Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 11:24 UK

Archbishop's leap of conscience

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

Dr Sentamu (Copyright: The Afghanistan Trust)
Dr Sentamu says his first parachute jump will be a "leap of faith"

He was among the most prominent opponents of the war in Iraq, but the Archbishop of York John Sentamu is determined to improve the lives of the people sent to fight it.

And Dr Sentamu's latest gesture is as eye-catching as any that this most colourful member of the Church of England's senior clergy has yet performed.

He plans to leap from a plane at 12,000ft (about 3,660 metres) above the Nottinghamshire countryside - although bad weather has for the moment kept the clergyman grounded.

Dr Sentamu has never made a parachute jump before and has admitted that he has had butterflies in his stomach.

But he is determined to make what he calls a "leap of faith" - from Langar Airfield - to raise money for service personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is also a challenge to the general public to get over its embarrassment in dealing with the servicemen and women who are sent to do the nation's dangerous work overseas.

Government plea

Dr Sentamu believes that Britain does too little to meet its debt to the armed services, and shared the sense of shock that attacks on RAF personnel led in March to their being ordered to dress in civilian clothes while off duty.

The Church's second most senior leader has said the government needs to do more to look after servicemen and women.

"That means paying them more when on active service," he says, "housing them better and providing for the best medical and respite care if injured."

So the archbishop signed up for the jump from a plane belonging to the Parachute Regiment's Red Devils display team, and has even consented to being filmed leaping from the door and during his journey to the ground.

Dr Sentamu is hoping to raise at least 50,000 for the Afghanistan Trust, which provides care for soldiers injured there.

He said it was not too late to sponsor him.

These men and women risk their lives - the least we can offer them in their return is to deliver on the covenantal promise of a welcome return
Dr Sentamu

Many airmen left the Langar airbase, after it was established in 1942, on risky bombing raids over Germany - and a significant proportion of them never returned.

As well as raising money for the successors of those front-line airmen, Dr Sentamu wants to prick the public's conscience about its attitude to those who fight on its behalf.

"These men and women risk their lives," says Dr Sentamu.

"The least we can offer them in their return is to deliver on the covenantal promise of a welcome return."

The British attitude to service personnel - not least those who return from Iraq or Afghanistan - is in marked contrast to that of the US.

In that country, for example, flight attendants will draw attention to a returning soldier and most of the passengers will applaud.

In the UK there is so much less public acknowledgement of their war service that the government talked about a plan to get personnel to wear their uniforms in public as a way of engendering respect and appreciation for them.

Public attention

That plan received a set-back when airmen and women from RAF Wittering were targeted in the nearby city of Peterborough because they were connected with Iraq and Afghanistan.

At first glance Dr Sentamu seems an unlikely champion for the armed services, as a leading critic of the decision to go to war in Iraq.

However, in an article in December he said "whilst those reservations remain, so does my respect for the professionalism of those service personnel whose work has been so valuable in the rebuilding of that country (Iraq)".

He went on: "Our armed forces have my deep admiration and respect for what they strive to achieve in the name of the is country and on behalf of others. They are second to none in their sense of courage and duty."

Dr Sentamu believes they are being short-changed, and hopes that taking to the skies will draw public attention to it.

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