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Interview: Jonathan Barker chaplain, St Pancras Station

25 January 2013

'Visitors to St Pancras often dwell here to pray'

I work at the sharp end of people's lives, not only in life-and-death issues, but with their work, disputes, redundancies.

But my funding from the London diocese could end this year.

The opportunities for mission here are boundless. These are places the Church could never have dreamt of entering until now. Those in employment spend most of their week working; so the Church should be in places like this, in contact with people where they are.

Stations are places of growth, as demand for train travel outstrips very quickly the availability of rolling stock on our system. Also, these termini accommodate office and retail space.

My incumbency at St John the Evangelist, Cleckheaton, still had some way to go when I received publicity inviting me to apply for the St Pancras Station post, linked to the London Old St Pancras Team Ministry. Conserving St John's, a Gothic Revival church, seemed my life's work at the time. I rejected the post at St Pancras, but then later accepted it. Here was a magnificent, Gothic revival building, having undergone its own majestic reordering, like St John's. And my interest in transport, notably railways, could now be put to good use. I began the next chapter of my ministry with my own desk in the managerial suite of my host and governor of the station environment, Network Rail.

My memories of St Pancras Station are vivid from the 1960s: a dark, cavern-like place, very quiet, barely a soul around.

This is, by a long chalk, the most difficult and demanding work I have ventured into. St Pancras Station is a wholly secular space, operated by High Speed One and Network Rail, containing within its walls innumerable companies with their own regulations: contractors, a cleaning company, over 55 shops, over 70 private apartments, a five-star Renaissance Hotel, four train-operating companies, and the high-speed route to Europe.

It is the European gateway that defines the role of chaplain as a full-time post, practically the only station that could ever employ one in the UK.

It was discovering Jesus Christ, the attractiveness and profundity of his life, in a lovely church community, that took me, in stages, to receive a vocation. It was as though there wasn't any alternative. Even from my days as a teenager in the church choir at All Saints', Chorley, it was in other people, in forming relationships, in compassion, that I first began to recognise a God of love.

My inner and outer life may have changed in ministry; yet the steadfastness of my faith remains. I'm as confident as ever about God's presence, particularly in the most trying circumstances I find myself in. How else could I have found the means to cope with such devastation as the trauma of a suicide for those looking on?

Who would know how many suicides happen statistically in a given period? By all accounts, it happens on the rail and Tube network as a daily occurrence. I'm called by personnel of companies that are in the front line and desire someone to accompany them or talk them through an incident. In the run-up to Christmas, I felt that it would be difficult to attend another suicide. Last spring, I had a flurry of deaths, all men in their 40s, all copycat. That is as far as I can go.

One bugbear has been the refusal of the owners to consider a need for a quiet room, a space allocated on the upper concourse, for staff and passenger use. There are worthy examples already in use on stations in Europe, particularly Germany and Italy. Airports possess chapels, but stations lie in an urban heritage formed of innumerable churches.

Still, over 250,000 people pass through every day, bringing the stresses and strains of daily living. There needs to be a place of contemplation in such a hectic place.

The rewarding moments are at the beginning of a rail journey with colleagues from the rail industry; or the many fascinating encounters with members of the public; mutual support from colleagues; the lovely refreshments from cafés and the Renaissance Hotel.

Everyone I meet is a sentimentalist when it comes to reforming our railway system, advocating a return to government control. Actually, the Government is investing more money than ever into the system, but it's the current mess over the franchise system that causes the most concern presently, highlighted by the West Coast Mainline fiasco, and the waste of taxpayers' money. Not to mention the complex ticketing and fares, which causes so much confusion. The question of re- nationalisation is a non-starter, because the process was made irreversible in those first five years. Privatisation needs more time to allow it to develop.

Any civilised society would be proud of the progress made on safety during privatisation. On the other hand, the disparity of wages rail employees and the pressure they work under leave much to be done.

Moving constantly from place to place in such an awe-inspiring building reminds me that I'm in one of the best jobs in the Church. Countless other people tell me the same.

I came from a very happy childhood in a strong working-class family on the outskirts of Chorley, in Lancashire, surrounded by acres of greenbelt. The sound of trains passing along the West Coast Mainline reverberated across the valley, drawing schoolfriends and me to spend time idling on the bridges, taking numbers. There the enthusiasm for rail began, and it wasn't long before we set off for different regions of the country, including London.

I took off for Paris in my teens, to be coached in track athletics. The excitement of racing in Firenze, Italy, as a student representative was the breakthrough. I stayed there and raced for two athletic clubs in Arezzo, combining this with my studies at home. It was a privilege to live in a beautiful part of the world which I regarded as my second home.

I train six days a week, with the same discipline learned by my years racing in Europe, but I barely race now. I'm 57 now. I run on Hampstead Heath. You can run and run there.

The picaresque adventures by rail as a child gave me confidence and independence. I travelled widely as an athlete, and later as a priest, to Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Sri Lanka, India, Namibia, and Australia to fulfil locums. I also spent nearly five years in Bermuda. But wherever I've been, it's my roots in Lancashire that tell me who I am.

I'm inspired by jazz musicians from Europe, such as Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, and American artists Ralph Towner and Keith Jarrett.

I read voraciously, mainly to inform my mind on how to react to the wide variety of situations I find myself in at the station. I refer to case studies in therapy and counselling repeatedly; and journals in ethics, such as Crucible magazine, which are invaluable source material for understanding issues.

Next door in the British Library is the complete scroll of On the Road, belonging to the beat-generation novelist Jack Kerouac. As a teenager, I read all his work, inspired by the spontaneity, the searching for the mystical side of religion, the sheer exuberance and joy of his prose. At that time, I was beginning to listen to jazz, and running.

How I loved to hear the former Bishop of Jerusalem, George Appleton, preach! He taught me how to respect difference, show tolerance, understand and compare world faiths, and the truth inherent in each.

For time off, it would be walking in the Lake District, discussing sport with friends in Arezzo, Italy, a Chorley home game, a first-class seat at the beginning of a long rail journey. For peace and calm and contemplation, it has to be the natural interior of an abbey in Tuscany.

The extract from the end of the Gospel of John is my favourite, where the encounter between Jesus and Peter spells out what is required in a loving relationship: humility, service, and compassion.

Favourite sounds: a Deltic diesel locomotive passing through Doncaster Station at speed, or the ambient sounds of modern European jazz, come to mind.

I can ill afford to be angry. Anger management is a key part of my pastoral work, particularly when commuters react to a delay on the system. But I am passionate about lots of things.

I do feel supremely happy when out running long distance: I can accelerate at will without any effort, no awareness of breathing, a feeling of exhilaration.

Visitors to St Pancras often dwell here to pray, inspired by the wonderful, awe-inspiring ecclesiastical backdrop of its interior - because churches are locked, out of fear. So, instead of being locked in a church, my preference is a first-class corridor compartment in a Mark 1 railway carriage from the 1960s, with Vivien Ellis, vocalist of the early-music ensemble Dufay Collective.

The Revd Jonathan Barker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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