IN WHAT is believed to be the first time for the Church of England, pupils at a school in the diocese of Bath & Wells have been commissioned as chaplains.
The scheme is being piloted at St John’s Primary School, Wellington, by eight children from Year 5, aged nine to ten.
The chaplaincy-development adviser in the diocese, the Revd Mike Haslam, said that the project was inspired by a similar one run by the Roman Catholic diocese of Clifton.
Eight pupil chaplains at St John’s have been divided into two teams. One group, the Story Chaplains, help to lead collective worship and special services at the school; the others, the Service Chaplains, will contribute to a dementia project in the neighbourhood.
Each team received training from Mr Haslam and the town’s primary-school chaplain, Helena Power.
During a recent commissioning service, each child was given a cross and a chaplaincy tabard after promising to “care for people and to live and tell stories of God’s love”.
Mr Haslam said that the scheme was more than just appointing some children prefects to help out the teachers. “There is a particular spiritual element to it. They want to learn and discover more about the Christian faith, and to express that.
“Listening to them, you are keenly aware these are amazing Year 5 children.”
Although some of the students are already Christians, and see the chaplaincy as part of their spiritual journey, most of those involved do not come from Christian backgrounds but want to find out more about faith, Mr Haslam said.
They are being mentored and supported in their new responsibilities by Ms Power. “She is working with the children on a weekly basis to help them develop and grow in their role,” Mr Haslam explained.
Besides extending the ministry of chaplaincy to more people, he said, he was particularly excited by the prospect of “rewilding the Church”.
“I thought, appointing children feels like wilding the Church,” he said. “We don’t know quite what children will do, and that’s wonderful. It’s the grace of God being expressed through the innocence and trust of children.”
In this way, pupil chaplaincy tied in with ongoing work throughout the C of E to encourage greater lay ministry and leadership, part of the Renewal and Reform programme, he suggested.
One of the children described being selected as a chaplain as an “honour”, because it opened up “so many different experiences that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t a chaplain”.
Because they were ministering to their peers, the pupil chaplains could reach children in the school in a way that even Ms Power could not, Mr Haslam said. “Without a shadow of a doubt, they offer something distinctive. It’s not just the professionals who can be ministers, whether lay or ordained: it’s about encouraging and enabling people where they are to live out their Christian faith.”
The project grew out of Mr Haslam’s discussions with other educators, Churches, and youth charities, through the Centre for Chaplaincy in Education, where he chairs the trustees.
The Centre would like every school in the country to benefit from some kind of chaplaincy service by 2030. Mr Haslam said that, although the pilot project at St John’s was only a few weeks old, two other schools were already keen to launch their own pupil-chaplaincy schemes in 2020.
“I think it’s a fantastic way to extend the ministry of chaplaincy, and allow the Church to grow wild,” he said. “Let’s see how things grow without trying to control them.”