As a chaplain in the Royal Air Force for 25 years, Nick Barry has seen more of the world than many parish priests. With the recent news of British troops returning to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, the new vicar of St Lukes Church spoke to Tristram Colledge about his experiences in the war-torn country and as a civilian in Jersey
FATHER Nick Barry has experienced at first hand the full horrors of war. Speaking to the seriously wounded, the dying and the emotionally traumatised as a chaplain at the field hospital in the Camp Bastion airbase in Afghanistan, he knows of the full brutality that a frontline soldier can face.
The 54-year-old is also familiar with the gut-wrenching anxiety of heading into the heart of a danger zone, but also with the spirit of camaraderie binding the servicemen and women together.
‘It was such an extraordinary place to be a chaplain,’ he says, speaking from the rather more comfortable surroundings of St Luke’s Vicarage at Longueville – his home since he moved to the Island with wife Felicity last August.
‘The hospital looked after all the coalition forces plus the Afghan army, police and civilian population, who were frequently injured by the Taliban. We also treated some of the insurgents themselves.
‘It was incredibly busy. I saw things that I’d never seen before and hope I never see again,’ he said. ‘At the same time, I saw some extraordinary efforts to save people’s lives. The ingenuity and skill of the medical staff were astonishing. To be the priest in the middle of all that, amid all the death and destruction and terrible injuries, was an immense privilege.
‘It’s something that I will reflect on for the rest of my life because it was so significant.’
As the father of two shares his memories, the impact of his time in the Middle East is etched on his face. He speaks freely, with poise and emotion about the tough times, the barbarity of war and the intense heat, but also the moments of togetherness that he felt among his compatriots that underpinned those moments.
‘I didn’t know what I would feel. I knew how hard it was going to be because I’d spoken to people who had done the job before me,’ he said. ‘As it turned out, I found great strength in my faith and I took great strength from the fact that I knew back home there were significant numbers of people who were committed to praying for me every day.
‘I found that I had a deepening sense of the truth of what I believed.
Mr Barry explained that as the hospital’s chaplain, he would be the first port of call for the majority of patients and soldiers – regardless of their religion or faith.
‘One of the interesting things about being a military chaplain is that most people preface what they say with, “I’m not religious, but …”. I’ve heard a lot of that for 25 years,’ he said.
‘However, following that “but”, people of all ages and backgrounds would then ask really searching questions about life and death, about ultimate meaning and the significance of our existence. That led to some fascinating conversations. Certainly not all of them became enthusiastic Christian people keen to explore the faith, but I think a lot of people left with a much greater understanding of what they believed about life and death.
‘The young men and women faced questions they had never faced before. Most of us don’t think about issues of life and death because it’s not there, but when you see people your own age dying, that does focus the light a bit.’
Amid the carnage and chaos at Camp Bastion, Mr Barry carried out the more typical duties of a priest, delivering sermons and conducting ceremonies – some of which provided much needed comic relief.
‘We had a tent for our Sunday services and everyone turned up armed to the teeth. It was quite surprising, really. They’d stick all their guns under their chairs during the service. I certainly felt very protected – as long as they liked my sermon that is!’ he said with a broad smile – one of many during this interview.
That warmth and humour have carried him a long way, from his theological training in Oxford to his first parish church in London and into the RAF, where in addition to Afghanistan, he had stints in the Falkland Islands, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq and served in many parts of the UK, as well as in Germany and Cyprus.
He also achieved some prestige, rising to the rank of deputy chaplain-in-chief – the second highest rank of chaplain in the Air Force.
Speaking about his entry into the military, he received a much wider training than many of his clergy peers. Although he did not have to learn combat skills, he did develop leadership qualities and a strong military knowledge, not to mention having to maintain a high level of fitness.
‘You had to develop the necessary skills so that if you were deployed in an operation you would be able to look after yourself and not become a burden on others. You had to contribute fully to the life of the force deployed,’ he said.
‘We had to do all the same fitness tests and meet the same requirements as anybody else in the force. Every six months throughout my career we had a compulsory fitness test that you had to pass. For most people it was do-able, but it required you to maintain a reasonable level of fitness every day. Just turning up on the day wouldn’t really do it.’
After so many years in the RAF, last year Mr Barry came across the position at St Luke’s in Jersey. He says he was intrigued by the prospect of moving somewhere he knew little about, and when his application was successful, he instantly took the opportunity to return to his parish priest roots.
Although he acknowledges that working at the St Helier church is a very different environment from war-torn countries and UK air bases, many of the challenges are not too dissimilar.
‘The balance is different, and it’s certainly a change of gear, but there are similarities,’ he said. ‘While I had services and congregations in the military, the vast majority of the population was not part of my church, whereas for a parish priest, a large amount of your time and effort is put into the life of your parish church.
‘The other part of your life is spent encouraging the church to reach out into the community to develop its connection and service to the community. A military chaplain spends a lot of time working in the community with people who don’t go to church, so the two things do have a similarity, it’s just that the emphasis is slightly different.’
At the foundation of Mr Barry’s duties, his ‘bread-and-butter’ work is the same – speaking and listening to people, whether it be traumatised soldiers or faithful devotees, in military tents in the scorching heat of desert, hospital wards or, indeed, in the heart of the Jersey community.