Marginal work offering more than fringe benefit

by
13 March 2015

For too long the Cinderella of ministry, it's time for chaplaincy to take centre stage, argues Ben Ryan, author of a new report

THERE'S currently a strange paradox in the world of religion and society. One well-worn narrative will tell you that religion (including Anglicanism) in the UK is in decline. Every year, a new survey demonstrates that the proportion of Christians in the UK is smaller than in the past. When even the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey is claiming that the Church is one generation away from extinction, surely we ought to pay attention. More than that, the nature of Christianity demands that - beyond paying attention - something actually needs to be done about this trend.

The interesting paradox comes from a second narrative, which also ought to be worthy of serious attention. At a time of increased secularism, and demands to limit religion to the private sector, perhaps surprisingly chaplaincy in the UK seems to be a growth industry. Indeed, chaplains keep cropping up in the most unlikely places.

Where once chaplaincy, at least in the public eye, was a phenomenon limited to prisons, hospitals, the military, universities, and public schools, today media reports focus on chaplains to shopping centres, sports clubs, and airports; even the London College of Fashion (Features). Given the first narrative, one might have expected chaplaincy to be first in the firing-line; instead, the model seems to be spreading. 

THIS paradox ought to raise some serious questions for the Church of England, and how it sees its chaplains. It ought to consider why chaplaincy seems to be growing (at least in some areas), and what that tells us about an effective presence in the public square. Just why is it that chaplaincy is booming in this unpromising public environment?

One answer might lie in the very nature of 21st-century British society, which is as individualised and unrooted in community as it has ever been. People move careers more than they used to. They move home - especially younger people, who are more likely than their parents to go away to university, and significantly more likely to be forced to spend a large portion of their lives in rented accommodation.

It is a society less bound by traditional institutional loyalties and identities. (Political-party membership, for example, is at a historic low; and the likelihood of minor political parties' gaining significant portions of the vote is higher than it has ever been.) Little wonder, then, that many parishes struggle to fill the pews: what point is there in forming close links with a parish church, only to move on soon afterwards?

COMPLAINING about this situation won't help. Society is not going to revert to what it once was. Instead, it is the Church that needs to adapt. To fail to do so is to fail to fulfil its mission to go out and preach the gospel, to do good works and reach people. Unless it adapts, it will consign itself to irrelevance. It needs to show itself capable of adapting if it is to be relevant, vibrant, innovative, but, above all simply present in people's lives.

Chaplaincy can be a response to this need to adapt. It is an old model of ministry, but one that seems especially suited to our current scenario. Chaplains have the great advantage of being, by their very nature, public figures who operate outside the usual church buildings and structures.

Furthermore, the range of settings in which chaplains are now serving is quite extraordinary. In the course of research for a new report on chaplaincy by Theos, A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK, we encountered chaplains in theatres, hostels for the homeless, and ports, on public transport, and in town centres, sports clubs, and even a casino. This spread into such a diverse range of fields is illustrative of the ability of chaplaincy to adapt, and to find ways of reaching people in the unlikeliest of settings.

Besides this, the work that is going on in some of these settings is quite remarkable. A sport chaplain had set up a gambling support network; a school chaplain, employed by Christian Youth Outreach (CYO), was working on a scheme to improve the self-esteem and confidence of schoolgirls - to rave reviews from other staff at the school. Meanwhile, chaplains in a paediatric hospital were developing programmes to meet the spiritual needs of teenagers with terminal illnesses, and to support staff.

These are innovative and powerful witnesses to the work that the Church can do in a public setting, that are unquestionably both relevant and critically important to the service users involved.

FOR all the good news stories, we should be clear that chaplaincy is not without its challenges. There are pressing issues of funding and sustainability in various settings. The realities of multifaith work in the 21st century mean an ongoing process of negotiation and compromise. The greatest challenge for Anglican chaplains, however, may not be persuading their own workplaces of their value so much as convincing the wider Church.

Chaplains frequently complain that they are an overlooked ministry, perceived as being somehow tangential to the core business of "being Church". We can overstate this: individual sectors are often the responsibility of a nominated bishop, who works hard to maintain good networks of support. None the less, it is a perception frequently reported by chaplains, and one that ought to be addressed.

Chaplaincy, despite its long history, seems particularly well suited to some of the problems faced by today's Church. It is time that this ministry was put front and centre in discussions on the future of being Anglican in the public square. Supporting and resourcing this expanding ministry should become a priority for the Church of the 21st century.

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos.

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)