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Off to church on two wheels

by
16 July 2021

Climate targets will require more sustainable forms of transport. Dave Walker suggests that the Church take a lead

IT IS unusual to hear anyone talk about transport in church, but perhaps the way we travel around our communities is something that we should consider more often. We live in a car-dominated society, and motor vehicles don’t do particularly well on the “loving our neighbour” scale.

Cars have a significant collective climate impact because of the sheer number of people using them; driving means we are inactive at a time when helping the NHS is a top priority; and there is the immense human cost of traffic collisions, as well as congestion, pollution, and noise.

Electric cars might solve some of these problems, but their manufacture on a large scale has huge climate and precious-resource implications, and replacing petrol by electric power does nothing to address traffic congestion or lack of physical activity.

Public transport is an excellent alternative, but, for many, there won’t be a bus heading in the right direction in time for the 8 a.m. service. The pandemic has also made people wary of public transport, and it could be tempting to rely on the perceived safety of cars.

So, as the Church of England commits itself to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, perhaps now is the time for Christians to take seriously “active travel” alternatives — such as cycling and walking — and model the benefits.

The Vicar of St Peter and St Paul, Seal, in Kent, Canon Anne Le Bas, is among those finding that pedal-powered transport brings its own rewards. “Bikes slow you down enough to make a real difference to your mental health. They mean you can’t rush from one thing to another, or fit as much in the day. They also make you more visible to others — a great asset for a parish priest.”

 

CYCLING even has spiritual benefits. Margaret Pritchard Houston cycles to Hampstead Parish Church: “I find cycling to be a meditative activity, even when it’s physically hard. It gives me time before and after church to think, to process, to notice things about the city — human life and nature — and so it enhances my worship.”

Hannah Gill, a member of the Society of Women Organists, plays at St Nicholas’s, Harpenden. “Cycling to church to play the organ is a great way to combine two of my favourite activities. I’m not a morning person, but I definitely arrive at the organ console feeling more awake and refreshed after cycling than if I’d taken the train or bus. So, hopefully, the music benefits, too.”

For many — those with disabilities or older people — cycling won’t be an option, although some have found that a bike, often a three- or four-wheeled variety, doubles as a mobility aid, and opens up new possibilities in places where there is good-quality cycling infrastructure.

There is no denying that change can be difficult. But the Church could do a huge amount to model what is possible. A bold action — such as a free electric bike for all clergy who wanted one — would surely pay for itself in reduced mileage claims, and demonstrate, in every community, that the Church is taking a lead in changing how we think about how we travel.

With a bit of help and advice from those who are already doing it, the Church could play a significant part in being a catalyst for change.

 

How do you cope with wet weather?

The Vicar of St Paul’s, Boundary Road, Nottingham, the Revd Tim Fox, says: “Wet weather is not too much of an issue, with a decent rain jacket and waterproof over-trousers. By and large, the days when the weather is ideal (cool but dry) vastly outnumber the days where it is not.”

The Vicar and Leader of the Bro Gwydyr Ministry Area in Snowdonia, the Revd Stuart Elliott, says: “I have a cycling poncho, described as a ‘wet-weather chasuble’ by one parishioner.”

 

‘I’m not fit enough to get up the hills’

Margaret Pritchard Houston has found that it gets easier. “With time, you get fitter, and that feels great. But also, take it slow, make sure your tyres are pumped up, and it’s OK if you get off and walk for a bit.”

Mr Elliott has to cope with the terrain of Snowdonia. “We have an awful lot of hills, some of them pretty steep. I have invested in an electric bike, which takes the sting out of them. Planning in the extra time to get around is crucial — so that you don’t arrive in a wheezing mess (I have asthma).”

 

Are electric bikes a good solution?

Canon Le Bas is an enthusiast. “Yes, yes, yes! When we moved to Sevenoaks, I took one look at the hills and knew I couldn’t possibly manage them. I am on my third electric bike now, and it enables me to get wherever I need to be without being all sweaty at the end.”

The Archdeacon of West Ham, the Ven. Elwin Cockett, agrees. “I can ride anywhere without getting hot and sweaty. I can get to the Bishop’s house — four or five miles — more quickly and easily by electric bike than by any other form of transport, including car.”

 

‘I don’t feel safe on the roads’

This is probably the main reason that people don’t cycle. Cycle mapping sites and apps can help in finding quiet routes. Canon Le Bas acknowledges that safety is a significant issue. “I try to use back roads wherever possible, and can usually find quieter, safer routes. I try to avoid cycling at night if I can, but have no hesitation in declining evening visits — people can phone, Zoom, or come to me.”

The Vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite with East Scammonden, the Revd Graeme Holdsworth, recommends training. “If you feel unsafe because of your own ability . . . it will help you grow in confidence.”

 

Is it really practical for clergy to cycle between churches?

Mr Elliott says that it can be done. “We’ve arranged our Sunday rota around being able to cycle between services. It means you need an efficient team of wardens so that you can just roll in and get on with it — which empowers them to do it.”

 

How do you carry everything you need?

Mr Holdsworth has a collection of different luggage options, from a rucksack to a full set of front and rear panniers. “I have bought a cassock alb for each church; so, on Sunday, all I need are a copy of my sermon and a stole.”

The Revd Janet Appleby, is retired, with PTO, and covers in the Tynemouth deanery. “I have two large panniers on the back, and a flat top that a third bag can be fixed to. I can also carry a rucksack if necessary. I bought a large weatherproof cover for my robes, and roll it up into one of the panniers.”

 

Can you really cycle to church with children?

Kez Appleton cycles to St Mary and All Saints’, Cundall, in Yorkshire. “Cycling to our church enhances the experience, seeing the seasons change in our parish, and gives us a chance to reflect on where we’ve been that morning. And the toddler on the rear seat belting out the three words he liked in a hymn over and over again is much more bearable on a bike!”

Heather Lawson and her husband use cargo bikes to cycle to King’s Church, Durham, every week, with their three children. “Our kids always enjoy the bike more than the car, and it’s much quicker than driving and having to find somewhere to park at a city-centre location with no dedicated parking. It [also] means we can easily stop and talk with people we know on the way home.”

 

How do you choose a bike?

Finding a good bike shop is key, unless you feel confident buying secondhand. Archdeacon Cockett says: “Try out several before you buy. Borrow friends’ bikes, discuss the options. Be prepared to get it wrong first time.”

Mr Holdsworth recommends spending more — if you can. “There is a difference in price between a bicycle-shaped-object (BSO) and a bicycle that will fit, last, and be repairable and reliable.”

 

How do you keep your bike secure?

The Vicar of Sacred Trinity, Salford, Canon Andy Salmon, advises: “A strong D-lock is essential in the city. A good rule of thumb is that the lock should cost ten per cent of the cost of the bike; and always lock it to something secure.”

Churches can do much to help, with bike parking racks or indoor space for bikes. There are organisations, such as Parkthatbike and Life Cycle UK, that supply free bike racks in some areas of the UK; but consider approaching local councillors to ask if funding is available.

 

‘Should I give it a go?’

A final word from the Revd Grace Thomas, Assistant Curate of Whalley Range and St James with St Clement, Moss Side, and joint-diocesan environment officer. “Even on the days when I really would rather not get on my bike, I find that, by the time I have arrived, I feel so much better. It’s also started many conversations with congregation members and people I meet. I always remind them that this time last year, I was wobbling nervously around my drive. If I can do it, anyone can.”

 

From A to B: A cartoon guide to getting around by bike by Dave Walker is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop Special Offer £10.99); 978-1-4729-7613-0.

Listen to an interview with Dave Walker on the Church Times Podcast.

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