Filling a chaplaincy gap

by
17 February 2017

Jeremy Clines praises a contribution to a neglected subject

Chaplaincy Ministry and the Mission of the Church
Victoria Slater
SCM Press £19.99
(978-0-334-05315-6)
Church Times Bookshop £18

 

 

VICTORIA SLATER’s volume on chaplaincy is the best single-author Christian theological book about chaplaincy to come along in almost two decades. It considers the nature of chaplaincy and — by way of empirical research — explores what chaplaincy means to the Church and how the Church’s mission and ministry can be re-understood as needing chaplaincy as a central genre, if not a pillar.

It is an outstanding book, partly because it is the only book of its kind; there is no similar work. It is also significant since the author is a chaplaincy expert — working and researching in chaplaincy — who interacts directly with the work of other recognised experts in the burgeoning area of chaplaincy studies — i.e. Christopher Swift, Mark Cobb, and Andrew Todd’s A Handbook of Chaplaincy Studies (Routledge, 2015), which includes a chapter by Victoria Slater and also the report by Andrew Todd, Victoria Slater, and Sarah Dunlop.

What shines through here is her extensive knowledge of the existing discourses on chaplaincy and also what she perceives as lacking in them. It would not be possible for one book to deliver all that is needed for the topic, but it is the best offering to date.

One main original feature is the interpretation of her empirical research through an ecclesiological and missiological lens. The bulk of the chapters (two to five) use this previously unpublished research to narrow the book’s trajectory; focusing on the growth of innovative Church of England parish-based “chaplaincy roles in community contexts”. This attention results in significant insights for innovative ministries. It also means that lessons from new pathways in chaplaincy can serve to contribute to — but not make — an over-arching theology of chaplaincy (the publishers claim more than that on the back cover).

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There are areas of substantiated strength, which still invite some further questions. The book suggests its own originality in providing a theological interpretation of chaplaincy. This is mostly true, though this volume does mirror the diverse collection of theological reflections on chaplaincy practice offered in Being a Chaplain edited by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and Mark Newitt (SPCK, 2011). Slater draws on the earlier book, which she regards as mainly descriptive of practice, where I would want to suggest that practitioners’ “narrative theologies” and the fulsome reflections in introduction and conclusion ably contribute to chaplaincy theology.

I also wonder whether I entirely agree with the assertion that chaplaincy innovation “out-strips any theological reflection on practice”. The book develops this assumption and identifies a theological vacuum needing to be filled: “until there is some degree of clarity on what makes ‘chaplaincy’ chaplaincy as distinct from other areas of ministry, it’s impossible to address the question of its significance for the mission and ministry of the Church.”

Before reading, I would have assumed, solely, that there was substantial and meaningful reflective theological practice in nearly every setting where chaplaincy was being undertaken by lay and ordained — in the identifying of a need, in the shaping of the role, in planning the work to be done, in carrying it out, by reflecting on the process and refining the work — at the work-bench of ministry. I am persuaded, by the book, that articulating the underpinning theology for these diverse ministries in such a wide variety of settings matters.

As the book concludes, what is offered, of even further substance, is a very useful and comprehensive structure for assessing, developing, and implementing new chaplaincy ministries in the penultimate chapter. This may help chaplaincy developers and practitioners hone their theologies, ecclesiologies, and missiologies, without being definitive about what such thinking needs to look like.

 

The Revd Dr Jeremy Clines is the Anglican Chaplain at the University of Sheffield.

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