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School Chaplains: Someone to talk to in a storm

by
19 February 2021

School chaplains have never been more in demand, Pat Ashworth learns

Gordano School

Gordano School, Portishead, near Bristol

Gordano School, Portishead, near Bristol

GORDANO SCHOOL, Portishead, a 2000-pupil community school, wondered what it might be getting when it appointed its first ever chaplain. The appointment followed two years of discussions with Portishead Churches Together, which was offering to fund the position, and Becky Cox took it on at the very beginning of the first lockdown last March.

She has been physically in school since last September, and, such is the need, her hours have been doubled. It has been “crazy busy”, she says in wonder. Also chaplain at a children’s secure unit, where it took a couple of years to build trust, she comments: “I thought it would be the same here. But, actually, because of Covid, a lot of the students are wobbly. All the uncertainties are very hard for them. They just need somebody to talk to.”

The words “someone to talk to” and “safe space” unfailingly crop up in conversation with or around school chaplains, who have been more than proving their worth during this last turbulent school year. The chaplaincy-development adviser for the diocese of Bath & Wells, the Revd Mike Haslam, said that, in many instances, they had been caring for the staff every bit as much as for the students.

“There is a sense of people still being in shock. Living through this storm has been utterly exhausting,” he said. “As chaplains, we create safe spaces. We can be there to hold a school or college or other organisation in that space. School chaplains have done an astonishing job, which includes caring for bereaved families, staff, and students.

“They have spent hours and hours listening and mentoring, on Teams and Zoom; they have created and delivered reflective worship; they have helped with food deliveries and worked with foodbanks; they have sourced technology for students who didn’t have it.”

He recalls an observation by Ben Ryan, formerly of the think tank Theos, likening chaplaincy to the Hogwarts Room of Requirement, “That magical room that can turn into anything from a war room to a bedroom. We can turn our hand to anything we need to.”

Becky Cox, Gordano School chaplain

And, aside from the need to sound off about things, in an age group that has arguably had the most interruption to its lives during the Covid-19 crisis, there is also evidence of a ferment of ideas. Mr Haslam referred to a chaplain in one further-education college who had been circulating everyday questions “about the world, life, and faith in equal measure”, and getting more than 100 responses to every question. A staff Christian Union had also proved viable on screen in a way that it had never previously been because of timetables and split sites.

The challenges for school chaplains had been considerable, he said, not least because they did not naturally work in bubbles: “Covid has taught us to be in bubbles, and chaplains work with every year group in school, every department, every team.”

Ms Cox’s list of of children identified as needing a listening ear has got longer and longer. She has now also taken on pastoral responsibility for the whole of Year 7; “So I’m spending a lot of time ringing round the ones who might be struggling, along with the list of those I’m meeting here in school.

“That ringing round has added a new dimension. Usually, you don’t get to talk to the parents much. But I’m now having long conversations with them, and finding out what they’re finding really hard. They’re on their own at home, they’re not seeing anyone, and I think they’re just pleased that someone’s asking them how they’re doing.

“I’m not very spiritual in my conversations generally — I’m very much led by who I’m talking to. It’s just offering that support that those of us who belong to churches take a little bit for granted. People who don’t have that don’t necessarily have someone they can reach out to and say, ‘This is really tough.’”

When the country locked down again more severely after Christmas, she was unsure whether the school would consider her as an essential worker and still want her to come in. “But they said, ‘We need you,’’’ she said happily. “It’s nice to feel useful, that I’m making an impact here, that I’m walking on ground God had already prepared. It’s my heart’s passion.”

She intends to go forward for ordination, and has told the two pubs to which she is also chaplain: “I’ll turn up here in a dog collar in a few years’ time.”

 

BOARDING-school pupils have been coping with the same challenges, but with some unique ones, too, not least the unfamiliarity, for many, of living at home with their families instead of having the constant companionship of their friends. Some overseas students have been unable to return home, and remain in school with separately housed day pupils who are children of key workers.

Lancing CollegeThe Lancing chaplain, the Revd Richard Harrison, rehearses a pupil for a reading

The schools’ strong tutorial system was a benefit, said the Revd Richard Harrison, Chaplain of Lancing College, a Woodard school with a high proportion of boarders. “Every tutor talks to their tutees at least once a week, as does their housemaster or housemistress; so there are plenty of us around.

“Some pupils have found themselves strengthened by having to become more self-reliant. There have been opportunities, too, for families to show generosity — taking in overseas boarders during the holidays, for example. And charity work has actually been strengthened as groups devise ways of doing things online.

“But some have found it really hard working at home in their own bedrooms, while their parents and siblings are also working from home. Fifth-formers are worried by uncertainty over what will replace GCSE exams, and the upper sixth are upset because all the things that should be marking the end of their time here may not take place.”

Confirmation had not been able to happen for the large group that had been prepared for it, Fr Harrison said. But online worship, recordings, and even “reading stories to the prep school” continued, with a weekly eucharist. “We pray for a different House each week, and ask as many as can go online for that to be there.

“The Christian Union carries on meeting; the music department is doing things; and the chapel choir remains a really big part of the worship here. We have developed a whole new way of doing services, and brought out voices you wouldn’t have heard before — which, bizarrely, is an upside.”

Fr Harrison is also now producing for the pupils a second series of 12 videos, “Faith with Father Richard”, exploring aspects of Anglican faith along with readings, prayers, and hymns. These are filmed in Lancing College Chapel — the largest school chapel in the world — to which they hope to return in the summer.

 

THE Revd Cathy Porter, part-time Chaplain of the Minster School, Southwell — a secondary school with almost 1600 pupils on the roll — took up her post after last Easter, at the very start of the restrictions. She would normally be in school for part of every day, but has been going into the building once a week for the whole day, to work face to face with children earmarked as particularly needing support.

She has also created a virtual space called the Heart Space, open to all the students in the school, where faith can be explored and activities suggested to boost well-being and give the children much-needed head space.Lancing CollegeThe Lancing College choir carol service, recorded and released online

“There is a growing level of stress across the board,” she says. “There have been many losses that we have had to go through — not just because people have been bereaved, but the opportunities that come with the normal school routine, and the friendships and the freedoms. Some of the more subtle losses will take time to come to the surface, but are definitely there.”

The virtual space is open whenever she is working. She describes it as “a bit like being on live chat all the time, constantly available. It’s a challenge, given our circumstances, but I’ve been blown away walking alongside the teachers I work with.

“They are giving 200 per cent of themselves and more, and it’s been unbelievable to be part of a community like this — such a privilege to be able to walk alongside. What they are offering is astounding, frankly: they are a lifeline to these young people. At times, I have felt very protective, feeling there should be more acknowledgement of that to help them to keep going. They have adapted to every little nuance of having to do things differently.”

Before our conversation, on the day when she was in school, Mrs Porter had just had someone in for 20 minutes of “just letting go of everything, allowing them to feel, and then just to pick themselves up and get on. I’m not a line manager to anybody, so they can say what they want to say and then get on. They can get that necessary support. It’s not that I can fix anything, but I’m there.”

Preparing, filming, and editing online worship for the school has been a steep learning curve, using technology she had never known existed. Chaplaincy is filling a lot of the gaps that people have, she says, “being in the gaps where you can’t be physically present.

“At the beginning of the outbreak, nobody knew what could be possible, and what might work. We have had to learn to be a community in different ways; we need to be supporting of one another and there for one another. Life is pretty raw for a lot of people at present; so we need to work harder than ever at finding ways to connect.

“We have taken for granted in the world of clergy that community happens, but it actually takes a lot of work. Our calling is to take God into the midst of it.”

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