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A Christian Theology of Chaplaincy edited by John Caperon, Andrew Todd, and James Walters

23 February 2018

Without proselytising you can be good news, says Stephen Cottrell

CHAPLAINCY can be an agent of transformation in those parts of our society which the Church doesn’t always reach. When most of our eggs are in the one basket of parish ministry, these parts of our world — chiefly the world of work — can be neglected. As John Caperon puts it in his contribution to this stimulating collection of essays on the theology of chaplaincy, “a Christian presence in every community is a vision for the Church of England that can simply no longer be achieved solely on the basis of locality or of parochial ministry.”

This theological vision has led the Church in recent decades to explore what we have come to know as fresh expressions of church. Equal attention has not been given to chaplaincy. This book begins to put that right.

Generally speaking, chaplaincy is a growth area. Even though tightened budgets have sometimes squeezed some chaplaincy posts, my experience in the Chelmsford diocese is that, alongside the more traditional chaplaincy ministry in schools, hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces, other enterprising ministries are developing. I am thinking of the work that we do in the Westfield and Lakeside shopping centres, and other workplace chaplaincies; with the emergency services; and in sport. Heading the chaplaincy for the London Olympics in 2012 was an extraordinary experience of discovering the scope and potential of chaplaincy ministry at an international event.

A small criticism of this book is that it does not give all that much attention to these newer chaplaincy ministries, though it is good to see some discussion of how new forms of chaplaincy (and fresh expressions) might be more likely to flourish if we were also able to develop more collaborative expressions of ministry, where parishes, chaplaincies, and fresh expressions worked together to serve a locality that was larger than a parish but probably smaller than a deanery.

This will not necessarily require the legal arrangements of a team ministry, but will need vision and goodwill, recognising that one size very definitely doesn’t fit all, and that one way of ministering cannot reach or serve all people. In the Chelmsford diocese, and several others in the country, we are trying to develop this way of ministering, believing that it will enable us to serve more people by developing new ministries.

But in all the examples that are explored in this book we come face to face with the challenge of plurality in the society that we serve and the multi-faith teams of which we are usually a part. Rowan Williams (Chaplain to the University of York, not the Master of Magdalene, Cambridge) argues persuasively that in “a time when stridently exclusive versions of truth threaten to dominate any discussion of what it means to be ‘religious’ . . . there is an urgent need for Christian chaplains to model . . . generous orthodoxy.”

This, she goes on, is not to play down “the distinctive truth-claims of the Christian faith”, but, rather, to call for “a Christianity confident enough in its own perception of revealed truth not to fear engagement with those whose perceptions differ”. Chaplaincy is not, therefore, simply an extension of parochial ministry into the secular world, but an incarnate and prophetic engagement with that world where the chaplain (working alongside chaplains of other faiths), challenging the secular instrumentalism of our age, offers a new narrative about purpose, meaning, and what it is to be human.

This leads nicely to the book’s interesting engagement with the issue of evangelism. Although another small criticism might be the book’s rather negative caricature of the Renewal and Reform programme, Margaret Whipp reflects helpfully on whether chaplaincy is serving or infiltrating an institution. And James Walters and Charlotte Brady in the chapter on “Chaplaincy and Evangelism” make a helpful distinction between intentional and overt evangelism. The chaplain cannot proselytise. But this does not mean that the chaplain cannot be evangelistically intentional. The story of their work in The Anchorage, a worshipping community centre for students across the higher-education institutions in London, is relevant and moving.

Chaplaincy is a vital ministry within the whole ministerial economy of a Church called to serve a nation. As Williams puts it: “chaplaincy is the public face of faith in a diverse and plural society.” It may seem on the edge for those who still think that the parish is the centre. But in a missionary context this language is becoming less and less helpful; and, anyway, renewal usually comes from the edge.

Chaplaincy builds credibility for the Church in the secular world. This is of huge benefit to the gospel and a powerful good in its own right. This book begins to provide the theological analysis and foundation that the further development of chaplaincy needs if we are to engage effectively with the diverse world of which we are part.

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.


A Christian Theology of Chaplaincy
John Caperon, Andrew Todd and James Walters, editors
Jessica Kingsley £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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