Tuesday 10 November 2009, 16:04
The seeds for Sunday Worship from Helmand were sown more than five years ago. I'd always been interested in the role of religion in an organisation where the job - when all else failed and to put it bluntly - was to blow things up and kill people. It took about 18 months from first contacting the Ministry of Defence until Martin Bell and I stepped on to a flight from Brize Norton to Iraq just before Christmas 2006.
We were heading for Basra to meet the Reverend Andrew Martlew, who was then stationed at the Shaiba Logistics Base with 40 Regiment Royal Artillery and the series for Radio 4 was called 'God and the Gun'. In the jargon of the Church his job is known as incarnational ministry. Getting out of the churches and on to the ground. Sharing the lives of the people who need you. And for a padre in the military, that can mean going in to some very uncomfortable places, both physically and spiritually.
The programme was a success, winning the premier award from the Sandford St Martin Trust, but I felt there was unfinished business. 'God and the Gun' was a documentary and came, I hope, with its own insights. But there was another way of exploring the experience of religion in a battle field. Why not through an act of worship? I thought that would allow us to explore the human side of this story at a much more profound level.
'Sunday Worship' is Radio 4's weekly act of worship. Mostly it comes in a conventional form as you'd imagine, from a church or cathedral, but occasionally it goes 'out on the road' and is recorded as a feature - still recognisably an act of worship with prayers and hymns, but with added documentary elements.
When the causalities started to mount in Operation Panther's Claw everyone I spoke to in the military told me that the atmosphere on Remembrance Sunday this year would be different. In July I suggested recording a Sunday Worship in Helmand on the themes of sacrifice, service and remembrance and that Andrew Martlew, who's still a serving padre, would be the ideal man to do it.
So, after a lot of behind the scenes negotiation with the Ministry of Defence, that's how we found ourselves early one October morning once again at Brize Norton waiting for the RAF flight to Afghanistan. When you're making a programme dealing with such powerful and emotional themes, getting the right tone is the most important and difficult challenge - giving an honest account of what the people serving this summer in Afghanistan have been through, without being voyeuristic and sensationalist, or sentimental and mawkish.
I'd be lying if I said that I had an exact image of the tone I wanted for the programme and I think I'd doubt any producer in similar circumstances who told me they had. I don't believe you can ever have an advance plan; you've just got to rely on your antenna and thankfully, in this case, your presenter. We were interviewing the sergeant major of the hospital in Camp Bastion. He's a member of the Territorial Army and in civilian life worked for BT. In Helmand he found himself, among other things, in charge of the mortuary.
He'd steeled himself for preparing the bodies of soldiers for repatriation; what he didn't expect was to be wrapping in shrouds the bodies of young children - victims of accidents who'd been brought to the hospital, or who'd been caught up in the fighting, and sometimes victims of IEDs - those roadside bombs can't tell the difference between a British soldier and a local child.
As the SM told us, you can't see the sight of small children in large body bags without it changing you and not surprisingly he started to cry. And so did my presenter Andrew Martlew. But then something extraordinary happened. Something which I, coming from a documentary production background, had never encountered. Andrew Martlew the presenter, instinctively and unselfconsciously became Padre Martlew, the army chaplain. He reached out to that soldier knowing, in a way that only another soldier would, what he was going through and offering comfort and reassurance. For chaplains, this is what incarnational ministry is about.
For me this small moment, mirrored countless times in different guises, distilled the essence of remembrance from a soldiers' perspective. This is the window I wanted to open for listeners. I think only Sunday Worship could do that and perhaps only an army padre would understand what tone to take. And there were three people crying in the corner of that ward in Camp Bastion hospital.
Phil Pegum is a Producer in the BBC's Religion & Ethics department
Join the discussion...