Today I officially took up my position as Head of Multi Faith Chaplaincy at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). In a formal service at the Chapel of St. George, attended by various representatives of the airport and chaplains from both LHR and other airports, I received a license from the Lord Bishop of London at the hands of the Archdeacon of Northolt. Here are my remarks from the occasion:
Archdeacon Green, Chaplains, and esteemed guests: thank you for your presence here today, for the many kind and encouraging words I have received today, for your prayers, and for this opportunity to briefly address you.
Although World Cup football and the Olympic Games claim pride of place in their ability to draw world-wide television audiences (and boy, don’t we hear the crowing about it after each tournament…), still even today the collective human events that draw more participation – requiring one to remove one’s backside from the sofa and actually do something – fall under the label of “spiritual pilgrimage”.
Every year, more than 100 million people participate in some form of journey directed to a holy place. The annual Muslim Hajj alone now averages over 2 million participants. And the largest single human gathering in history, as far as we know, was in 2001 at the Maha Kumbh Mela, a festival held every 144 years in Allahabad, India, which attracted more than 60 million Hindus. Within my own, Christian, tradition we know of many smaller pilgrimages: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, and – more locally – Walsingham, to name but a few.
People of faith know that we are all on a journey. Our scriptures and traditions readily hold out the experiences of faith-filled travelers as being instructive for us as we make life’s bigger journey. Whether it be Mohammad and his Hijra to Medina, Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, the travels of the Buddha in his peripatetic life, or – an event in which all three of the great monotheistic faiths find their roots – the call of Abraham and his subsequent pilgrimage in search of the promised land, we recognize the role of the journey in the formation of who we are as people of faith.
Travel teaches us. It stretches us, removes us from the familiar, surprises us with serendipities, challenges us physically, at times frustrates and confuses us, and throws our daily routines into the dustbin. In sum, the journey opens us to new experiences, to new ideas and new ways of being. This is true for everyone, but perhaps even more so for people for whom the primary lens through which they view life is a spiritual one.
For this reason I believe every international airport, by the very nature of its function, is what theologians call a “liminal space”. Liminal spaces are those places in life – involving ritual, a point of passage, or a threshold – where the normal boundaries of our experience dissolve somewhat, the veil between worlds grows thin, and we find ourselves vulnerable, perhaps disorientated, but also open to transformation. Airports are such a place for many. It’s no surprise then that when Virgin Atlantic did a survey some years ago they came to the striking discovery that fully 55 percent of travelers said they had “experienced heightened emotions while flying” and even 41 percent of men admitted to having cried on an airplane.
Some here may remember Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom exhibited at the Tate. The artwork consisted of slow motion footage of people arriving at London City Airport soundtracked by Miserere, a seventeenth-century setting of the Bible’s fifty-first psalm by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Wallinger, who claimed a fear of flying before creating the work, later confessed that “it was airports I was frightened of, not the plane. It was that incredible scrutiny, the State examining one, which you don’t feel anywhere else. The powerful relief you feel when you finally reach home – or the (place) you’re hoping to reach – seems rather like confession and absolution.”
Is it any wonder that faith communities the world over have identified airports as important places to have a representative at the ready? Not to promote religion, that’s not necessary; rather, merely as a practical matter, a recognition that a large percentage of the traveling public and those who work at the airport will, from time to time, find themselves spiritually and emotionally vulnerable and in need of a trustworthy companion on their journey.
(I’ll not speak to the business case here, only to say it makes extremely good business sense to ensure one’s customers’ needs and employees’ contentment are satisfied and that they know the airport authority had a hand in it.)
My earnest hope is that, whatever else may happen in the years during which I fill this new post, I will at the very least make a meaningful contribution to seeing the Chaplaincy services at Heathrow Airport become more able to meet the diverse spiritual and emotional needs of the traveling public and of those who work at the airport. This, one of the world’s leading airports, deserves a world-leading Chaplaincy. Not so that we might boast about it, but so that we can best serve the common good. I invite you to join with me in working and praying to that end. Thank you.
Caught in the middle of my address.
L to R: Archdeacon Duncan Green, Chaplains’ representative John Mackerness, me, Heathrow Airport Ltd representative Jason Holmes.