Luke Miller reports on the plans and efforts to connect Church with people
For ages now I have kept safe a piece of paper marked ‘official sensitive’ (which basically means ‘don’t email it, don’t leave it on the photocopier’) headed ‘Operation London Bridge’. As is now well known, this was the plan for the days after the death of the Queen. Not of course the whole plan, I was not party to that, but the outline of what would happen in the days before the State Funeral.
In the London Resilience Forum we had had briefings which suggested London might be overwhelmed with the crowds. The transport system would collapse; we might not be able to get food into London through roads choked with traffic and confused mourners who would not know Queens Park from Green Park. The LRF set to, planned and prepared. The model was to be similar to the way London supported and managed the crowds who came in 2012 for the Olympics: in resilience-speak as a ‘major event’, not a ‘major incident’.
The key would be teams of volunteers. That was where the churches came in. Centres were needed which could host the St John’s Ambulance and the volunteer marshals and medical staff; provide hubs for people to collect equipment and use to re-charge their phones; places where there could be a toilet and a cup of tea. We had the buildings with the facilities near the transport hubs and expected centres of crowds. They were identified and put plans in place. In the event two more were needed and brought on in the days after 8 September, but all went smoothly.
The Greater London Authority worked with National Government, and it was government who contacted Lambeth Palace to ask if there could be a chaplaincy alongside the other care on offer. We all know that old bereavement can be brought back to the surface by a new one, and there was a significant concern that in a post covid world where people ‘don’t do death’ many might have all sorts of emotions they would not know how to handle.
For years we had wrestled with how to set up a chaplaincy staffed by people who would have safeguarding training and checks in place; the requisite pastoral skills and experience; know the difference between chaplaincy and proselytization and, ideally, be ecumenical and multi faith. The received wisdom was that it could not be done.
The meeting was a moment of grace. We identified a way of accrediting people who had up to date checks and the necessary background. Existing links into London Church Leaders and the Faith and Belief Sector which I was able to bring to the Lambeth team meant that the chaplaincy was genuinely broad (there were even a couple of Humanist chaplains). This was a moment for the Church of England to be, yes in the lead, but facilitating something for all our communities. It was not to be a question of ‘Our Queen, our queue’. Proper supervision was put in place, including debriefs for the chaplains at the end of their shifts. It could not run 24 hours: but it did work all through all the days. The contacts made were extraordinary and many reports came back.
The same was true of other aspects of what happened. Many churches across the Kingdom were open at various times for those who came for reflection and found prayer. Many screened the funeral and there will be rich follow up to make with those who have been touched by what may have been their first experience of the converting power of liturgical prayer, mediated through the television. If Her late Majesty’s coronation was the moment the British People bought televisions, perhaps her funeral was the moment their TVs called them to church.
Our local experience was specific. As soon as the news of Queen Elizabeth’s death broke, St Paul’s had to be closed to allow a full security sweep to take place in advance of the public vigil service of remembrance due to take place the next day. With many people arriving to pay their respects and pray, we opened up nearby churches outside their usual hours to provide alternative places for people to go to.
A small secret of the vigil was that it was not ticketed in advance. As part of the Senior Staff I was privileged to be there, but it was a public service. Wrist bands were issued at the City of London Tourist Office during the day to the first 2,000 who turned up. I bumped into a former Lord Mayor hurrying to get one. The Prime Minister and the current Lord Mayor were simply in the front row. With care and skill, the staff pulled out from the crowd people we knew to sit around the front rows, including the former Lord Mayor. London is sometimes just a big village.
It worked. London was full to bursting, but the crowds stayed safe and remarkably good natured. My experience of nine hours queuing was the same as everyone I have spoken to: no one pushed-in and all stayed happy. In the midst of it, the church had so much more to offer even than the great liturgies. Drawing on the years of planning and the trusting relations we have and maintain, but do not take for granted, we were able to serve those who came here, the nation, and our late Queen.
The Ven Luke Miller is the Archdeacon of London.