Often regarded as the Cinderella of ministry, it’s time for chaplaincy to take centre stage argues Ben Ryan, author of a new report, A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK, for the religion and society think tank Theos.
A study of the part played by chaplaincy in modern Britain has estimated that there are currently 15,000 chaplains in the UK from every religious tradition, serving in casinos and shopping centres as well as the more traditional locations such as hospitals, prisons, and the military. At a time of increased secularism and demands to limit religion to the private sector, perhaps surprisingly chaplaincy in the UK seems to be a growth industry – chaplains keep cropping up in the most unlikely places.
The report states that, besides providing pastoral care and support, employing organisations increasingly seek to encourage chaplains to provide a challenging “prophetic voice.” It cites chaplains to Canary Wharf who explore ethics in finance; a sport chaplain who challenged his club’s association with a shirt sponsor; and another chaplain who fought for low-paid staff who had not received their wages after a club had gone into administration.
“This may seem like a role which shouldn’t appeal to an organisation – tantamount to troublemaking,” the report says. “Yet stakeholders time and again subverted that expectation, and praised the chaplain for being able to speak up and keep an organisation honest.
“An NHS manager, for example, reported that ‘Sometimes you need someone who isn’t too much in the system to tell it like it is, and tell everyone what we’re doing isn’t the way to do things. It isn’t always popular at the time, but you look back and you see why they did it.'”
The report looked in depth at chaplaincy in Luton, Bedfordshire, where, it says, there are 169 chaplains working in a variety of sectors. “This is a remarkably high number for a relatively small urban area,” the report says, pointing out that it equates to one chaplain for every 1200 people in the local population.
The report found that unpaid part-time chaplains often put in significant amounts of work, and referred to a fire-service chaplain who had recorded that, in a three-month period, “she put in 168 hours of work, and 1887 miles of driving to chaplaincy work, including two funerals, bereavement support, a baptism, policy-and-procedure meetings, and 44 separate visits to fire stations across the county.”
For all the good news stories it should be clear that chaplaincy is not without it challenges. There are pressing issues of funding and sustainability in various settings. The realities of multi-faith work in the 21st century mean an ongoing process of negotiation and compromise. Despite such challenges Ben Ryan asserts “The proverbial man in the street seems more likely to meet a chaplain in his daily life today as he is to meet any other formal religious figure.”
He said that chaplaincy was a “powerful potential resource” for organisations and faith groups, and called for more research into the impact that chaplains are having on organisations and the people they minister to. “For faith and belief groups in particular,” he said, “given the value of chaplaincy to them in the modern public square, there needs to be a greater priority given to strengthening and improving the impact of chaplains.”
Revd Ray Anglesea represents the URC Northern Synod on the Northumbrian Industrial Mission Management Committee