Yesterday was an unusual day. Which is, of course, not exactly news. In these turbulent times, each day tends to reveal its strangeness, especially if you read a newspaper. But for me, it marked the end of a decade’s invovlement in Whitehall.

Being Available… in the cafeteria

It’s not been a huge commitment, but since I started speaking at the odd event in GOGGS (the Government Offices on Great George St) in 2008 and then becoming chaplain to the whole building, I’ve been going in for 2 or 3 days a month. It’s all very lowkey and informal—the buildings intranet home page published the days I was in, and people would book me up to chat in the cafeteria. When I wasn’t booked up, I just got online to do some work. It wasn’t a big deal and suited me down the ground to have this regular commitment (especially as I started travelling more and more).

What was astonishing was how often someone new would get in touch for a chat (at least one or two a month). I reckon as many as 40% were unconnected with churches. It could be about anything—a bereavement, relationship pressures, work stress, wrestling with moral dilemmas, you name it. For a number, it helped that I was in the work environment of the building and therefore trusted (just like everyone there, I had to go through vetting processes). But I wasn’t part of the system and so was never going to write a report or feed something back to others.

It also helped me significantly in my own life and work, since it provided me with a glimpse of life in an ‘ordinary’ work environment, rather than being hived off in some holy huddle of Christian meetings etc. It was a privileged opportunity. Sadly, however, the last few months have forced a reevaluation all my different commitments and it has been necessary to cut back. I want to do fewer things better than lots of things badly. So it was the right time—and I’m working on someone to take over from me (for what is essentially a volunteer and unpaid role). Yet I will miss it. I have made many good friends.

Witnessing transformation… over a decade

The political and national context of a decade ago seems so different from today’s. Unimaginably so. Gordon Brown had been PM for over a year, leading a Labour administration that felt as if it had lost its way (not least because of the aftermath of Tony Blair’s enthusiastic participation in the 2nd Iraq war). There followed the first Coalition government in almost living memory, and then the Tories on their own, offering up Brexit. Whitehall has changed considerably too. The huge building used to be home to HM Treasury at one end and HM Revenue and Customs at the other.

But property downsizing, shifting work patterns and (perhaps) a more logical distribution of non-policy jobs around the country since they had no real need to be near Westminster). So now, the building contains Treasury, bits of HMRC, half of the Cabinet Office (including Parliamentary Counsel), Dept of Culture Media and Sport, and various other bits and bobs. It’s a fascinating crowd.

Almost without exception, the individuals I’ve met over the years are impressive and capable, very concerned to work for the country as they serve the government of the day. But these are turbulent times. And change always challenges; there is a lot of stress around in Whitehall, because these are the people who must figure out what to do in the aftermath of others’ decisions.

There is a group of Christians that meets weekly, and many others in the building who don’t make it. I’ve tended to let them get on with that group and go when invited on occasion. I’ve also done an informal lunchtime Communion once or twice a year.

So it was quite fitting yesterday to end with one last communion. The context was important. The air of calm professionalism was still evident, but the stress of the moment was palpable in almost everyone I saw. Theresa May was facing a vote of no confidence as Prime Mininster last night—if she lost that, the UK would be in even turmoil. But even if she didn’t (and of course she survived), the uncertainties and stress remain, with the current March 29 Brexit date looming large.

We gathered in a small meeting room that functioned as a library for those who draft all legislation. The walls were covered in legal books, including a whole section on European law. Whatever happens in the future, we will always need to be aware of EU law. It is all incredibly complex and brain-boggling.

What an extraordinary thing then to sit together round a long table sharing this ancient ritual of a meal, being reminded of ancient truths. It put everything into perspective. Kingdoms rise; kingdoms fall, but God doesn’t. It was very moving, at the end of our time together, to declare one of the oldest liturgies in the book. That was a truth to help us face our times.

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