IN JUNE 2013, Mission in the Economy (MitE) appointed a new chaplain to Birchwood Business Park. With very little funding available, Jennifer Beaumont agreed to work for four hours per week, serving the businesses and staff of a vast business park that comprises many technology and nuclear businesses. We had no idea of the scope of the demands to come.
In March 2014, the MitE Coordinator attended a briefing on the proposal to hold the new Hillsborough Inquests on the site, after the recent revelations of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. This would be the largest coronial inquest, too big for existing courts — 92 lawyers, 16 or 17 Queen’s Counsel, and many influential barristers. The Coroner, Lord Justice Goldring, was the fourth most senior judge in England and Wales. The process would be independent of Government.
The court itself would hold 240 people, and proceedings would be relayed to an annexe. A 24/7 press presence was expected, but a code of conduct was to be imposed, to minimise security issues and interruption. Any opinion or comment on the proceedings on social media would put the person posting on a social-media site in contempt of court. An appointed press officer would be the point of contact.
The 11 jurors would be “kept separate”. There would be up to 600 people in the court building at one time. A police inspector had been specially seconded. The police management process had graded the inquest a “low-threat assessment”, and the police presence would be low key because of associated emotional issues. There would, however, be a high security-guard presence.
We offered to supply chaplains for the duration of the court proceedings. The Ministry of Justice’s representative responded that, while they had no objections to having a chaplain on site, they would be unwilling to advertise the service because of their concern “not to spook the families”.
Comprehensive counselling services would be provided, as well as quiet rooms etc., for the use of victims’ family members and witnesses. At first, security staff asked where the clergy had come from, but familiarity grew, and the clerical collar provided a sign recognisable to all levels of people in the court.
FACED with the godly obligation to serve where we were, with what we had, and however we could, the MitE team decided simply to sit alongside people attending the court, and maintain our usual discreet care with sensitivity. Our actions were “gently specific”, as our MitE Birchwood business chaplain put it.
In her previous working life she had been a journalist, accustomed to attending inquests but always moved by them: “Inquests are, by their nature, tough. I have sat through many in my time, and I’ve not been left untouched by any of them. Listening to these statements is like a prayer.”
Jenni, along with the Revd Pat Gray, the Revd Mavis McDonnell (MitE Chaplain to Warrington Golden Square and Market), and the Revd Stephen Kingsnorth (Methodist minister in the Warrington Borough team), endeavoured to attend the inquest weekly. We had occasional help from others but were able to maintain regular contact with the families for the four days per week on which the court usually sat.
As winter approached, the families retreated to their designated room to eat lunch rather than outside near the sandwich van. Having had the opportunity to talk with them outside when the weather was good, Pat bemoaned the loss of contact which ensued; she felt she couldn’t intrude into their space, but was humbled when, on one of the busier days when access was restricted, she was allowed in because security staff “put her down as family”.
Throughout the process, the chaplains expressed concern for the jury, but particularly when the evidence consisted of detailed technical diagrams or dull legalities that they themselves found difficult to follow — “mind-numbing information overload”. They were all moved by the support the families gave each other, and by the sensitivity and professionalism of the Coroner and of Christina Lambert QC, acting as Lead Counsel, who “had good oversight of everybody’s needs”.
The Coroner ensured that there was an extended silence after each of the families’ impact statements or “pen portraits” of their loved ones, when even hardened professional journalists could not hold back tears.
Video evidence was particularly painful for the families. Intrusive questioning required psychiatric intervention for one suffering witness who was deeply affected. The “groundhog” effect of repeatedly reliving the awful event meant that some witnesses needed support from their social workers. Families became distressed, and even walked out when drunkenness was mentioned.
WHEN I attended the inquests, I found the police’s legal counsel aggressive. There was a stark contrast between the defending barristers with their carefully cultivated professionalism — sharp both in attitude and appearance — and the humble witnesses who had longed for years to speak truth into the situation. Fortunately, the Coroner never switched off. Very astute, he both spoke his mind and did not allow procrastination by others — “Is there a question coming?”
Of course, not all the families attended all of the time. Some days, there were only half a dozen or so in the court. Some days, the evidence was just too hard for them to face. When there were key witnesses such as David Duckenfield (the police officer in charge at Hillsborough on the day of the match), however, both the court and the annexe were full. All the chaplains felt that Mr Duckenfield’s “words did not fit his body language”. He was obviously a troubled man.
FOR Jenni, the evidence was a revealing reflection of human nature. Despite lots of scapegoating and cutting corners and mere “rubber-stamping” in the aftermath, there was also relief for the families that people had at least tried to help: off-duty doctors who didn’t know who had survived; the witness who responded to a child’s cry, “Don’t leave my dad!”; the fan who had comforted a dying man — and, consequently, his grieving family.
Ann Hulbert, a hospital chaplain and friend of MitE, visited St George’s Hall after the vigil held there. She said she “was touched by the reverent attitude of everybody. I felt in essence I was doing the Lord’s work just being there. The sight of those 96 lanterns and the sheer enormity of the deaths will stay with me.”
ONE survivor of the Hillsborough tragedy was Adrian Tempany, whose moving story was published in The Guardian. “I am caught somewhere between this life and the next,” Adrian reflects — not only at the time of his near-death experience, but for many of the ensuing years.
Chaplains, by the very nature of their ministry, inhabit a “space between”: a liminal, God-filled space on the edge of every situation they encounter. When we make God-sense of the people and the situations that we encounter, when we bring comfort to the perplexed but also challenge the comfortable, as Michael Williams puts it, when we draw attention to injustice, when we act as intermediaries, we are giving God voice. The chaplain’s incarnational ministry of presence is witness to the fact that God is always in there somewhere — and God will out.
MitE chaplains shared precious time with a group of people united by football and by grief. These people were the human collateral of gross discrimination and prejudice, abandoned to suffering by pride, spiritual blindness, and classism.
The Hillsborough families were “little people”, entrenched in injustice, who overcame one seemingly impossible hurdle after another. All the time, God was in the midst of them. We chaplains have been highly privileged to be witnesses to that. We were witnesses to God in the midst of them, and witnesses to what God — the ultimate truth — can do. Progress is when we all learn the lessons of truth, yet again.
The Revd Jean Flood is Coordinator of MitE and an NSM in the Walton-on-the-Hill Team Ministry. This is an edited version of an article on the Liverpool diocesan website.