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A long line of faith: Chaplains minister to the thousands waiting to say a final farewell

16 September 2022

Francis Martin reports from the lying-in-state queue in London

Jason Bryant

Members of the multifaith chaplaincy team minister to the queue stretching along the embankment, on Thursday

Members of the multifaith chaplaincy team minister to the queue stretching along the embankment, on Thursday

THEY came to the queue in their clerical collars — both those waiting in line, and those ministering to the people waiting to see the Queen lying in state.

On Thursday morning, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York joined the 300-strong multifaith chaplaincy team that had been put together in the days after the Queen’s death (News, 13 September).

Dressed in black clerical shirts and fluorescent tabards emblazoned “Faith Team”, Archbishops Welby and Cottrell were among the Anglican clergy to join faith leaders from other denominations and religions in a chaplaincy team serving the queue.

In recent days, the queue has seemed to take on a personality of its own — being described as a “river of humanity”. When I first wandered along it on Thursday afternoon, it snaked down to Blackfriars Bridge; by Friday morning, it had filled Southwark Park, and officials announced that entry to the queue would be paused for at least six hours.

The chaplaincy team was set up by Lambeth Palace in collaboration with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The head of chaplaincy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust, the Revd Mia Kyte Hilborn, who is leading the team, described it as a “privilege” to be involved.

The chaplains’ duty was to be present not only for those in the queue, but also for those marshalling and policing the event, she said on Thursday. Archbishop Cottrell, who had been out and about with a Sikh chaplain that morning, had been particularly delighted to discover that some of the police on duty were from South Yorkshire, Ms Kyte Hilborn said.

“People beam when they see a chaplain,” she told me — a description that was born out in the testimony of some of the chaplains I met later in the evening, while they enjoyed a cup of tea and a biscuit at the end of their shift.

CHURCH TIMESDaniel Binder and spaniel, Bunter

St Matthew’s, Westminster, on Great Peter Street, is one of several “hubs” that has been set up for the chaplaincy team. When I visited, it was being manned by the pastoral assistant at St Matthew’s, Daniel Binder, and 13-month-old Bunter, the Vicar’s spaniel (though not of the breed which shares a name with the new monarch).

Soon, the chaplains arrived, their legs aching after their shift but full of enthusiasm. “There is a special ministry in hanging around, and just being present with people,” said the Revd Dr Charlie Bell, an assistant priest at St John the Divine, Kennington (Interview, 19 August).

“The Church of England is, to some extent, still chaplain to the nation,” he said. He observed that, in this period of national mourning, there seemed to be an instinctive turn towards the Church, and its clerics. “Wearing a collar on public transport, people have spoken to me more often than before. It was amazing how many people said ‘Thank you for being here.’”

Those in the queue greeted the chaplains with open arms, sometimes quite literally: the Revd Joyce Forbes, an assistant priest at St Stephen’s, Norbury and Thornton Heath, in Southwark diocese, described meeting a woman in the queue who gave her a hug as soon as she saw that she was a chaplain.

“I felt quite honoured to offer myself for this role — I felt it was something practical I could do,” Ms Forbes said, in what was a common refrain among the chaplains. Like most, the Revd Obi Chike, chaplain of University College London Hospital, had not yet been able to go into Westminster Hall to see the Queen’s coffin lying in state; but she felt able to honour the Queen “by supporting those who were coming to see her”.

Unlike journalists (and MPs and their guests, according to a BBC report on Thursday), chaplains do not get to skip the queue (unless they also happen to be members of the House of Lords). One who had just finished his shift had a quick cup of tea before heading off back down the river to join the end of the queue. Dr Bell intended to do the same, having been inspired by the conversations he had had during his shift.

They would not be the only people wearing dog collars in the queue. There were, the chaplains observed, a fair number on show. “I even bumped into my vicar!” Ms Forbes exclaimed; and it turned out I had met him, too, several hours earlier.

The Revd Geoffrey Riba-Thompson, who is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norbury and Thornton Heath, had been queuing for nearly four hours when I spoke to him on the Albert Embankment Path, across the river from the Palace of Westminster.

“I want to make a physical effort to pay my respects,” he said, and walking past a coffin was “the most ancient and simple way to show respect to someone who, in a way, you love, and who certainly you admire”.

Much later in the evening, on the same stretch of the Thames, I bumped into another priest in the queue. The Revd Trudie Wigley, Rector of the Swindon Dorcan Benefice, had travelled to London with her husband, Andrew, and their two children.

Lambeth PalaceThe Archbishop of Canterbury speaks to a person queuing in Lambeth on Thursday, as part of the multifaith chaplaincy team

The late Queen had “embodied servant leadership in a world that sometimes fails to value it”, Ms Wigley said, explaining how she and her family had wanted to show their respect, and witness this “historical moment”.

Grace, her daughter, was still in her school blazer, having left class early to travel to London. It was around 9.30 p.m. when I met them, and stewards estimated that there was probably another three hours left to wait.

The queue was expertly managed by a combination of volunteers and contractors, all of whom seemed full of energy, despite the punishing length of their shifts: one employee I spoke to, who was engaged in a constant stream of banter with the people she was shepherding, had a 13-hour overnight shift.

The efficient organisation extended to separate provision, with timed entry, for people who were unable to stand for hours. After meeting the chaplains, I was standing outside St Matthew’s talking to Mr Binder when a woman came up and asked whether the church was open.

“Thank goodness!” she exclaimed when I told her that it was. “I’ve got a timed entry in a little while and wanted to find a church where I could sit and think.”

 

PILGRIMAGE” was a word that came up several times in conversation, both with the priests I met as well as the laity. “I’m here to pay homage, to pay tribute,” said Brian Orrell, a churchgoer who had made one of the shorter journeys to the queue, from his home in south London.

He was conversing with William Campbell, a Church of Ireland congregant who had flown over from Belfast. The two of them had met in the queue, but when I encountered them, they could have been mistaken for friends of many years standing (rather than “just” three hours).

Mr Orrell had been prepared to wait much longer than the eight or so hours that were, at that point, being projected. The hardship, he said, was part of the point, and in itself a way of paying tribute, a sentiment with which Mr Campbell — who has walked the Camino de Santiago — agreed.

Rather sheepishly, I had to admit that journalists were able to skip the physical trials and slip straight to the destination, at which point, I left them to take up a late-night slot in the press gantry in Westminster Hall.

The pictures being livestreamed by the BBC tend to focus on people as they pass the coffin, with most bowing, a few crossing themselves, and some executing an uncertain but still dignified curtsy.

What the TV doesn’t show is the people as they walk away, having completed their journey. They trod awkwardly, with even the youngest and the fittest showing the effects of being on their feet for eight or nine hours. Some took an extra moment to view the coffin from the doorway. Almost everyone wore the same expression: a far-off look, slightly lost perhaps, but sombre and reflective rather than stricken with grief.

The vast and ancient hall, with its grand wooden ceiling, was weighted with the silence of more than one hundred people, the only sounds being their shuffling feet and, every 20 minutes, the more certain footsteps of the changing guard.

Outside, as they emerged through the gates into Parliament Square, the spell seemed to have been broken. They chatted amicably, and turned on their phones to take photos, make a call, or to find the route home.

“I can’t believe we did that,” I overheard one woman say to a friend. “But you know, if it had been easier, it wouldn’t have meant the same.”

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