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University chaplaincy: about more than kind words and pizza

07 June 2019

University chaplains are a lifeline to students in distress — but their remit extends well beyond pastoral care, says Garry Neave

FOR many new students, their time at university is a startling, exciting, confusing, and joyful experience. But, for some, this transition brings out unexpected anxieties and vulnerabilities which they do not necessarily have the capacity to resolve on their own.

Good pastoral care and support can mean the difference between seeing through their course with confidence, or feeling that they have no choice but to drop out. Universities have made great efforts to provide that kind of support, which makes it striking to read — in a new report, Chaplains on Campus: Understanding chaplaincy in UK universities (News, 31 May) — that, in the view of one university manager, “What chaplains provide . . . is potentially more important than what we provide in terms of ongoing support.”

The report shows that chaplaincy is a safe place for exploring this time of transition. Not surprisingly, pastoral care is a core part of a chaplain’s ministry, which is often linked to the increasing importance of support for those students who are vulnerable, who face mental-health issues, or who are estranged from their families.

Yet it is not only younger students who need support: part-time and mature students require it, too. Care leavers, meanwhile, particularly need support: they are 38 per cent more likely to drop out of university than their peers, and only 12 per cent go on to higher education in the first place.

Pastoral care of students is about more than just helping with an immediate personal crisis, however: it is also about helping people to explore the wider world, and how they will contribute to it and shape its values and character. As Rowan Clare Williams writes in A Theology for Chaplaincy: Singing songs in a strange land (Grove Books), chaplains can give students a sense of community, and of values and virtues for the common good.

It is also true that chaplaincy is more than what one cynic has called “kind words and pizza”. It can also present people with uncomfortable challenges, pushing people to think beyond the confines of their own academic discipline, explore matters of ethics and faith, and deepen their ability to debate and disagree on the fundamental questions of life and the nature of society.


SUCH challenges are not confined to students: university leaders, academic and professional support staff, decision makers, and politicians are all faced with questions about the purpose and funding of higher and further education. Naturally, and uncomfortably, those questions are also generating uncertainty for institutions, their leaders, staff, and governors.

Perhaps it is chaplains — who are intimately part of the university community, yet at the same time independent of it — who can earn the freedom and the credibility to ask some of those difficult questions, and to pose challenges to those who are faced with equally difficult decisions.

Thanks to this report, we know that there are more than 1000 people, two-thirds of whom are Christian, engaged in chaplaincy work at 167 UK universities. The majority are funded by bodies such as the Church of England and other denominations; about one-fifth are funded by the higher-education institutions themselves; and a number are jointly funded. We also know how important the contribution is from those who are volunteers: the report estimates that time being worth more than £4 million a year.

We also know that chaplaincy teams are increasingly diverse, as institutions and faith bodies try to reflect better the faiths and beliefs of the communities that they represent. Interestingly, students look to chaplains who have integrity and confidence in their faith, along with what we might have expected: empathy, approachability, being non-judgemental.

Given that the UK is a pluralist society, what kind of vision do we offer that can build up our local and our national communities, especially at a period where it sometimes seems that we are preoccupied with staking out our differences from our neighbours, especially over matters of faith and belief? One possibility is offered by the Revd Dr Jim Walters, chaplain at the London School of Economics. His book Loving Your Neighbour in an Age of Religious Conflict (Books, 3 May) highlights a vision of the common good, and shows how we might do so by ways of collaborative living.


THE Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, has described chaplaincy as “an integral part of our Christian mission”, saying that, “if we are to build a society that nurtures the common good and supports human flourishing, then we must ensure that our system of education is built around these principles, too.”

Today, at Canterbury Christ Church University, a group of academics, chaplains, university leaders, and those concerned about matters of faith and belief in higher education will spend the day working out how the key recommendations of the report can be put into practice.

Bishop Dakin says: “Look out . . . for a new collaboration between chaplaincies, local churches, and student organisations; so that we can practically express what it means to follow Jesus in a way that the next generation will want to participate in, and is able to lead.”


The Revd Garry Neave is the C of E’s National Further and Higher Education Adviser.

Read the report at www.churchofengland.org/chaplainsoncampus.

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