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Interview: Colin Still cruise-ship chaplain

24 January 2014

'I am classified as an entertainer'


I got this job by applying to the port chaplain in Southampton. He is responsible for the Church on the High Seas, part of the Mission to Seafarers ministry. They have chaplains in 260 ports in 71 countries around the world, and provide services to help crewmen and -women in distress. They run seafarers' centres, do ship-visiting, and assist with cruise-chaplaincy placements. I think it was in 1995, and I've done 24 cruises on the Mission's behalf.

It's not a sinecure or a holiday. One of the big problems is that you only meet the passengers and crew for a very short time. The challenge is to get to know them, and to get as high profile as you can. It's a seven-day week: there's no let-up, no day off, and on a long cruise that can be quite demanding.

You have the awesome responsibility of the spiritual care of all the passengers and crew, whether they're Christian or not. It's like being a parish priest who is responsible for all his parish, whether they come to church or not.

After a death on the ship, which, on a long cruise, is quite likely to occur, you provide bereavement counselling. There are happier occasions, such as the renewal of marriage vows. I also do counselling, and one or two of the crew generally come to me for confession. Much is confidential, of course.

I make an effort to spend time with the crew, because, in a way, they're the ones that need a special ministry, being on board for nine months at a time.

I am classified as an entertainer. It's an anomaly, but everyone on board has to report to someone, and in my case I report to the cruise director, and then on to the captain.

You have to try to get the best time for your services that you can, but there's a big demand for the public rooms on the cruise ship.

One of the difficulties is finding time for mass for the crew, because of their workload: not everyone stops at the same time. We juggled between eleven o'clock at night, which a few attended, and three in the afternoon, when quite a number have their rest time - but it was never easy.

I've never been seasick. I love being at sea. My first expedition on board ship was on the Bergen line, with the Scouts, when I was 16. We went across to Norway, and that was a very rough crossing, but I survived it without being sick. The large ships are pretty stable these days, and you get used to it.

A world cruise is for four months. You do miss home, but you are so busy with every day's demands, and the planning and preparation for tomorrow.

With the advent of emails, you can keep in touch, but they are quite expensive on board; so we take advantage of the internet cafés in the ports we visit. This is vitally important for seafarers who are far from home for so many months at a time. The Mission to Seafarers provides these facilities in its centres in many of the ports.

It is quite a relief to get home. I am exhausted by the time I finish four months at sea, and it's nice to see your friends and family.

We go to some wonderful places. In the world cruise that we did last year on MS Balmoral, when the BBC were filming The Cruise: A Life at Sea, we visited 33 ports in 20 countries, and in every port there were excursions.

I agreed to take part in the series because I wanted to highlight the role that a cruise chaplain plays on board a ship. Many people have no idea that there is a chaplain on board, and I felt that it was an opportunity to encourage the cruise shipping lines to reconsider having a chaplain on board for grand voyages, as many of them have ceased to do so.

We've become much more of a secular society, and that's reflected in the passenger manifest, which is the list of the names of all the passengers on board. But also it's a matter of money: I occupy a cabin in the passenger area of the ship, and on a world cruise that's quite an expensive item. I don't get paid for being on board: I get board and lodgings for services rendered.

The television series didn't reflect the whole picture. Two people died on board, and my times with the relatives were private. I held a "chaplain's corner" every morning in the lounge at 11.30, but much of what the passengers shared with me could not be filmed.

On a world cruise, I was able to visit the Mission to Seafarers centre in Tasmania, and the Mission chaplain in Brisbane. I conducted a Sea Sunday service at the Mission in Sri Lanka, on the Saturday before Easter, and then in Gibraltar I met the Mission's port chaplain.

There are over 1.3 million men and women at sea, and they are very often lonely. Sea Sunday is a service that the Mission to Seafarers sponsors to encourage parishes at home to remember seafarers. They have problems such as isolation, family issues, unsatisfactory working conditions, or abandonment. They need our prayers and our help. They are not just keeping us fed and entertained on cruise ships: we depend on them to deliver over 90 per cent of imported goods to the UK.

At one time I was honorary chaplain to the National Theatre in London. There were two nurses permanently at the theatre, and I used their section as my base. So there's the link of caring for the physical and spiritual side of people. On cruises I do try to visit the medical centre every morning.

I once met Sir John Gielgud. The difficulty at the National was there were three plays a night, and there are over 500 people backstage. I would go into the green room with my clerical collar, and many actors would think I was in a play.

I worked for Shell after being in the Army. A colleague there was a great influence and a great friend. I was 32 when I was ordained. I worked in Kingston-upon-Hull as a curate, and then became the domestic chaplain to two Archbishops of York, Donald Coggan and Stuart Blanch, before going to Church House in Westminster, where I worked as the recruitment secretary, at the same time having a parish in Surrey. Then I moved down to Guildford diocese and became the Canon Missioner at Guildford Cathedral, and also the ecumenical officer.

Retirement? We never really retire. I've been retired for 18 years now, and I'm just as busy as I was before retirement. The great joy is that now I don't have to go out in the evenings, or attend lots of meetings.

My mother died four years ago when she was 94. When I got back from the world cruise, she was absolutely overjoyed to see me, and a week later she died. She had obviously waited for my return, which was something very special. I have two sisters and a brother, and we are a close family. Whilst on the Balmoral, I was able to see my niece, who was born in Canada and now lives in Sydney.

I regret that I never knew my father. He was killed in the Second World War, when I was only nine.

I love Sydney and Brighton. Brighton's lovely because I am fortunate to have an apartment facing the sea. I've visited Sydney 11 times.

I'm not a great reader. I'm too nosey or interested in what's going on, even on train journeys and flights. I enjoyed The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, about Michelangelo. I quite enjoy Dan Brown's books, too.

I like to use Bible stories about people who had made journeys as a theme for many of my cruise services. Ruth is such a lovely story to read in its entirety. Many of the passengers said they had never read the whole thing.

Music is very important to me. It enables me to relax, and I play music most of the day. I'll give you three: Allegri's Miserere, Fauré's In paradisum, and Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, which always brings tears to my eyes.

I'm a reasonably peaceful person, but I got annoyed when I learned of the decision of the Government to arrange the commemoration of the beginning of the Second World War this year. I think there is nothing to commemorate about that. I think we should be in sackcloth and ashes.

I'm happiest when I'm in my own home, looking out to sea; while at sea; being among friends and family; or in the countryside.

My prayers are linked with what is happening, offering up the day to God, and being reassured that he is with me in whatever happens and whatever I do. I keep a special prayer for seafarers.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with Donald Coggan. He was a very special person, a great influence on me, and I learnt so much from him. He had a good sense of humourand a very deep faith. He regarded his chaplains as his sons, becausehe had two daughters but nosons, so we became a part of his family.

The Revd Colin Still was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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