Hillsborough +20

My wife held the phone out the window… Her Liverpool-fan brother had hoped to see the match taking place literally at the bottom of our road, just 400m from our door of our new home in Sheffield. However, the closest John got this time was absorbing the sound of the atmosphere of fans passing our house towards Leppings Lane over the phone.

This was 15 April 1989. The occasion: the Liverpool vs. Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final taking place in Sheffield Wednesday‘s home-ground – Hillsborough. Before the day was out, Hillsborough’s name would forever become linked with the events beginning to unfold. These are some of my personal reminiscences of the following hours, never previously recorded – sorry for the long, and rather over-personal post.

We were not around during the actual start of the match, as we had visitors with us for the day. We had moved just three weeks before to the parish of Wadsley, on the north-west edge of Sheffield, where I was the new curate. We had gone out to walk in the Peak District, on the west edge of the parish, which also stretched east into the centre of Hillsborough. Pausing for an ice-cream from a van, the girl serving asked if we had heard about the match – we asked what the current score was. She said it had just been abandoned, and there was an emergency. They were calling for help from doctors and clergy. Two of our visiting friends were clergy.

Hillsborough 1989, in Independent: Getty Images

Hillsborough 1989, in Independent: Getty Images

So, back to the house quickly to find some of my spare ‘clergy shirts’ (with dog-collars). Pam was swamped in hers; broad-chested Andy could hardly button his. We went, as requested over the radio, to the hospital to await the arrival of the injured casualties from the ground. It soon became clear few were going to arrive. Many were dead, but very few were injured and hospitalised – despite there being over 40 ambulance available near the scene.

After waiting for some time, as the evening drew on, our friends headed back to their parishes. I had met up with the vicar of our parish, David, and he and I were re-directed back to the football ground. We walked through the Leppings Lane tunnel, stood on the terraces, amongst the bent and broken metalwork where fans were crushed to death. Coach loads of families from Liverpool were beginning to arrive. It was the Liverpool fans who had been at the Leppings Lane end, and all those who died were Liverpool fans.

There had not been many large-scale disasters in the UK before this, and national disaster procedures were not at all well prepared. On this occasion, clergy were joined by social workers with counseling skills, and asked to partner each other as families arrived. Perhaps it was a particularly agnostic or suspicious group of Sheffield’s social workers who looked across at the group of clergy, but for whatever reasons, they decided that perhaps they would be better partnered amongst themselves, leaving clergy out of the loop. As families disembarked from the coaches however, they immediately recognised the significance of the dog-collars and Sally Army uniforms, and flocked towards them, rather than the group of social workers.

Once inside the gym-turned-make-shift-morgue, some details were taken. Many families were already aware that their members had died – it was mainly groups of fans standing together, and when one of the group had died, the others immediately passed the information on, mainly by land-line home phones of local parishioners of mine, as it was long before the predominance of mobile phones.

I will not ever forget the wall with dozens of Polaroid photos of the deceased stuck on it – ‘do you recognise your son from any of these photos?’. Did I mention we did not have many good procedures in place?! 20 years on I am part of the Gatwick airport emergency chaplaincy team, and regularly train in case (God-forbid) of a future disaster. Our plans and procedures are so different; partly as a result of Hillsborough.

I was with ‘Andrew’s’ family. He was in his early 20s. Tall, strong, fit. A most unlikely crush victim. But he had had the life breath squeezed out of him.

By 3am, David the vicar said to me that probably one of us ought to go back home to bed, and lead the services on the Sunday 16th morning. It was a couple of weeks after Easter. We decided David was still deeply involved; I would go home, sleep briefly, then lead the services in church. Many parishioners were shocked by what had happened so close to us. A number of people had opened their doors to the fans, wandering around in need of refreshment and needing to contact families and friends back in Liverpool. Some of my folk shared the gruesome experience of the unfolding horror.

I was just about holding it together for the service, when the door busrt open, and 4 red-clad fans came in to be with other Christians in church in prayer on Sunday. A young lad of about 14, we were informed, had lost his mother yesterday in the crush. I can’t remember what plans I had had for the service – they promptly went out of the window. Our welcome as a church, and our prayers, felt so inadequate; but were so warmly received. I wish I had known their names.

A few days later, ‘Andrew’s’ family were back at the Sheffield city mortuary, for the formal identification. I went with them again. Then a few days later I went across to Liverpool, and at the request of the family, read a lesson at his funeral service. (Later I was embarrassed by the fact that there was another woman clergy colleague, much more experienced and pastorally sensitive than me, who had also been involved – but as a woman deacon, the Roman Catholic clergy leading the service did not know what to do with her, and I was the one who ended up reading.) Years later I saw ‘Andrew’s’ mother on tv, still involved in Hillsborough related campaigns.

Again a few days later, and the bishop of Sheffield, David Lunn, very wisely got the clergy who had most closely been involved, together for a bit of a de-brief. The Archbishop of York, John Habgood was there: as was one of the clergy involved a year before at in the Kegworth disaster. It was a most helpful and cathartic experience. It directly dealt with post-traumatic stress issues for me. Except for one thing…

There were a couple of tv crews there too, later, asking questions of those involved. I kept a very low profile. I waited until all the cameras were put away, and then takled one of the reporters. Much of the coverage was – rightly – focused on “Liverpool – a city in mourning“. But as I had shared in the shock and tears of members of my own congregation, I reminded the reporter that Sheffield too was a city in mourning. The football ground now the focus of the disaster had in the past regularly accommodated nearly three times the number of fans quite safely. Here were others who ached with pain for those who had died too. Thank you, said the reporter, I will bear that in mind. And a moment later, with a tap on my shoulder, he was back, with cameras unpacked again, asking me to go over the conversation again.

In a classic piece of sub-miss-editing, the trailer that went out before the main national news that evening said ‘local vicar speaks out against Liverpool’. I rang my bishop, in horror, claiming I was sure I had said no such thing. He wisely counseled me to await the actual broadcast, where indeed I had not, but simply pointed out Sheffield also shared in the grieving that Liverpool was experiencing.

Hillsborough Memorial, from Wiki

Hillsborough Memorial, from Wiki

The following year, 15 April 1990 fell on Easter Day. For me, for us at Wadsley parish on the edge of Hillsborough, no day could have helped us to better deal with the thoughts and emotions of the year before.

So, what reflections, 20 years on? David became chaplain to Sheffield Wednesday, a post he relished for a further 15 or so years. For me personally, to have been involved in Hillsborough was a painful, but rare privilege. It has been profoundly formative on my role as a parish priest. It has helped me find particular meaning in the resurrection story of Jesus. I am not sure I have any new answers that will make sense to others – but it has been a consistent bolster to my faith over the last 20 years.

May those who died, rest in peace. May those who grieve, also find peace in Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

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The Annunciation

It’s 275 days to Christmas – or thanks to Irenaus who’s quick ‘nine months counting back from Christmas’ calculation called the 25 March The Feast of the Annunciation.

Annunciation by ZVestovanie

Annunciation by ZVestovanie

The fact that it regularly chimes with Passiontide does not go unnoticed, creating interesting theological resonances at this time of year. However, it does mean that at times, clashing with Holy Week, the feast gets ‘bounced’, as it has this year, on to the 8 April. It does not stop me at least remembering the feast today, especially as -

I was inducted as vicar to my first incumbency on the Feast of The Annunciation, and it remains a profoundly formational season for me. The great call delivered by Gabriel to Mary, and her response of Lord, I am your servant – let it be to me according to your will seems entirely appropriate for anyone launching in to a new ministry, which I was 17 year ago today – and again, as I will be starting another new ministry shortly after the ‘transferred date’ for the Annunciation this year too.

In Holy Week, many clergy re-affirm their call to ministry at the Chrism Service, and to have I am your servant – let it be to me according to your will in the forefront of our minds can’t but help sustain ministry, whether ordained or not.

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Join us at the Cathedral

Please come and join us at Southwark Cathedral on 14 April 2013.

Southwark Invitation

Southwark Invitation

Alastair’s installation, along with Archdeacon colleagues Jane Steen and Chris Skilton, takes place at 3pm. The original announcement was made back in December at Henfield, and at Southwark and Chichester.

Friends who wish to come, please do! It would help to have a rough idea on numbers, by emailing or texting/ringing 07736 676106 that you’d like to come.

Those who would like to robe, choir dress with black shoes please.

We would love to see you!

Alastair, Kay, Hannah & Laura

(We are probably moving at the end of May, to Sydenham/Forest Hill. Address on the linked pdf – please update address books! Personal email addresses and mobile numbers as they were.)

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On the Lord’s Prayer

Lord's Prayer

Prayers inspired by the Lord’s Prayer

I recently had to collect some prayers based around the Lord’s Prayer; some I sourced elsewhere, some I wrote myself. They are gathered together under the stanzas of the Prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven

A Prayer to God our Father
Lord God, Jesus taught us to call you Father. Help us to grow in our understanding of you, that we may better each day learn to trust you, and to love you.

Remind us of the thrill a toddler feels when being swept up securely in a father’s arms; help us share in the glee of a child playing pranks with a parent.

As we feel the lifting angst of the teenager taking insoluble homework problems to a parent who can unlock answers; and the adrenaline rush of the learner driver discovering new skills with dad, so may we feel our relationship with you broadening, enriching and deepening.

Father God, may your love for us be reflected back in our love for you. Amen.

A Father’s Prayer
Lord, I need your special care. Like your earthly father, Joseph, I want to do God’s will, even if I may not always understand. Make me gentle and self less in the care of my family and children; help me guide them in the toils and troubles, the happiness and wonders of this life.

Like my father in heaven, Continue reading ‘On the Lord’s Prayer’

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Spirit of Christmas – past?

Lectionary and church diary purists hate it: that ‘Christmas nowadays appears to start in about October, and be over by Christmas Eve’, or certainly by Boxing Day. That’s not Christmas – clergy are heard muttering – that’s Advent… However, maintaining the cry that ‘the Christmas season starts on Christmas Day and carries on until the feast of Epiphany’ is about as useful as King Canute commanding the halt of the incoming tide; despite the popularity of the carol ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’.

However, one multinational still upholds tradition – the Apple iTunes Appstore!

iTunes 12 Dyas of Christmas App

iTunes 12 Dyas of Christmas App

The App Store provides a 12 free gifts over the traditional Christmas period, with a variety of music, videos and apps for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. The variety is deliberately diverse – meaning that some items you might find excruciating – but you will probably find several you like. If you have appropriate Apple devices, try out the 12 days app. You probably wont find ’5 Gold Rings’ – but you might have some fun, sing along with the carol, and celebrate the Christmas Season in it’s traditional position. And keep some grumpy liturgists happy.

12 Days App

12 Days App

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Is this ChristChurch’s Christopher Wren moment?

I’ve been visiting Christchurch for over 20 years, and love it’s iconic cathedral which dominates the horizon is such a prominent feature of the Cathedral Square. Or was. Until the first earthquake, a magnitude 7.1, on 4 September 2010; which caused enough superficial damage for the cathedral to close for three weeks; and then the supposedly smaller but much more devastating 6.3 one on 22 February 2011 which toppled the spire, and the 6.4 one on 13 June 2011, that took out the main Rose Window on the west wall, and made most of the rest of the building so unsafe.

Christchurch Cathedral - Before & After

Christchurch Cathedral - Before & After

This was not the first major earthquake damage the cathedral had suffered – quakes in 1881, 1888, 1901, and  1922 all resulted in damage – the spire falling twice. When I visited the area this week, there were only about 6 tall buildings left in the CBD, all unsafe, one due to come down this week. The shocks still continue. There was another one this week measuring a mere 5.2, but enough to get the whole restricted area completely evacuated again.

Part of the reason for our visit to the area was to see a number of friends, and be with them, and to see and feel at least a little of what they were going through. We met our former neighbours, with their 9-year-old who for 6 months only felt safe enough to sleep if he was under a table;  Continue reading ‘Is this ChristChurch’s Christopher Wren moment?’

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Chocolate Nativity

Last year, David Keen circulated a version of the Chocolate Nativity to folks looking for an idea for an all-age  Christmas.

Who's the real Hero of the Nativity story?

As my local shops had a few different chocolates to the ones in the story I received, I adapted it a little.

If it’s any use to anyone, please do borrow it. You may need to adapt it to local varieties of chocolate!

Chocolate Nativity script

Chocolate Nativity script

:: UPDATE ::
Ooops.
It transpires that I may have done an Emo Philips, as it may be that Stewart Henderson & J.John published a version of this a few years ago:

SweetChristmas

Stewart Henderson & J.John's Sweet Christmas

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Twitter Mission

Twitter. Facebook. Passing ‘Web 2.0’ fad, or useful tool? (expanded from an article written for Together magazine)

Twitter is a ‘micro-blogging’ platform: like texts from your computer, or your mobile phone; they can’t be more than 140 characters long; & can have hyper links to web pages on the internet. Twitter posts can be linked to update Facebook or LinkedIn status, & have geographical position data attached with the likes of Foursquare or BrightKite.

So, it can be a bit of fun, yes. But can it be useful? Or are these Social Media just a waste of time, and a distraction from our Christian call, and God’s mission?

Firstly, Let’s not forget the influence of Facebook, with more adherents than the population of some continents. If you’re on it, you’ll know; and if you aren’t, most of your friends and family certainly are. As are many of the people in, and what is more important here, on the fringes of our churches. These sorts of social media, that are all about making relationships – however tenuous. Relationships are what churches should be about too.

Secondly, these media are very immediate. Twitter is often how news now spreads most rapidly – as we say with Continue reading ‘Twitter Mission’

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Pale-ist

This post isn’t really about hair colour, but one of the things children with red hair have to get used to, is being called ‘ginger’. (Usually ‘Oi, Ginger’ – I should know…)

Red-headed kids

Some with natural ‘auburn’, ‘titian‘ or even ‘strawberry-blonde’ hair have had such abuse that some have called it the last remaining personal attribute to be regularly abused without it being considered discrimination.

However, there is another personal attribute that is regularly and publicly discriminated against in a rather surprising, universal way. It is: being pale coloured, pale skinned; and on the dance-floor.

You may have expected that it is the quality of the dancing that is being judged in the various national dance competitions that are all the rage since ‘Strictly‘ hit our t.v. screens. But no, even the contestants skin-colour is judged.

'Tanned' dance competitor, with fans

And sometimes, skin colour is judged to be lacking. Contestants who have not fake-tanned to some particular colour or shade may sometimes not proceed to further rounds.

I really do find it astonishing that this should be the case. It is like a reverse discrimination. Continue reading ‘Pale-ist’

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Mind the Gap…

I was asked to contribute a bit to the BBC Surrey & Sussex Sunday Breakfast programme presented by Gavin Ashenden, on some of the BBC’s current First Click initiative to help people use internet services, and about online communities, new media and such bits and pieces. Gavin’s page is here, with this week’s listen again (probably only available in the UK, and only for one week) found here. Our discussion verged over email, blogging, Facebook and Twitter; and whether these amount to ‘real’ communities or not. Even the Twurch of England got a name check. The bit where I am chatting with Gavin comes in at about 1hr40min in, though why any one would want to listen again to it escapes me.

The edited down excerpt is available here (probably illegally), so if you really wanted to listen to it click here:

Alastair with Gavin Ashenden 24 Oct 2010
On a completely different subject, I was also asked to contribute to the ’1 minute sermon’ for the week too – and I did it on Gap Years, or at least, Gap Trips.

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

The image above links to a pdf; but the text is below.

The link to Laura’s Gap experience blog on the BUNAC site is here.

“Mind the Gap” says the voice as the doors open on the Tube train on the London Underground; and for just a minute I want share the benefit of a Gap Year, or – in acknowledgement of the cuts as a result of Continue reading ‘Mind the Gap…’

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Electioneering

So, the 2010 Church of England General Synod elections are in full swing. These fortunately only come around every 5 years. Synod is a marvellous and somewhat dysfunctional institution, that many people seem to love to hate – but it is the system of national church governance, along with the bishops, that we’ve got to work with at present. ‘Episcopally led, and Synodically governed’ as the phrase goes.

I don’t really like pushing myself forward (less of the ROFL, thank you…) but having been a Proctor in Convocation (ok, member of synod, in English) for the last quinquennium, several people actually asked me to stand again, so I am taking a bit of a punt again. There can be no assumption of re-election…

Synod Address/Statement

Synod Address/Statement

Candidates are invited to have an address or statement, and this is mine. The text is included below the fold: Continue reading ‘Electioneering’

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