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
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
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
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
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
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
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.