I spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon with The Royal Engineers (22) and Padres at Perham Down yesterday afternoon. This is the bit of the Army that does a lot of the heavy civil and mechanical engineering – the people who dig ditches, put up temporary bridges, clear land mines, move inconvenient trees…in other words they get to use and maintain some incredible machines. Seeing a tank lift a bridge into position within a couple of moments is impressive…but more of that in a moment.
I’d been invited to join a group of ordinands from all over the country who were being given a few days introduction to Army Chaplaincy. I just went along for the afternoon, to see my local bit of Army, meet some more Padres and understand a bit of what the people living and working close to and within my parish get up to. It also gave the ordinands a chance to chat to a parish priest.
I should make it quite clear that I have enormous respect for our Armed Forces, for the things they do and the sacrifices they make on my behalf, so that I don’t have to. I know that I could not do the things they do, and I am grateful to them. But I am at best ambivalent about war and ‘martial Christianity’, so I was intrigued when one of the Ordinands asked how you preach “turning the other cheek” to a fighting squadron.
The question opened up a useful discussion about the process of going to war…and reminded us that there is always a long political process before that point is reached. Force is the last resort of the politician, and lethal force is the last resort of the deployed soldier. The Padres saw their role as ministering to those who are trained to be that last resort, and so do the job in front of them rather than worrying too much about the bigger questions. They, like the soldiers whom they work alongside, have done their thinking long before deployment. Instead, they are dealing with men and women who are trained to use lethal force under very specific conditions, and who then deal with the consequences of killing, and of seeing friends hurt and killed. This is a hard enough task, without trying to go back to justify political processes. Here is a ministry where there is death to deal with, not just physical death, but the death of dreams through injury. But it’s also a ministry to a bunch of very alive human beings, with all the joys that entails.
It also reminded me of how tight each grouping within the armed forces is. Here are people who live, work, fight, live and die alongside each other. No wonder they rightly are proud of their affiliations. It creates different issues in the parishes around the bases, as people leave the army and return to Civvy Street. My parish contains one corner of barracks and army land, but nearly everyone here has army connections. The move out of being directly part of the family can be hard for some. Rarely have I been part of such a useful and thought provoking lunch!
For me, the highlight was watching a tank deploy the bridge (no, no photos!). The bridge was upside-down on the top of the tank, attached at the front, and the tank’s hydraulic ram just pushed it up so it pivoted over and ended up in front of the tank. Unpin it, and Bob’s your uncle. It’s a bridge. Clever stuff, and then we got to climb around the tank. For me, the smell of hot oil on hot metal will forever evoke my previous life, and I found myself having to explain to a bunch of highly amused blokes why I was standing by a tank exhaust, sniffing the fumes. We saw some brilliant engineering (yes, I love massive bolts too, and the number of nut jokes was large, please refrain!). That explains the hot metal reference…..
The holes and stones were in evidence on the training ground – the place on Salisbury Plain where they are allowed to dig holes. Serious holes. Deep enough to hide a tank. Not, as one of my colleagues observed, a good place to hide a body. I had to chuckle talking to the Captain, who explained to me how to do the equivalent of a handbrake turn in a tank. “It makes a mess of the ground, but luckily I’m of a rank where I just order someone else to make it good again!” Sure enough, 22 spend a fair amount of time digging holes and trenches and then filling them in again. It’s not often you see a large expanse of chalk dug over several feet deep over and over again. There wasn’t much flint in evidence – it has all been ground up! The delicacy with which the huge machines manoeuvred was something to behold – it’s very skilled work. And the stones? A few large ones, kept specially for training. We’re not talking Stonehenge, but there was some big rocks about. And in between times, they learn to move the machines fast from place to place. Another revelation. I’ve followed tanks on tarmac a few times now, but when they decide to go fast on dirt tracks, that’s quite something. And dusty.
And finally – a field Communion Service, with a makeshift altar of a couple of blocks of wood lying around, within the shelter of some of the training rocks, and a cross made from shell casings. It was a beautiful day, but it wasn’t hard to imagine when it wasn’t. Psalm 18 and the story of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman whom the crowd wanted to stone connected with the stones and flints around, and in the Padre’s address with gravestones and violence too. This isn’t a ministry which ducks the difficult issues in life and death. I am seldom part of a service I don’t lead, and to be able to be part of this service out on Salisbury Plain has given me a few moments to treasure.
I know I’m not fit enough to keep up with Army Personnel. But my already healthy admiration for them and their Padres has increased exponentially.