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Themes among chaplains

23 September 2016

Stephen Venner looks at an area of study that can be a Cinderella


A Handbook of Chaplaincy Studies: Understanding spiritual care in public places
Christopher Swift, Mark Cobb and Andrew Todd, editors
Ashgate £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



HAVING worked with chaplain colleagues in the fields of education, the health service, and the military, I was looking forward to reading this handbook. Once I had grasped that this was a handbook of chaplaincy studies and not a handbook of chaplaincy, I began to appreciate the value that it will have not just for chaplains themselves, but for those considering the place of a chaplain in their organisation and for all of us who seek to live out our faith, day by day, in our own contexts.

This book is one in a new series looking at the changing shape of the Church and its role, function, and ethos in contemporary society. The editors found that chaplaincy provided an important clue to the future, and asked for contributions from academics and practitioners. So this book not only provides insights and challenges to an ever widening range of chaplaincies, but contributes to the current debate about the place of religion, faith, and spirituality in our culture.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first places chaplaincy in its social, political, and academic context. It explores the rise of chaplaincy as the institutional Church grows smaller, and looks at the changing place of religion in society and the public sector.

The second section drills down into some of the key themes. There are chapters on the place of the law and ethics in chaplaincy, issues facing multi-faith working, including the management of multi-faith spaces, the interface of psychology and spiritual care, and the importance of supervision and support.

The third section discusses the four traditional forms of chaplaincy in the health service, the military, prisons, and education. There is a broad introduction to each; each is placed in its context; and case studies bring them into human focus.

Despite the wide range of contexts in which chaplaincy is exercised, there are common themes. In particular, as chaplains deepen their understanding both of their particular work context and also of the faith institution that they serve, pastoral care and “brief encounters” enable a chaplain’s work to be both religious and spiritual among those who would not identify themselves as religious. Further, they can make a unique contribution to the “mission” of the organisation in which they work — a contribution that is recognised and valued.

Perhaps my one sadness about the book is that all of its studies are of traditional chaplaincies. It would have been fascinating to hear, even briefly, from some newer forms — street pastors, chaplains of care homes, football clubs, etc. And in the future it would be good to begin to map this expanding field.

This handbook will provide some challenging food for thought for chaplains, and, I think, underlines the need for chaplains to get together across disciplines to explore commonalities and differences. As the handbook concludes: “Chaplains span religious and secular organizations because of their membership of the former and practice in the latter, and in so doing they become fluent bilinguists and benefactors of the accommodation afforded by a liberal politic and a moderate form of secularity.”

As I reflect on this handbook, I see how important it is for all those exercising chaplaincy to be rooted within their faith tradition. Yet the articles in the book hint strongly that chaplains feel themselves and their work to be marginalised by the faith community to which they belong — not least the Church of England.

I still remember speakers in the General Synod who repeated the mantra “The parish is the heart of the Church of England” rather than “a heart”. Of course, we say that chaplains and chaplaincies in all their variety are more than that, but it is a very rare occurrence to hear of a church really wanting to hear and learn from those who have experience and expertise ministering in “secular” contexts. It is even rarer for such people to be appointed to episcopal or other leadership positions where their experience and gifts can be shared more widely.


The Rt Revd Stephen Venner is a former Bishop of Dover.

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