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Flight-free bishop wants environment at centre of Christian faith

For most of the 150 delegates who travelled to Germany for a gathering of church leaders in historic Wittenberg, the trip was a matter of a few hours, thanks to one of the many low-cost airlines that now ply Europe’s skies.

But for Anglican Bishop Richard Chartres of London, who has pledged to refrain from air travel for a year, as a sign of his commitment to the environment, the journey earlier this month meant a 1000 kilometre train voyage with changes in Brussels and Berlin.

"Travel takes rather longer," Chartres told Ecumenical News International in Wittenberg, the town where Martin Luther instituted the Reformation. "I left Waterloo [in London] at 7.15 p.m. and arrived in Wittenberg at 9.30 a.m. the following morning."

Chartres signed a pledge to refrain from all air travel for 12 months during a Stop Climate Change demonstration in London in October.

"I shall not flinch," Chartres insisted, although he acknowledged the effects of his decision were, at times, "very inconvenient". Still, "One useful result is slowing down a bit," he noted. "I think it also focuses the mind on going to things that are really valuable."

In 2006, Chartres was criticised by Michael O’Leary, chief executive of low-cost airline Ryanair, after the bishop was reported saying it was sinful to pollute the planet by catching a plane for a holiday.

But, the 59-year-old cleric said in Wittenberg: "I’m not preaching to other people. If one is saying ‘cut the carbon’ … one has to be very alert to one’s own footprint. This is a new way of being faithful, of walking lightly on the earth."

In the meantime, Chartres’ staff have had to reorganise his travel arrangements.

"I’ve refused invitations," he noted, referring to a request from the Norwegian government to attend an environmental awareness conference in Tromso, the largest city in Norway north of the Arctic Circle. "I can’t get there," said Chartres, "not in the time I have available."

He acknowledged doubts that he will be able to keep up his flight-free stance once the 12 months is over. "It comes at a cost, not just financial, but improving the efficiency with which one can do one’s work," Chartres noted. "But I shan’t go back to flying as much as I did before."

Respect for the environment, Chartres said, is central to the faith, though Christians have sometimes been "slow on this issue". His vision is that "every single church in some way or other is going to be a place where energy is captured from God, the sun, the wind and transformed into energy for the common good."

(c) Ecumenical News International