.
First Published in Peace News
Sarah Hipperson was a founder member of Catholic Peace Action and a Greenham Common women peace activist at Yellow Gate for 17 years
Sarah Hipperson died at the age 90 on 15 August 2018, an important date in the Catholic calendar which association would have given Sarah great joy. She is most importantly remembered as arguably one of the most committed Greenham women peace activists who from 1983 to 2000 lived at Greenham Common Yellow Gate and watched its transformation from an RAF military base to an American nuclear cruise missile base to an open common for the public including a memorial peace garden. She was born in 1927 in Glasgow and her early life was disrupted by the separation of her parents when she and all her siblings were sent into care under the supervision of the Sisters of Charity in Glasgow. She recalls her time under the Catholic nuns’ supervision with affection and her First Communion day with special joy. There is no doubt that from an early time her faith was a most important force in her life and which gave her a sense of identity and value as an individual which was to be an important part of her self confidence in all the struggles that were to follow.
Her formal education was limited and when she applied to join the nursing school in Eastern District Hospital Duke Street Glasgow the matron initially refused her entry on the grounds that she had not completed the necessary educational requirements. Not to be put off by such obstructions from authority even at that early age she argued her case with the matron saying that she should be given a chance and was finally accepted. She repaid the matron’s trust by winning the anatomy and physiology prize in her first year. She went on to qualify as a nurse midwife and to work in some of the poorest parts of Glasgow after further training as a district nurse. She had a great respect for how her very materially deprived patients coped with the harsh conditions of life in Glasgow during this time but her desire to travel and to see more of the world led her to apply to become a nurse in the army. She was however refused entry to the army when she failed the medical having what was to prove to be an insignificant heart murmur. One can only wonder how her life might have evolved if she had been then accepted into the army.
Her continual desire to travel led her to emigrate to Canada where she married and had five children. She returned to UK to London in 1969 where to all appearances she had a materially secure middle-class life and was even appointed a magistrate. Her experience on the magistrates’ bench proved to be a strain as her discordant voice in support for the often poor and inadequately represented defendants made her unpopular among her fellow justices of the peace. After a few years she finally resigned from the bench sensing that her presence was giving the legal process a legitimacy she could not support.
In the 80s as a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Wanstead she became active in the Justice and Peace group and motivated by the Dr. Helen Caldecott film, Critical Mass, on the dangers of nuclear war she organised invitations to the local churches to a viewing of the film hoping to start discussions. She noted that in fact the usual response was horror and awareness followed by social paralysis. In 1982 she noticed an invitation by Dan Martin who was then the Justice and Peace worker for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Southwark to meet in the forecourt of Westminster Cathedral to discern a Catholic response to nuclear war preparations. This was to form the beginning of Catholic Peace Action and her first introduction to non-violent civil disobedience. At that time the Catholic Church’s teaching on nuclear deterrence was at the least ambiguous. The then Pope John Paul II’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in June 1982 gave a moral acceptance to nuclear deterrence as a step towards nuclear disarmament. To many in the Church this was taken as an endorsement of the policy or as was often termed loosely the “doctrine” of nuclear deterrence. Others in the Church saw this doctrine as a kind of heresy and there was no indication of nuclear disarmament. This was a time when the cold war was at its height. Mrs. Thatcher’s government then dominated the political scene, Mr. Heseltine the secretary of State for Defence was telling Parliament that protesters ran the risk of being shot and to be a peace activist often meant regular visits to court and sometimes jail for non-violent protests that were interpreted by the authorities as illegal. Greenham Common was designated to be the place where 96 nuclear cruise missiles, each with a capacity of 15 times that of the bomb at Hiroshima, would be stationed to counter the Soviet SS20 threat in the East. There was a general sense of uncertainty, the cold war political rhetoric was fierce and the introduction of these intermediate-range nuclear weapons made nuclear war more likely. The debate and division within the Catholic Church at this time was heated but respectful. Senior well known Catholic lay people in the Church and senior religious leaders took opposing views in public and while some developed a theology of nuclear deterrence others not only voiced and debated opposite views but advocated and took part in non-violent civil disobedience at military bases and at the Ministry of Defence London. To sustain people through the legal process and often jail time affinity groups which could be described as base Christian communities were set up among which Catholic Peace Action (CPA) was one in London and which Sarah became a founder member. Her first act of civil disobedience was carried out with this group and she described it as crossing an invisible line which marked out her commitment to no longer being a bystander.
In 1983 she moved to live at Greenham Common though continuing her discerning and support for Catholic Peace Action and their support for her. She attended their monthly meeting which focused on non-violent protests at the Ministry of Defence which often led to court cases and prison sentences.
The Imperial War Museum has recorded (oral history) an extensive oral history of Sarah’s story where she describes the harsh conditions of living in the mud of Greenham Common, the brutality of the bailiffs and police, her over 20 imprisonments, her numerous court appearances, her fasting which on one occasion lasted 31 days in Holloway Prison when she lost over 2 stone in weight. She records the moving experience of attending Mass on Sundays in Holloway Prison with the marginalised women whose faith was an inspiration.
She describes the grassroots non-violent spirituality of women and her confidence in the ultimate removal of the cruise missiles. She relates that the women at Greenham were neither saints nor sinners but were described by opponents as “bloody women” and she was proud of that description and that they were rooted in non-violence whatever faith tradition or none they claimed. She never hid her own Christian faith at Greenham and the unifying spirituality among them was the women’s non-violence and their anti-nuclear position and willingness to participate in protests that put them at risk of arrest.
Often social activist like Sarah never see the results of their struggle and it may be another generation that reaps the benefit but in the case of the Greenham Common women history gives them a visible definite legacy. In 1987 the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Mr.Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev and soon after the cruise missiles were removed as were the SS20s from the East. The Ash Wednesday annual Pax Christi demonstration at the Ministry of Defence against nuclear weapons is a legacy that Sarah was happy to see in her lifetime and the Catholic Church is now no longer ambiguous about any “theology” of nuclear deterrence. The very possession of nuclear weapons is condemned with clarity at the highest level. Sarah was very aware that her prayer for a nuclear free world remained unanswered in her time, we still have much to do but considering one “bloody woman’s” contribution to the cause of non-violent peace building she will be to all who knew her an inspiration and a challenge.
The Glasgow nuns who were so instrumental in Sarah’s Catholic formation have a lot to answer for. May Sarah rest in the peace of Christ which in her life, at a great personal cost, she struggled to embody.
“Greenham: Non-violent Women-v-Crown Prerogative”
Sarah Hipperson’s oral history at the Imperial War Museum
Breaking the Bylaws
From the Greenham Newsletter, 1991. Text by Dido.
After the Cruise missiles had all been removed, there followed a long struggle between the Ministry of Defence, who wanted to retain the base, and the people of Newbury who were demanding the return of their common land.
The House of Lords returned their rights to the common land to the people of Newbury and in 1997 Newbury was able to buy back its common land from the Ministry of Defence for £7million. Two years later cattle were back grazing and the rights of the commoners were re-established. A memorial has been designed in memory of the Greenham Common peace women.
The 87-year-old, who was one of the last women to leave the camp, said: “It is 14 years since the memorial peace garden was opened to mark the commitment and determination of women in their efforts to make this world a more peaceful place.
“The garden was maintained by the peace women through a commemorative fund appeal. But the time has come to ask the owner of the site Greenham Common Trust to take over the management of the site which they have kindly agreed to.
“It is a fitting end to the protest. At the end of the day you have to put your differences aside and give things back to the community. Long after we are gone people will be saying: ‘What happened here?'”
The site represents the four elements of earth, fire, water and air and is planted with British species.
It includes a flame sculpture, which symbolizes the campfire, and a stone and steel spiral sculpture, engraved with the words “You can’t kill the Spirit”.
A tree was planted to mark the official handover.
Greenham Common Trust chief executive Chris Boulton said: “The Peace Garden marks an important part of the history of Greenham Common. The trust would like to thank Sarah and the other peace women for the upkeep of the garden and for asking us to manage it in the future.”
On July 12th  Georgina and Jean won the Bye-laws Case in the House of Lords. The Greenham bylaws were declared illegal. Trespassing is no longer a criminal offence and women aren’t arrested anymore for going in.Greenham-S.-Hipperson-1-Book