London Heathrow Airport (LHR), with over 75 million passengers passing through each year and providing roughly 75 thousand jobs to the local economy, is one of the busiest transportation hubs on the planet. Airports of this size like to think of themselves as “cities” in their own right, but of course that isn’t really true: there may well be people, and the presence of many of the amenities that people need, but there are few, if any, real residents. If I recall correctly, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS), another of Europe’s premier airports and a previous employer of mine, has only one official resident: the harbour master (in Dutch the word for airport, “luchthaven”, is literally “air harbour”; to be consistent with other harbours the airport needs a legally recognized and resident master).
But never mind. Every day an awful lot of people pass through these 12 square kilometres of London, representing a wide variety of needs, and it is little wonder that communities of the world’s great faiths have responded by placing representatives at the ready. These “Chaplains”, twenty-six of them – a few full-time, most part-time – serve the transient population, workers and passengers, in spiritual, emotional, and practical support. (See here for the website of the association which represents over 200 airport chaplaincies world-wide. Tip to travellers: the airport chaplain often has the best network in the airport; contact them if you need help!)
About fifty years ago three Christian denominations put their heads together and decided to build a subterranean chapel at Heathrow, the Chapel of St. George, located right at the heart of the 1960’s airport. In the primarily Christian, mono-cultural period in which it was built, this Chapel served as the hub of Chaplaincy activity. Today, still centrally located for Terminals 2 and 3, and the Central Bus Terminal, St. George’s is no longer the hive of activity it once was. Society has become multi-cultural and pluralistic, and the airport has built impressive new terminals away from the core.
The Chaplains have moved on with the times too: only a handful use the Chapel as their base. Most are out and about in the terminals – Terminals 4 and 5 being at some distance – using the small offices connected to Terminal Prayer Rooms as the launching point for their walkabouts. The original corps of Christian Chaplains has been expanded to include Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Jew, and Hindu.
For many years the Chaplaincy has been led by a string of capable “Lead Chaplains”, those who in addition to their activities as a Chaplain also provided the necessary administrative and coordinating roles for the group. Two years ago an initiative was taken to do something new: to create a position within the management structure of the airport authority itself (“HAL”, Heathrow Airport Ltd.), to take over the coordinating requirements and provide better integration of Chaplaincy activities in the life of the airport.
So, gentle reader, that is what I am trying to do. I have been placed within the Customer Relations and Service Team, reporting to its Director; at the same time I remain a priest in the Church of England. The role is so different from any other airport chaplaincy position that I am left to define much of it as I go along.
But now you know, more or less, what keeps me busy!