Chaplaincy makes you think about Church

28 February 2023

Gary Hopkins, Ministry Development Officer for chaplaincy

Chaplaincy makes you think about church. As you delve deeper into understanding chaplaincy, you cannot help but think about the nature of church – or as it’s known academically, ecclesiology.

I read a book recently called Disclosing Church by Clare Watkins (2020), a practical theologian, where she reflects on the nature of church through conversational research projects in local contexts. She concludes three important learning points about church: edgelessness, fragility and discernment. The themes were drawn from learning in a number of contexts, but I couldn’t help reflect on their applicability to chaplaincy.

Through edgelessness, she draws on Barth’s call that we not only to talk about church, but we be it. Chaplains are often seen as individuals being church in places where people may have little contact with formal church – often seen at the edges of church. Watkins offers the challenge to see the ‘centre’ of church, not as the organisational, structural centre, but the places where Jesus would have found himself. The mystical ‘centre’ of church may not be the institutional centre, it may be in just the places chaplains find themselves. If we think like this, what might this mean for how the structural church resources mission in the places where the real ‘centre’ is?

Melvina, a community chaplain, recently led a workshop in the Northampton District where she described the many encounters she has daily. She is chaplain to a new housing estate and is intentional in reaching out and meeting people. New arrivals to the estate get a knock on their door, an introduction that she is their chaplain, and a welcome pack from her in the name of the Methodist Church. She is edgeless church and as it permeates through her into new places. But what if such transformational encounters were seen as the ‘centre’?

As Melvina spoke, I loved her honesty and vulnerability. She was open about how scary it can be stepping out – “You never know what’s going to happen as you knock someone’s door.” She laughed about the number of door cameras she must be on walking around the estate, as she knocks doors and has conversations. This edgelessness church is messy, vulnerable and brings about a certain fragility – Watkins second theme.

Fragility is recognising the open, fluid nature of being church – the way that Jesus wandered and responded, open to new encounters and their transformation. Chaplains will often say they have no idea what they’ll be doing that day until they arrive. It all depends on what the need is, what’s happened, where God might place them. There’s risk, potential for getting it wrong, vulnerability, but these weave a web of deep human relationships as chaplains walk alongside in the fragility of life.

I know of a chaplain who’s just about to start in a Further Education college in the West Midlands. They’re not due to start until next month, but they’ve been called in early. Tragically, there’s been a death in the college. In situations like these, there’s no handbook to turn to and a web of complex relationships and emotions. What does a chaplain do?

A chaplain in a care home may work with people with dementia. What does shaping worship look like for people whose memories are fading? How do they help them to connect with God when they may not even be able to articulate who God is? How do they enable them to have a sense of God’s love in the brokenness and fragility of human life?

A prison chaplain meets people in the deepest, darkest, most isolated moments of their life, often people who have lost all hope, all meaning, and have no idea what life is about for them. In these edgeless, fragile spaces, God meets people, lives are transformed. There’s no handbook for how to meet people in their most desperate times. So, what does a chaplain do?

This is where deep discernment comes in – Watkins’ third them. As people of God, as the Body of Christ, as Church, we are of the Holy Spirit. Only through drawing our strength, support and counsel from the Holy Spirit are we able to be church in places which need love and God.

That’s not to say training, development and learning isn’t important. For chaplains, it is incredibly important, but it is also linked deeply to reflective practice. We cannot be prepared exactly for every situation, but we can have good foundational learning that intersects with reflections to help in our discernment.

But Watkins is keen to point out that it is here we need the institutional church, we are not isolated individuals discerning our own path, but we are Body following the way of Jesus. It’s not institutional church as the ‘centre’ but institutional church as supporting our development and discernment, our ministry, and the Body of Christ in its mission for the sake of the world – the ‘real centre’. Not our mission, but God’s mission: missio Dei.

The challenge is always how we discern the missio Dei. How do we notice what God is up to and what we’re asked to get involved in? For many chaplains, this involves a deeply spiritual life, one of prayer, worship and reflection; of bible study, conversation and noticing. Being well-grounded in God enables a chaplain to notice, discern and respond.

While Watkins doesn’t attempt to offer us a complete theology of the nature of church, or a systematic ecclesiology, there are some insights from her research that resonate with chaplaincy. As we reflect on who we are and what our why is as church in a postsecular (postmodern?) context, the themes of edgelessness, fragility and discernment might be helpful lenses, particularly in understanding where the ‘centre’ might be and how we use our resources.

Watkins’ final thought in her book is about ‘epiphanies’ – apt at this time of year. When speaking of God, all learning is tentative, open to conversation and further reflection, held loosely, never landing at final answers, but ready for the next question. In the midst of our discerning, we have epiphanies or light-bulb moments, where we grasp something, but as Paul says, we ‘see dimly in a mirror’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). Let’s be open to new epiphanies and where they might take us in our journey with God.

Chaplaincy continues to be fragile in many ways – as do many ministries, churches and contexts. But it continues to grow in different contexts in unique and exciting ways. People continue to discern a call to be a chaplain and find its vocation incredibly fulfilling. What chaplaincy will look like as we continue our journey with God and discern our place in the world is still a mystery, but what we can say is chaplaincy is a gift to the world that the church can make use of in joining in with God’s mission and the redemption of all creation.

 Originally written for the Methodist Recorder, 6th January 2023.