The strengthening of a community

08 September 2009

The residents of Wootton Bassett are privileged, says Thomas Woodhouse

“Enormous impact”: residents of Wootton Bassett gathered on 14 July to pay tribute to eight servicemen killed in Afghanistan MOD

“Enormous impact”: residents of Wootton Bassett gathered on 14 July to pay tribute to eight servicemen killed in Afghanistan ...

In returning and rest you shall be
in quietness and trust shall be your
The Lord waits to be gracious to us. . . 
Blessed are those who wait with him.
  (Isaiah 30.15,18)

THE ACTIVITIES of the Lyneham Royal Air Force base have long been a valued part of life in Wootton Bassett and Calne deanery. We regularly see the planes overhead, and the dis­cerning can even predict, with some excitement, a Royal Flight. To live around Lyneham is to be part of the life of the nation in a special way.

In recent months, however, the ex­citement of looking upwards has been replaced on occasions by a solemn gravity, as we wait for a repatriated soldier.

The sight of the police escort and the hearse with the coffin draped with the Union flag is very moving as it makes its way up the high street. This was initially an interruption in the normal bustling activity of everyday life which you might expect in a market town. People always stopped what they were doing, looked, and re-s­ponded in their own way.

Over recent months, however, an increasing number of repatriations have occurred with increasing regu­lar­ity; so they are less of an un­expected interruption. The cumula­tive memory of these events adds to the effect on us. I cannot adequately describe the impact of eight such hearses, recently witnessed on their rev­erent procession along the road where I normally drive to take the children to school. It brings it home, literally. But the great thing for us in Wootton Bassett is that we are not left as individuals trying adequately to make sense of it; we approach it as a community.

THERE is no doubt that the respect shown by the town to the repatriated has touched a nerve. Gradually, more people have joined the roadside vigil, and it has been a privilege occasion­ally to be joined by members of the families of the deceased. The town council has received thousands of emails — the emergency services, too, and the church.

We have received some donations for flowers to be placed in church from people who cannot come to the town in person. Numbers attending at the roadside have increased, and media coverage has meant that an informal, almost ad hoc gathering has gained a momentum of its own.

An informal network has emerged, and word spreads about the repatria­tions — the date, the time, the change of times, and the possible delays — through emails, or by a phone call or word of mouth. It is a network of connections that spreads across the town and beyond.

At their heart, however, the gatherings remain a response of the community of Wootton Bassett. People who were strangers have become friends, and, on occasion, find them­selves offering pastoral support and encouragement, building the com­munity without ever realising they are doing so.

The churches in the town play their part, too. They pray for each fallen serviceman or -woman by name; offer pastoral support; toll the bell of St Bartholomew’s in the high street; and remember those who have died in services during the week.

After the repatriation of the eight bodies in July, eight stories were told in newspapers in this country and beyond. It was an extraordinary moment. It was the largest repatri­ation so far, and it had an enormous impact on the town. Some com­mentators say that a high mortality rate was inevitable; but many of us who gathered to witness the first repatriation did not imagine that it would continue in the way it has, seemingly without end.

I AM often asked how this has changed the town. My first response is that it has not changed us essentially, but brought out something that already existed. There is great sadness at young lives snuffed out in their prime, and concern for grieving fam­ilies. But the townspeople gather, honour the dead, and return to their everyday tasks until the next time.

For me, this illustrates the great value of still having a sense of being a community.

Those who have built up the body of Christ in Wootton Bassett over the years have prepared us for this challenge in a marvellous way: we are familiar with the rhythm of remem­brance and celebration of those lost in battle; of Last Post and Reveille; of Lent and Easter.

What now occurs was not organised directly by the churches of the town, but I believe that it has happened in the way it has because of the many years of Christian formation of our society. We play our part today in the way the Church has always done — in the presence of members of our worshipping communities on the roadside alongside their neigh­bours, offering comfort in the holy moments of silence on the high street.

A very important element, too, is that each repatriated soldier is hon­oured equally by the town of Wootton Bassett. This is another fruit of the Anglican approach to care equally for all those who live in the parish; it is just that on occasion in Wootton Bassett we expand to include for a few brief moments honoured visitors from another parish on their journey home.

We stand for those in that other parish who would be standing with us, and who will shortly be paying their respects at a funeral. And then we carry on.

The Revd Thomas Woodhouse is Priest-in-Charge of Wootton Bassett and Rural Dean of Calne.

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