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A presence on the beat

16 June 2017

Zaki Cooper speaks to police chaplains in the wake of recent terrorist incidents

Listening ear: a police chaplain talks to armed police at Manchester Victoria Station after the Manchester bombing

Listening ear: a police chaplain talks to armed police at Manchester Victoria Station after the Manchester bombing

WHEN Liam Johnston went to bed early three weeks ago, a phone call woke him with news of the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena (News, 26 May). He drove there straight away from his home in the Midlands, and arrived at 3.30 a.m.

“On arrival, we were confronted by the scene of the aftermath of the bomb,” recalls Mr Johnston, who is executive director of the Railway Mission, and the senior British Transport Police Chaplain. “I was asked to spend time with the Transport Police officers who had been amongst the first responders. They were the first of the emergency services on site at Victoria Station. They got there 30 minutes before the paramedics.”

He remembers the harrowing scene when he first went into the station: “I saw discarded pieces of clothing, streets of blood, and stray medical items. One item, an oxygen mask, stands out vividly. It was just lying there. All this stuff represented people and their lives.” What he saw made him feel “the despair of the moment”; and “the quietness of the station made it feel that God was distant.”


WHEN the Revd Charles Nevin, lead Chaplain of Greater Manchester Police for the past 18 years, heard about the bomb attack, he went to the police station nearest to the Arena. He spent time with officers affected by trauma, some of whom had been carrying out forensics on children at the scene of the blast.

He said that his part was to offer a shoulder to cry on: “Chaplaincy is 95 per cent listening, letting people talk out what is in their heads. Prayer was important, too. I asked all the chaplains to pray with people, and for them.”

While he attests to the horror of the experience, Mr Nevin says that he was buoyed by the community’s reaction: “At the Albert Square vigil the following evening, I talked to Muslim groups who had banners saying ‘Love, not hate’. There was a party of Sikhs handing out water. I talked to atheists and a number of other groups; there was a great sense of ‘We are one community.’

“Of course, there will be some who want to exploit this. But what happened is not about faith; it is about an ideology that has no relation to Islam.”

“Walking in their shoes”: the Chaplain to the Metropolitan Police, the Revd Jonathan OsborneTHE Manchester attack was followed ten days later by the terrorist van and knife attacks at London Bridge (News, 9 June). A British Transport Police chaplain, the Revd Stephen Rowe, provided pastoral support that night for officers who were among the first responders.

His team was supported by the Chaplain to the Metropolitan Police, the Revd Jonathan Osborne, who, less than two months earlier, had also been dealing with the aftermath of the Westminster terrorist attack (News, 22 March). Mr Osborne officiated at funeral of the murdered PC Keith Palmer, whose unit he had visited in the past. “At the funeral, together with the family, we were mourners but also organisers, as well as providing the policing at the event.”

Supporting police officers and their families in difficulty is a significant part of the chaplains’ ministry. Appointed in 2010, Mr Osborne is responsible for 45,000 police staff and officers in London. He spends a great deal of time on their pastoral care.

“It can mean listening to someone whose husband is in hospital, or supporting someone that’s been suspended from the organisation. It’s all the life events. I do the religious-functionary bits — baptisms, weddings, and funerals — as well as perform functions on ceremonial occasions.

“One person I’ve seen on a regular basis for a couple of years said to me, ‘You are a bit like my rubbish truck. I know that I can dump everything in you.’ I know what he means. I don’t repeat anything I’m told. I know pockets about lots of people’s lives: the good times and sad times.”

Mr Osborne takes a pride in being integrated into the police: he spends time with officers in police cars, or on patrol. This is a useful way, he says, for him to pick up on concerns that officers might have, and it also helps him “in a limited way to walk in their shoes”.

He undertook a course as a special constable, so that he “could understand what it is like to wear a uniform. I did it under cover, but then the trainers outed me as the chaplain.” He has had to give this up because of time pressures.

His position is similar to that of a naval chaplain: he always assumes the rank of the person he is talking to. He spells out the advantages of this: “I can call officers by their first name. I treasure that. If I need something from them, I can go straight to them and ask.”

He has worked under three Police Commissioners, all of whom he says have been hugely supportive. As a senior paid employee, he has a desk on the same floor as them in the police HQ, and has frequent one-to-ones with them.

THERE is no shortage of support for the chaplain among the Met’s leadership. Chief Superintendent Victor Olisa, the force’s head of inclusion and diversity, explains: “Jonathan provides a valuable enhancement to coping with the challenging and sometimes traumatic aspects of operational policing, and harnesses the energy and support of London’s faith communities to assist better partnerships.

“He is always available to staff and officers — even those members of different faiths, and also to colleagues of no faith — to provide an outlet not only to get support, but also to express their thoughts and views.”

“On Sir Bernard [Hogan-Howe’s] last day, earlier this year,” Mr Osborne recalls, “he gave his commendation for the work I’ve done. He presented it to me at a passing-out parade at the training academy in Hendon.”

BESIDES appreciating his status as part of the police, Mr Osborne is clear about his distinctiveness: “I wear my dog collar so people know what I do. If I wore a suit, I could be perceived as a detective.”

He works closely with a network of 65 volunteer chaplains who cover different London boroughs, all of whom concentrate on the pastoral care of officers and staff. They are unpaid for their police chaplaincy, and all have full-time jobs elsewhere.

There is also a small group of chaplains for other faith groups, and there are staff associations for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Humanist officers. These associations help the organisation to celebrate festivals such as Eid, Hanukkah, and Diwali.

“I work very closely with people from other faith groups,” Mr Osborne says. “But, in my seven years, I’ve only had one question I haven’t been able to answer. Ninety-nine per cent of the time the interaction is pastoral. It is about a human need rather than a religious need.”

The religious make-up of police officers seems to mirror that of the general population: while most chose not to specify their religion in the police’s own data, of those who did, 72 per cent were Christian, followed by Muslim and Hindu.


THE London Olympics in 2012 was a particular highlight. “The Commander who was in charge of Olympic security said: ‘I want you involved in every bit of it,’” Mr Osborne says.

“One of the first things was the torch relay. I got to know the team before they started the running. I went in the bus with them in different parts of the country to offer support. I also ended up running with them in various parts of the country, which was an amazing experience.”

He gained valuable experience as a chaplain in the NHS for ten years. He now carries out his chaplaincy for the Met alongside being a Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral, a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey, and an Honorary Minor Canon of Southwark Cathedral.

“Some people have a presumption about the Church,” he reflects, “and sometimes it’s lovely to be able to counter that. Chaplaincy sits right on edge of the Church. A lot of people I see wouldn’t walk through the doors of their faith communities, but, because I’m here, I get to know them, and that is a huge privilege.”

Zaki Cooper is a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews.

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