Chaplaincy: a pioneer ministry?

I’ve been reading A Christian Theology of Chaplaincy. The title is something of a misnomer, as Andrew Todd, one of the editors, effectively acknowledges in his conclusion: rather than “a definitive theology”, it’s a range of “contextual responses”. (p159)

It’s an important area of mission and ministry, and that’s underlined by the figures from a report Todd co-authored (PDF) for the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council. According to that piece of research, in 2013 there were 1415 reported chaplains, of whom 516 were ordained Anglicans paid by the institutions other than the Church of England, and another similarly paid 209 part time chaplains. The Church of England itself paid an additional 47 full-time and 121 part-time. That represents a substantial proportion of the numbers of the ordained. (The 2016 official statistics (PDF) don’t offer this precise breakdown, but reveal that 15% of licensed clergy work outside parish ministries, of whom over half are in chaplaincy.) Yet there is very little written about such a key plank of ministry, than there is about its sexy younger sibling “pioneer ministry”, though both are equally about approaches arising outside the church and parish context.

The seven main essays are varied, and they don’t espouse a common theology. I think it’s fair to say that most of the writers commit themselves to the idea of the church’s mission participating in God’s mission (based on Bosch’s seminal treatment of missio Dei in Transforming Mission). Most also share an emphasis on the incarnation not just as a doctrine, but as an underlying methodology in which action presupposes presence, and presence undergirds all ministry.

Some of the writers pay rather more attention than others to the interfaith context of many chaplaincies, looking at how chaplains can balance a respectful openness to colleagues from other faiths, with a respectful sharing of one’s own (p30). In my experience, the closest working of chaplains from diverse faith communities tends to happen in prison contexts. Unfortunately, the experience of the contributors seems to lie in health or education contexts. Some of what is said might have looked rather different with more theological reflection from the military, prisons, town and shopping centres, ports and airports, business parks and large businesses. It feels a bit like the inevitable way in which prayers include the world of work by mentioning teachers, doctors and nurses, but seem to find other occupations a little too difficult to include.

Another common theme that seem to run through the book is the call to a prophetic stance (which can only be based in a loving commitment of presence and attentiveness). For James Walters this includes some key questions:

Do universities simply exist to increase a young person’s earning potential … ? Does a hospital exist simply to keep people alive as long as possible …? Do prisons exist simply to contain dangerous people as an enterprise that can generate profit for the private the sector?(p48).

I’m not sure those are all quite the same kind of question, nor that chaplaincy is the sine qua non of asking them, but they do help illustrate what a prophetic edge might mean in context. It is also in these and similar questions that the book comes nearest to asking about chaplaincy to the institution, rather than simply to the people who inhabit the institution.

The other recurring theme is that of liminality, or the marginal nature of chaplaincy. This is conceived variously as marginal to the church as institution, and / or marginal to the institution in which the chaplain operates. This is accompanied by the recognition of a need for (as several authors put it) bilingualism on behalf of the chaplain, able to translate the language and concerns of one body into those of the other.

Ben Ryan, the author of a Theos report on the subject, surveys the field as a researcher rather than a practitioner. He notes the element of “exile” for a number of those who serve as chaplains, for example the “disproportionate number of Anglican chaplains … in same-sex partnerships” (p92). Is this exile, I wonder, or political asylum? The marginality may be embraced by some, but it may feel more like a burden to be resented by others.

Some of what is said about chaplains inhabiting the margins between the church and the secular seems to me both to undervalue the element of marginality in much parish ministry, and place a somewhat romantic overvaluation of it in chaplaincy. It is unsurprising, however, that much of the book exhibits resistance to, or more positively constructive criticism of, the Church of England’s present strategy of Renewal and Reform.

I hope that summary at least gives some indication of the range of content and approaches to be found in the book, although the book’s breadth is wider than this review is long. What I want to turn back to now are two of the underlying themes that crop up repeatedly.

The first is the fashionable concept of the missio Dei – the mission of God. This has underpinned a very wide range of approaches to mission in the Church of England and elsewhere in recent years: find out what God is doing, and then join in.

For some time now, after initially finding it attractive (and still believing some versions of it to hold value), I have been coming to question this approach. First, classical Christian theism holds that God’s work is at every point and time sustaining the universe in its created being. It becomes more problematic to assert then, that God is doing “X” here, but not “Y” there. It is equally problematic to suggest that we can join in what God is doing: we are not called to sustain the universe in being, though we might be called to collaborate with God, as the Jewish idea has it, in the repair of the world (tikkun olam).

I find the way Andrew Todd expresses it in his first essay particularly difficult. “[I]n order to be an effective sacrament of Christ’s incarnation, the Church must first discern where the incarnation is at work in human social life.” (p37). I think there is a real problem with much of the language which turns “incarnation” into a generality or a principle. The Church does not believe in “incarnation”, but in the incarnation: there is a unique and inimitable character to God’s taking of humanity in Mary’s womb. We, by contrast, inhabit new and strange places and institutions as those already shaped by our enfleshment in particular familial, cultural and life contexts. We may be able to seek to imitate Christ’s humble attentiveness, love and service, as we enter different contexts, but we enter them as limited, sinful and contingent beings in need of transformation, not unlike those who already inhabit them.

I would agree that the Church is called to be a sacrament, both of Christ in his mission, and of the kingdom which his mission will bring about. Yet this is as much a sacrament of the crucified, risen and ascended Christ as it is of the incarnate Christ. If the strength of the missio Dei language is that it avoids the idea that Christ is the Church’s possession to be “taken” to others, its weakness is that it loses the idea that the Church can be the instrument by which God choose to act in the lives of others to repair the world alongside Godself, and help it flourish and fulfil God’s good purposes for it and for all.  Sometimes the Church may be the means by which God makes God’s presence in the world active, tangible and intelligible. We don’t only find out what God is doing and join in, sometimes we may ourselves be what God wants to do.

The other theme which reappears, which is similarly fashionable among theologians, is adopting a Trinitarian model of social relationships. Rowan Williams (not the famous beardy one) offers a particularly egregious example. She takes up the idea of perichoresis (divine mutual indwelling) as a model for team chaplaincy: “the dialogue that takes place between team members mirrors the internal dynamism of the Trinity.” (p74) Like much writing on the social Trinity, this presumes, I think, to know far more about the home life of God than has been vouchsafed to us. Something that pertains to the mystery of how God is God is hardly a model for human co-operation. Taking perichoresis as a model for collegial action is surely impossible for those who are serious about the unity of the triune God. Moreover, it sits very uncomfortably with Williams’ earlier and much more interesting argument about grounding interfaith understanding in the “essentially unknowable” nature of God.

If a Trinitarian undergirding is to work, I’m more comfortable with the “personalist” approach which Ben Ryan advocates, drawing on Catholic Social Teaching. This emphasises that human being made in the image of God is “innately relational” (p91), and that personal encounter lies at the heart of chaplaincy.

At the same time, more, I think, is needed about the life of the very diverse institutions within which chaplaincy is carried out. What role does an institution carrying out these tasks have when set against the horizon of the kingdom? If its purposes are to serve God’s purposes, what sort of practices should go to make up its institutional life? It is easier, perhaps, to answer those in terms of health and education, more controversial to answer in terms of prison and military chaplaincy. And it is decidedly complex to answer in terms of businesses of various kinds, although the idea that a business’s purposes need to see their employees’ well-being as much as a legitimate moral end of business as they see their shareholders’ profits would be a start.

I’ve had my thinking stimulated considerable by reading this book. All the essayists have some good things to say, even if I’ve chosen to major in the second part of this post on some disagreements. But if there’s to be a sequel, I’d like to see more interaction between the participants, and more thinking about the engagement with institutions. What am I clear about is that in helping the Church think about an underappreciated area of ministry and mission, and one where there is very limited theological engagement, this is a very useful contribution indeed.