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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era