David Smith, the Airport Chaplain at Heathrow reflects on his ministry
In terms of numbers my parish must be the largest in the world – 61 million people visited it in the past 12 months, and at any one time there are 58,000 people at work, day and night. Conversely, attendances at services must be among the lowest: Easter Day – 8 communicants ; Ash Wednesday – nobody. These are the, bare statistics of the Anglican Chaplaincy at Heathrow Airport, where I have been the Chaplain since 1995.
The Chapel is under the Control Tower, opposite T2 Car Park in the Central Area. Unlike at other Airports, the Chapel is not in a terminal, and it is not clearly sign-posted. It took me three years to persuade the authorities to put up signs in the terminals (‘we are in the business of putting people on aeroplanes’ was a frequent rebuttal). Now you will see at least some signs with the proud legend ‘For Chapel and Prayer Room, follow signs for the Bus Station’.
The Chapel itself was a product of the 1960’s – access is by a flight of stairs, and resembles an underground concrete igloo. It has changed little since it was built – the lighting is gloomy, but the atmosphere is peaceful; the Tabernacle has two doors with mutually exclusive keys for Roman Catholic and Anglican Reservation; maybe we should place a pane of glass in between stating ‘break in case of ecumenism’. Catholic Mass is celebrated daily, but there are no other regular services. Until I came to Heathrow I had never set up an altar to find no congregation; since then it happened so many times or Sundays and Holy days that, finally, I gave up trying. For some reason which I have yet to discover, the Airport authorities refuse to announce services over the PA system; it seems that while Roman Catholics will always seek out a Mass, Anglicans and others can only be persuaded to worship if there is an announcement (as at Gatwick).
Last year Heathrow Airport decided to improve our facilities with a new Multi-faith Prayer Room at ground level next to the Chapel (if only it had been in one of the terminals!!); it is light, comfortable, and plain – though it has been welcomed by visitors who cannot manage stairs.
The Chaplaincy Team is nominally Ecumenical. I am supported by the Revd. Murray Thomson who works part-time in T4; I share an office with the full-time Salvation Army and there are full-time Roman Catholic and free Church Chaplains. Recently we were joined by part time Advisors for Islam and the Jewish faith.
For a Catholic Anglican in this ministry, life can sometimes be very difficult. It was clear to me from the start that Ecumenical co-operation was minimal – a very strong and traditional Roman Catholic Ministry was counterbalanced by a hard-line Free Church presence, each trying to lay claim to be the only valid ministry. My job description was to re-establish an Anglican presence (the post had been abolished along with all the other Industrial Chaplaincies in London) and to minister to the staff and passengers. In the past 4 years I have tried hard to do what many parish priests find most difficult – simply to knock on doors and talk to strangers. I always dress as a priest (complemented by a bright yellow tabard with Airport Chaplain’ clearly marked!), and see myself as the last outpost of unashamed Anglican ministry). There is a great deal of goodwill towards me at the airport and my pass allows me to visit all areas without being challenged. Specific areas include refugees, passengers frightened of flying, meeting and greeting (e.g. 400+ Lambeth Bishops!), stressed-out staff, Metropolitan Police Chaplaincy, Airlines and Heathrow Hotels. I make sure that I get invitations to all the openings of new ventures, and have become a professional grace-sayer on countless occasions from the opening of the Heathrow Express to the launching of a new Marriott Hotel. I also entertain visitors – I will never forget the day when the Bishop of Willesden arrived at 06.30 and returned home at 22.30 – having spent the whole day talking with staff and passengers without any prompting from me (maybe he could be made an honorary flying bishop!’).
When SSC was founded it was specifically addressed to priests in lonely ministries – and there is none lonelier than an Airport chaplain. Many parish priests see chaplaincy as a second-class option, and there are no regular communicants, no close advisors, no secretarial help, no-one who looks forward to seeing you every day, and no PCC (every cloud has a silver lining!). Every Sunday when I celebrate or preach 1 am always the guest, and not pastor of my flock.
So, why do I do it? 1 feel deeply that even if people are laughing behind my back then at least they have seen that, even in a Godless and Cosmopolitan place like Heathrow, there is a Christian presence. It is my role to practise and demonstrate that Christ is alive and concerned with people wherever they are, and to try to point out to people the signs of God all around them. I appreciate the networking and prayers of Chaplains around the world (we meet once a year – Sydney, Rio, New York, Stockholm) and also try to integrate myself into the Diocese: Synod, Chapter, SSC, Bishops Council etc. . While I still pine for a Daily Mass I have the comfort and strength of the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel and the regular visits to Walsingham.
I hope you will spread the word about this Ministry – I am always happy to make arrangements for Mass, or for pilgrim groups, or even to pray with you before you fly. I hope you will remember me and my colleagues in your prayers.
As for the future, who knows? Chaplaincies in Australia have been shut down by some Airport Authorities and in the USA there have been problems with Chaplains being excluded from crash sites. At least, at Heathrow, if terminal 5 is built it will have a Chapel incorporated in its design. I enjoy the freedom and independence of this ministry here and, while I have the energy and motivation, I hope to continue to keep the faith flying.
David Smith SSC, is Anglican Chaplain at Heathrow Airport and Vice-President of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains