A chaplain in Iraq

Reverend Father Marcus Hodges, an RAF chaplain now stationed in Cyprus, gives his take on the import

The all-pervasive fog of desert dust notwithstanding, there is a clear and powerful chaplaincy vision out here in the Iraqi desert. Of course, a vision of ministry, whether on a home unit or away, must in some sense be the same for all who labour in the rich harvest of the Church’s ministry; yet here in Basrah, it is, perhaps, in some senses simply more undiluted, more vital and more immediate.

Praying and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments and explaining the faith – these are the ‘bread and butter’ of any Christian ministry to be sure. Listening (I mean really hearing what people have to say) and answering questions where possible, pointing out useful directions, and offering guidance, support, comfort and assurance are also tools of the trade. This type of ministry is simple, plentiful and fairly well-known. Yet a different but no less ancient vision of ministry exists alongside as well.

Chaplains are iconic. Catholics have traditionally understood this truth in terms of their priests being ‘in persona Christi’. This is neither an arrogant nor vain boast, but rather provides a genuine source of humility and even dread for those who answer the call. Of course, the chaplain is fallible and weak, and sees himself as one with the people he serves, in uniform, membership, loyalty and duty. Like them, he is at constant risk of injury or death.

Nevertheless, he is also, in a very profound sense, set apart from those he serves. For the religious and the the skeptical alike, the chaplain represents a calling and mission; he makes visible his membership of a kingdom of values and hope which he hopes will transcend the dirt and confusion that characterise armed conflict. The chaplain is, in this case, a very real presence of the Good Shepherd Himself amongst His flock.

Of course, I don't mean to say that all people welcome the chaplain. For every person who welcomes his presence, there will almost always be one who rejects it. Although the chaplain's primary function is to offer comfort and assurance, he also faces challenges that will always be a part of the fulfillment of his ministry.

‘Comfort my people’ says the prophet Isaiah. When the rockets rain in, when the siren sounds, when strong men and women fall to their faces in the mud, why do they often do they glance toward the chaplain? Not for marching orders or military direction, but rather for evidence, however small and fleeting, that at least one person remains steadfast in the faith that ‘all manner of thing shall be well’. Isn’t this the meaning behind the well-meant jibe so often voiced: ‘you’re ok, Padre! – we know who’s looking after you’? The chaplain represents to some that gossamer hope that they too might come to have a share in his godly favour.

‘I come to bring a sword’ says the Lord. Of course, the chaplain never wishes to sew conflict or bring trouble. Yet inevitably he acts ‘in persona Christi’ not just as priest but as prophet too. The untold pressures of operational duty weigh heavily on the shoulders of all, but none more so than those in command. They make bitter decisions in which notions of right and wrong, or justice and peace may almost vanish. It is the chaplain’s reluctant duty at these times to stand firm, and he does so not by direct challenge to authority, but rather more powerfully by virtue of his silent presence.

None of my thoughts here is in any way new or original, but the ministry of a military chaplain is hardly new either. Ever since priests began to march with armies hundreds of years ago, the work of the chaplain, an undoubted opus Dei, has been both valued and praised. My final reflection, made through the swirl of this choking dust of war and strife, is that if only the chaplain can stand firmly in the Person of Christ amongst his people, then surely the risen Christ will stand next to him.

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times