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Portraits of chaplains in a pandemic

09 April 2021

A new series of portraits captures the faces and stories of chaplaincy in pandemic-hit London. Report by Vicky Walker

Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Padre John Vincent CF

Padre John Vincent CF

WHEN lockdowns changed life across the country, the London-based portrait and celebrity photographer Louise Haywood-Schiefer’s attention was drawn to the community activity of her church: Christ Church, Gypsy Hill.

Conversations with the Vicar, the Revd Jonathan Croucher, led her to explore the world of chaplaincy and the functions that chaplains provide. “I realised there are chaplains everywhere, which I hadn’t known before,” she says.

Inspired to pick up her camera, she toured the city, meeting and photographing chaplains in their workplaces and talking to them to about their work before and during the pandemic.

The result is “Keeping the Faith: London Chaplains in the Time of Covid”: a project that she describes as capturing the moment in time when “a big city just came to a standstill”.

Starting the project during the second lockdown, close to Christmas, focusing on Christian chaplains became a theme. Her awareness of chaplaincy before this had been minimal.

Although her love of church buildings was an incentive — “I’m not religious in any way, but I do love churches. I love the spaces. I love the architecture. There’s something about the places that I find very peaceful” — the project led her beyond church walls.

Surprised to find how many places chaplains could be found across London, her travels took her on to a boat, an Underground station, a prison, and a football club, as well as into the heart of politics in Westminster.

“I’ve always I’d been intrigued by the little chaplaincy rooms in airports. I’d be curious: who needs a chaplain at an airport? What’s that about? And then, obviously, I got in touch with one, and found out.”


PHOTOGRAPHING chaplains has given her insights into the part they play with their “passing congregations of people”, and the challenges that they face. “They’re the people that people turn to in times of crisis,” she says. “In many ways, that role is possibly more important than ever. But also, they’re human, aren’t they? And I was just interested in how were they dealing with it.”

She found herself surprised, too, that “chaplaincy is for everyone, no matter your religious belief. I hadn’t realised that.” She goes on, “I think I always imagined that if you were a religious person, you’d go and take comfort in your local vicar.

“But, actually, maybe having someone there at that time — and you might not even know that you need them — is important. Just the listening ear. Everyone wants to be listened to.”

She found the motivations of the chaplains she spoke to inspiring. “They just want to do good. They genuinely want to help, and I think that’s a really lovely thing. And I suppose that’s the thing that we could all probably learn from [them] is just listening more to each other, and just wanting to help each other.”

The conversations appear to have benefited the subjects as well as Ms Haywood-Schiefer. “Quite a few of them emailed me afterwards and said that they really enjoyed it, and found it quite cathartic thinking about the last year.”

Creating the project has been “sort of my saviour”, she says, and she expects it to continue as she discovers more places that chaplains serve, even after she returns to commercial work: “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.”


The Portraits:

Padre John Vincent CF (see main image), chaplain to the Household Division, The Royal Military Chapel (The Guards’ Chapel)

Soldiers are trained to deal with what’s in front of them; so fighting Covid is no different from fighting a physical enemy in terms of approach, but usually that involves deploying on operations and being away for six months at a time. 

It’s easy to isolate yourself from your family if you’re 2000 miles away in a desert somewhere, but, when your family is just a short journey away, some people have found that a challenge.

When you’re on an operation in a war-zone you face all sorts of restrictions from your movements and daily routines, to not being able to see or even speak to loved ones for weeks on end.

The way you deal with it is to ask yourself, “What can I achieve today?” rather than think of how many months more there might be.

That’s been my mental approach to this, and I’ve tried to enjoy and cherish the things I am able to do.


The Revd Christiana Asinugo, Chaplain for the Westfield Stratford City

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

Life in Westfield is usually bustling. You walk in here and you are reinvigorated, even if you’re feeling low, because of all the people and all the staff who are pleased to see you- for me it’s life giving.

I’m sure many of the staff feel the same because it’s where they spend a lot of their time, making friends and being a family here. For Coronavirus to just take it away from them in a blink of an eye, it must have been very hard for them. I’ve been in touch with some of the unit managers and one of them told me, because of the way things are, that staff have been told if they find a new job elsewhere they should just take it. There has been a complete loss of hope and an insecurity about what the future would bring.

I’ve been in a few days to speak to the security guards and others who are around, and when met with the emptiness and the quietness of the shopping centre I found it heartbreaking.

I’m looking forward to things coming as near to normal as we can get it.


The Revd Tricia Hillas, Speaker’s Chaplain, House of Commons

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-SchieferI’m conscious of the weight of responsibility on MPs, their staff, and all who support the work of Parliament; so I try to provide a sanctuary where nothing is asked of them. It’s just a space they can use however they want.

During the pandemic, we’ve been very aware of the pastoral needs of colleagues still working on the estate, and those who aren’t. One of the key concepts has been to create a whole suite of offerings based around pastoral care, well-being, and mental health, and I’ve been glad to work closely with other teams towards this.

I have only been in this role since February 2020, and I have had to work creatively and with more intention during the pandemic because many people still don’t know me yet. I think there may have been advantages if I had been here a while; but, on the other hand, being the new girl makes it easier to say “hello” and introduce myself.

As chaplain to the Speaker, I lead parliamentary prayers as part of the Speaker’s procession each day that the House of Commons is sitting. The ceremonial aspects have remained intact, but the way we do them, just like the rest of life, has changed with social distancing.


The Revd William Sharpe, senior chaplain and deputy team leader at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

There has been immense pressure on NHS staff — not just the doctors and nurses, but also porters, housekeeping, admin staff — every single person has played an enormous part trying to keep this country moving.

Some have been overworked, and some have seen personal bereavement — every person has a different story — and we provide a safe haven for them to talk through personal issues if they are struggling. We are there to actively listen, help them address any mental-health issues that they’re going through, and signpost them to other departments if it’s relevant to their well-being.

In this pandemic, we’ve all had challenges and difficulties, but, when you’re looking at disaster all around, you have to try to find some stillness and hope.

When I interact with a staff member or a colleague and I’m able to bring some hope into their life, or a change in their circumstance, I find it so fulfilling and rewarding. I think it’s an honour, and it’s why I have the best job in the world.


The Revd Peterson Feital, missioner to the Creative Industries and founder of the Haven, and the Revd Ric Stott, a Methodist minister, artist, and curator of the “Wilderness Project” exhibition

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

We’ve always been on the front line dealing with individuals coming through severe anxiety, but when Covid hit, the amount of calls quadrupled. We were having a number of calls from creatives who had lost jobs, some of whom had become homeless — there was complete devastation in the creative sector.

Using art to explore experiences of the pandemic is powerful, because art can hold all these difficult feelings without offering an answer, yet there’s a healing experience in just holding them; none of the work in the exhibition is offering an easy answer. In theological studies, that notion can sometimes be forgotten, and it’s been liberating to be reminded that there isn’t always an answer. There is faith in doubt. 


The Revd Jonathan Baldwin, head chaplain at Gatwick Airport

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

The airport is my life: it’s my parish. You build up relationships, you get to see people regularly, and, over 18 years here, I’ve done baptisms, weddings, and, sadly, funerals.

We have a passing congregation except for our “regular irregulars”, who we only see two or three times a year, and there are currently fewer people coming into the chapel for worship, but the pastoral care hasn’t gone.

I’m still walking around and chatting to anybody at any time, but our passenger numbers have massively depleted.

The wonderful thing is that the staff have got a little more time, they’re not so rushed or pressurised, and you can pick up more of an in-depth conversation. Like with the cleaners, there was one lad who came up to me and said: “Can I have a chat?” I’ve not met him before, but, wallop, it all came out.


The Revd Dr Jenny Morgans, university chaplain at King’s College London

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

It’s a really hard time to be a student right now, and nothing can get this time back for them.

Many feel very isolated and are having to work at home with their parents, which is especially bad for those who aren’t in very good family relationships, or who don’t have a good internet connection or private space to work in.

I really miss being present for students.


The Revd Bola Adamolekun, chaplain at HM Prison Brixton

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

How do you provide comfort and solace to guys who are stuck behind doors for a ridiculous amount of time?

I’ve found that if you make the time, the people you speak to are more open now, and there’s more opportunity for that conversation to get deeper and be more meaningful.

It’s been less about just wanting an excuse to get out of the cell: it’s almost like they’ve treated it as a gift, and they’ve decided that if I can engage with them, they will engage with me, too.

You can come across some truly broken and desperate cases: it’s really heartbreaking sometimes. There are a lot of people in prison for criminal reasons, and there are a lot of people in prison because society has been criminal to them.


Pastor Dylis George, chaplain of the Northern Line on the London Underground

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

Pre-pandemic, there would be days when I would “hop on/hop off” the line as far as High Barnet, making contact with staff. When there are fatalities, we are called on by the British Transport Police, and have to respond within 24 hours so we can offer support to the witnesses or those who have attended a fatality.

For me, our motto is “Love and support”. The support is for everyone, regardless of background or faith; I never even ask about religious beliefs. All I want to see is that someone’s mental state and well-being is good and to make sure they aren’t depressed or frustrated.

I’ve found talking to be very therapeutic and healing, even if I don’t offer a solution. A staff member called me on the phone recently, and told me exactly what he was going through, and I just listened. When he finished, he started crying and thanking me saying that he had needed this to come out of him, but he didn’t want to tell his mum. It was so fulfilling for me that I could be on the other end of the phone


Pastor Chris Roe, chaplain to Crystal Palace Football Club

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

The role of a football-club chaplain isn’t necessarily about religion: it’s about being available and making relationships, so that if anybody feels like they could do with some pastoral support, which is outside of the context of football and outside of the context of the club, they know where to go.

On a match day, I would usually get here about three hours before kick-off, just to make myself visible, because the more integrated I am, the more effective my role is.

Due to the restrictions that have allowed the football season to go ahead this year, I’ve not been able to get down to the training ground since March 2020, and, in football, that might as well be 50 years


The Revd Dr Andrew Goodhead, spiritual-care leader at St Christopher’s Hospice

Louise Haywood-SchieferLouise Haywood-Schiefer

During the first lockdown, I went to see a patient at home who had been discharged from hospital with Covid-19. I washed my hands and put on my PPE before going in to see the patient, who was dying peacefully. The patient wasn’t really conscious; so my conversation was with the son and grandson who both wore masks. I said prayers, and then reflected on the drive back about the great ritual it had been.

It is much more difficult to engage in a connection when you’re dressed up and protected against each other. Normally, if I greet a patient, I might put my hand on their shoulder, and, when I say commendatory prayers, I might put my hand on their head at points, or make the sign of the cross on their forehead, and none of that could happen.

But really that’s all ritual, and the words I say aren’t enhanced or improved by those actions at that point; so you just have to start doing things differently



Photos and captions are from Keeping the Faith: London Chaplains in the Time of Covidby Louise Haywood-Schiefer. They will feature on her website shortly: lhschiefer.com

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