The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, has caused uproar by suggesting that sin is not a purely personal concept, that care for the planet is a basic responsibility, and that unnecessarily choosing forms of transport which harm the environment may be a ìsymptom of sinî ñ turning in on ourselves, away from neighbour and from God.
The bishopís comments came in the run-up to the publication of a Church of England booklet advising Christians on practical action they can take towards being more eco-friendly ñ in fulfilment of the basic Christian responsibility to see and treat the world as Godís gift.
Bishop Chartres also recently helped launch of the Church's ëShrinking the Footprintí scheme aiming to cut the ìcarbon imprintî caused by inefficient energy use in its own buildings and other resources. The initiative has the strong backing of Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and environmental campaigners inside and outside the church.
In an interview with The Sunday Times newspaper, the Bishop of London said that there was now an ìoverriding imperativeî to ìwalk more lightly upon the earthî.
He added that people needed to make lifestyle decisions with their environmental consequences firmly in mind.
ìMaking selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin,î he declared. ìSin is not just a restricted list of moral mistakes. It is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions.î
Bishop Chartres emphasised on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the Churchís call was first of all to its own members. He said that Christians had no right to issue religious edicts to others without getting their own house in order.
Asked whether he was saying that using a plane to fly off to a holiday destination was ìa sinî, Chartres made it clear that he was not pointing the finger at others, but pointing out that the Christian concept of sin cannot be shrunk to individual actions and sexual sins (as is often supposed these days), but that it is about living a life cut of from the needs of others and the love of God. In that sense, environmental neglect is sinful, and people of faith will want re-look to at their behaviour in this light.
Dr Chartresí comments seem to have elicited confusion and outrage in some sections of the media and in parts of the transport industry.
This morning the Daily Mail newspaper accused the Church of England of turning the Gospel into ìa party political broadcast for the Greensî and said that it should focus instead on its shrinking pews ñ adding that these would not be filled by reminding people of environmental concerns.
Meanwhile, apparently shrugging aside the expert advice and input on which its policy and recommendations are based, an executive from one of the country's leading motoring groups has told the Church of England and religious leaders to ìstick to what they know best.î
In a statement which is likely to baffle ethicists of any religious or non-religious persuasion, Edmund King, from the RAC Foundation, claimed that decisions over what car to buy were basically ìpracticalî and not moral choices.
Airline chiefs are also keen to detract attention from the global environmental consequences of cheaper flights and increased air travel. But campaigners say that there is growing awareness and improved practice too.
Bishop Chartresí comments have been defended by the UK religious think tank Ekklesia, which says that public and media astonishment that environmental care is a consequence of central Christian convictions and that selfishness is harmful to people and planet illustrates ìthe extraordinary extent to which even the most simple theological concepts are obscure in a culture which is rapidly losing touch with organised religion.î
Said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow: ìWe are often pointing out that the churches need to get their own house in order, rather than just being seen to lecture others. This is precisely what the Bishop of Londonís comments and the ëShrinking the Footprintí scheme are all about. So it's a bit tough that he's being attacked for being a busy-body.î
He added: ìChristians see the whole evolutionary and environmental process as a gift and a reflection of Godís love. This is why sustainable living is now often seen as a basic component of Christian living. To dismiss it as trendy nonsense is quite misplaced ñ as is the claim that the Churchís report isnít rooted in sound research. Thatís just a ploy by some lobbyists who want to protect profits and defend harmful products.î
Barrow said that the Christian understanding of sin had become ìwidely distorted and misunderstoodî in popular culture and in large sections of the churches, and that the Bishop of London was right to try to re-state it positively.
Explained the Ekklesia co-director: ìThe word sin is now mostly thought of as a nasty, judgmental one ñ or as just a redundant codeword for what we call ëa bit of naughtinessí. Actually it is a helpful way of naming the damage and hurt we cause to ourselves, others and God when we pursue practices which contribute to suffering, inhumanity and death. It means ignoring the life-enhancing invitation to love self, neighbour and God. It is very traditional, but seems to have got lost through a combination of misuse and ignorance.î
[Also on Ekklesia: Archbishop of Canterbury calls for eco-action to combat social decay; UK church group seeks transport alternatives; Campaigners welcome moves toward greener church; US churches tell Bush to care for the planet; Theologians warn of 'false gospel' on environment; Church should go organic says Archbishop of Canterbury; Synod sings 'halle-loo-jah'; Non-nuclear energy strategy a 'moral imperative' say church leaders; Churches told Palm Sunday is not environmentally sustainable; Churches learn micro power path to a green future; Planet prayers focus ecumenical climate change action; Creation and the Environment: An Anabaptist Perspective]