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Finding Faith on the Front Line

The Archbishop with Senior Aircraftswoman Emma Zweig of 617 Squadron

Thursday 10th March 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, visited Royal Air Force Lossiemouth to meet RAF personnel recently returned from Afghanistan.

For Royal Air Force personnel preparing to deploy Afghanistan their days are filled with training; physical fitness, courses to complete and kit to pack. Once in Camp Bastion they have access to a gymnasium and an education centre – but they are also welcome to visit a small green tent marked only with a wooden makeshift cross. As a stark reminder of spiritual welfare in the military the RAF has played host to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury authorises Church of England clergy to work within the Armed Forces, and each year visits one of the Services. This year it was the turn of the RAF" explained Venerable (Air Vice-Marshal) Ray Pentland, Chaplain-in-Chief (RAF). "The visit is important in that it gives the Archbishop insight to the work of the RAF and of course his Chaplains and as an opportunity for members of the RAF to meet the Archbishop face to face."

With Station Commander Group Captain Hine in flight simulator control roomThe Archbishop started the day with a flight in a Hercules aircraft crewed by 24 and 30 Squadrons based at RAF Lyneham. On arrival at RAF Lossiemouth he watched as aircrew preparing to go to Afghanistan took part in a Tornado GR4 mission in the flight simulator, before meeting personnel recently returned home from Op HERRICK and taking part in a question and answer session.

"People are aware of the costs and the price that military personnel pay in all sorts of ways, including the family" His Grace commented. "I think that the maintaining of thoughtful professionalism in the middle of crisis is one of the great messages the RAF can give to us. To be thoughtful and generally reflective and empathic in the middle of conflict is hard work, and requires real personal qualities."

The Archbishop was asked about the need to have a 'church' on an Operational base. "Church is where you put the stuff which won't go anywhere else. In everybody's lives there are moments that don't fit easily into your normal way of operating. You need to know you can go somewhere where the uncomfortable bits are taken seriously. It maybe a moment of trauma and loss, it maybe when you are at the end of your tether when you just don't know, it maybe something you've done which you don't know how to cope with.

Looking at images taken by RAF photographers in AfghanistanIn the Armed Forces there needs to be somewhere where those uncomfortable questions, which make you feel weak or vulnerable, can be listened to and not laughed off or buried. I think this is what draws people to the green tent and church buildings in unlikely places. This is especially the case when you are in an environment where it doesn't do to show your vulnerability or feelings too often, and you have to do something with it."

As he left, the Archbishop passed on a message for personnel serving on Operations. "I would say they are not abandoned and they are not alone, there are people around to support them and that the Church is there through the chaplaincy, not necessarily with answers to questions but to be there and to show that it is possible to maintain a real trust in hard times."

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