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Wet and wetter

17 August 2012

ON A "typical British summer's day, overcast with showers", Air Engineer Technician Andrew Bell was immersed in the River Yeo, close to the weir and in the shadow of St Bartholomew's.

It was the first river baptism for the Fleet Air Arm at the Royal Naval Air Station, Yeovilton, and three weeks before Airman Bell was to be married to Monica Urban, in neighbouring Yeovil, in Bath & Wells diocese. "It was a bit cold when we first went in," he said, "but it soon warmed up. It was quite liberating. I did wonder if I was going to come back up: it seemed such a long time under the water."

He was being baptised by the leader of the ecumenical naval chaplaincy team, the Revd Tudor Botwood, at what is one of the two principal air naval bases in the UK. Mr Botwood is a Baptist minister, and loves baptising outdoors, he says, although he was cautious about performing the ceremony so close to a weir, "because you are worried sick that your foot will slip and you will go careering downstream". At more dangerous places, he has had to post safety swimmers downstream in case the newly baptised got swept away.

Service chaplains work in ecumenical teams, and in many ways they are interchangeable. St Bartholomew's, at Yeovilton, was the local parish church, and had had a close relationship with the air station HMS Heron since 1940. Fifteen victims of air accidents were buried in the churchyard during the first two years before a naval cemetery was opened on its southern boundary.

By 1988, the church was becoming structurally unsafe, and was made redundant, at which point the Royal Navy stepped in and bought it as a job lot for £1. No longer in the possession of the diocese, St Bartholomew's has now become the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church, and houses the Fleet Air Arm roll of honour. As a medieval church, with roots going back to Saxon times, it could be argued that it is the oldest of all military church buildings.




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