Dean pays tribute to PC Harper

“PC Andrew Harper: part of that ‘thin blue line’ that holds and binds our communities together”

The Dean of Christ Church will pay tribute to PC Andrew Harper who lost his life while responding to an emergency call out in August, in his address at the policeman’s funeral later today.

“The tributes that have poured in for Andrew exemplify a truly outstanding young man – but also the very best virtues in policing,” the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy will say. “He represented policing at its best. He was everything you wanted in a police officer.” 

The service is expected to be attended by several hundred members of Thames Valley Police, as well as PC Harper’s friends and family. As well as speaking about PC Harper as a much-loved husband and son, the Dean will use his address to pay tribute to the work of the police more widely.

Dr Percy will describe PC Harper’s death as “completely unexpected, sudden and tragic”, reminding us of the routine risks that police officers take every day.

“To all of you here, gathered from Thames Valley Police, we extend not only our sympathy in the loss of such a valued colleague, but also our deepest thanks for your sacrificial service to our communities.”

He will go on to talk about the “thin blue line” that threads us together.

“In a world of private choice and individualism, our police stand for public duty. In a risk-averse society, our police are often exposed to danger. Our police embody a life of sacrifice and service. They are outside our political divisions, because they stand for values in law, order and society that are beyond any partisan differences. And so quite rightly, they inspire trust and confidence.”

Before the service, Dr Percy said that it was a privilege to be able to hold the service at Christ Church. “We feel a close link with Thames Valley Police because the force covers the exact same area as the Diocese and the community we serve as a Cathedral. Christ Church is also the place where Robert Peel studied, and later founded our modern police force, so the police are very close to our hearts.

“We extend our deepest condolences to PC Harper’s widow Lissie, his parents and all those who mourn him today and hope there is some small comfort in gathering to mark his loss today.”

The Dean’s sermon in full is available below.

The Thin Blue Line: PC Andrew Harper

Let me begin by offering our heartfelt condolences to Lissie, Andrew’s wife; to Phil and Debbie his parents; to Sean, his brother, and to the wider family - Katie, Jake, Karen, Phil, Julie, Simon and Amy. And of course to many, many colleagues and friends in the Thames Valley Police Force, and all those people and places that Andrew’s life touched and transformed through his life. We extend to you all our love and prayers at this time, and in this deep and shocking loss. May you find solace and solidarity in the comfort and consolation of mutual loss. We are all with you in this.

Andrew joined Thames Valley Police as a special constable in 2010, before becoming a regular police constable in 2011 and working for the road policing unit. One month before his death, he had married his childhood sweetheart Lissie.  They had been expecting to go on honeymoon only weeks later. PC Andrew Harper lost his life in the line of duty on Thursday August 15th.  He and a colleague were responding to reports of a burglary in Sulhamstead.

Andrew’s completely unexpected, sudden and tragic death reminds us of the routine risks that police officers take each day. No-one ever anticipates an ordinary call-out ending in such tragedy. To all of you here, gathered from Thames Valley Police, we extend not only our sympathy to you in the loss of such a valued a colleague, but also our deepest thanks for your sacrificial service to our communities. Such a terrible loss brings us face to face with the risks you take on our behalf. Thank you.

The tributes that have poured in for Andrew exemplify a truly outstanding young man - but also the very best virtues in policing.  Some might say he was an ordinary man doing an ordinary job. I disagree.  He represented policing at its best. He was everything you wanted in a police officer. Andrew was brave, authentic, genuine and kind. He was decent, fair, moral, cheerful, level-headed, generous and well-loved. He was a grounded man: a husband, son, brother and colleague. We mourn his loss deeply.

Perhaps through the TV series, we are pretty familiar “the thin blue line”.  Traditionally, it refers to our police, who stand between law and order, and social and civil anarchy; between chaos and order; or between criminals and the potential victims of crime. 

Yet this same line does not cut through our society; it does not divide us. Rather, we cherish our thin blue line because it surrounds us all and is woven amongst us, giving us that important sense of safekeeping.  It connects us across neighbourhoods and communities. It threads us together.

I own several books on British policing. But without doubt my favourite one is Anthony Judge’s fine 1972 study and reflection, called A Man Apart: The British Policeman and His Job (a title that reflects a different era, granted: Trowbridge: Redwood Press, 1972). Here is what he says on the first page:

“The one hundred thousand men and women who belong to the British police service are members of the most closely knit professional community in society. To be a policeman is to be part of an in-group which rejoices in its uniqueness. When the Royal Commission on the Police was given the task of deciding how much a constable ought to be paid, it found itself unable to fall back on the standard solution of comparisons with other occupations, because a policeman does a job which defies equation with any other. Policemen and policewomen, in short, are different” (p.1).

Actually, they are unique. Not much has changed in almost forty years since Judge wrote his book.  There are 122,000 police today.  But also nine million more Britons.  The same challenges that existed then are with us now.   In a world of private choice and individualism, our police stand for public duty. In a risk-averse society, our police are often exposed to danger. Our police embody a life of sacrifice and service.  They are outside our political divisions, because they stand for values in law, order and society that are beyond any partisan differences. And so, quite rightly, they inspire trust and confidence.

It is appropriate that we gather here today to mourn PC Harper. In this Cathedral Church of the Diocese, one of the largest in the Church of England, we cover the same counties as the Thames Valley Police: Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Like our police, we deal with tears, laughter, tragedy and calamity: in short, all of life and the breaking points of human existence.  This is the place where Robert Peel studied, and later founded our modern police force. Under Peel, our police became an established protective civilian force; independent of politics, and answerable only to the law. 

Anthony Judge reminds us that throughout police history, their main purpose was “service to the community” (p.2).  Our police are guardians of liberty; they care for our citizens. They have to work in some of the darkest corners of society, with the worst behaviours, and somehow find the strength to contain any harm. We don’t expect our police to come to harm; they keep us from this.  It is a role that is sometimes un-loved, and often goes un-thanked; and yet is always respected. The thin blue line serves society.

Despite all the difficulties policing faces, there is a deep-rooted and popular perception that they are men and woman apart from society. I don’t agree. They’re utterly earthed in our communities, counties, cities and neighbourhoods.  They mind us locally and nationally. They are our modern ministering angels: guardians for us, watching over us - as sentinels posted to protect us. As Andrew Judge says in the final sentence of A Man Apart, “it is not by accident that the traditional figure of the bobby is taken to epitomize all that is best in Britain and its way of life”. The best of British.

Many of you will have been deeply touched by the many symbolic gestures that marked PC Harper’s death. The flags at half-mast; the minutes of silence; a football game in his memory; animal charities supported that he also loved to help; paramedics and other emergency services with their tributes; the huge response of the public in outpouring thanks and love. Such tributes are to be treasured. They do not take away the pain of loss.

Today, we mourn the loss of PC Andrew Harper who died in the line of duty. But even as we do so, we remember and give thanks for all who continue to give duty and service through policing - who selflessly serve society. This “thin blue line” threads us together, reminding us that bravery, duty and sacrifice never lose value. Those who embody such virtues will continue to inspire us - as PC Harper does.

Our reading today from I Corinthians 13 was chosen by Lissie.  The famous biblical passage from St. Paul is often used at weddings and at funerals.  With good reason: for grief is one price we pay for true love.  Most people remember the passage for the ending: “faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love”.

But in older versions of the Bible, the word “love” is rendered as “charity”, and that is a kind of cherishing - deep, attentive kindness and love for those who are hurting. Down the ages we have come to see this love as the highest Christian virtue.  As God stooped down in Christ to love humanity, so God’s call to his people was to exercise a love for others that was not about self-gain, but rather about self-giving.  Charity is Christian love in action; a way of being for others that treats them with respect and dignity, and has concern for their needs and well-being. This is something that Andrew practiced.  And it is not just personal, for it goes to the heart of policing too.

We don’t live in a perfect world. Every neighbourhood has its rough edges.  Things go wrong from time to time.  But living in society remains the same: it is about belonging together in love and charity, in faith and hope.  Saint Bernard of Clairvaux a French monk from the 12th century, used to advise younger abbots, and his counsel seems to be particularly appropriate for today.  I’d like to think this is how Andrew went about his job, and also what is best about our police.  Bernard said this: “Notice everything.  Turn a blind eye to some things. Correct a little. Above all, cherish your brothers and sisters”. 

In the midst of our shared grief today, you’ll already know that some of Robert Peel’s finest principles of policing are exemplified in Andrew’s life. Our police are not apart from society. They are one with us. We measure their effectiveness not by what we see, but by what we seldom see. For the true test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of dealing with them. Sometimes the price of this goes well beyond any normal call of duty.

Today we remember and give thanks for PC Andrew Harper: part of that thin blue line that holds and binds our communities together. And one, that though strained and tested in times of tragedy like this, remains unbroken. And now stretches yet to Andrew, whom we still cherish, yet see no longer.  The partial will come to an end; the complete will come, and we’ll be fully found together again. Love, in the end, conquers all.

The Very Revd Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.