Valued Guests

21 September 2021

I woke one morning to news of the bomb attack at a concert in Manchester. I grabbed my tealight candles and invited staff and students to join in a vigil on campus. The invitation was to stand together in silence, to light a candle, to hold the victims in our thoughts, to commit ourselves to love and to unity. 

Just as the vigil began, I heard that some students were in great distress. A flatmate had gone to collect her sister from the concert and had not been heard from since. I went to offer support.  Here were teenage girls, a long way from home and from family, completely lost, and emotionally distraught. They were hoping beyond hope to hear good news, but an unanswered mobile phone and no activity on social media led them to fear the worst and be paralysed by that fear.

As the week went on without news, the fear increased. Eventually their worst nightmares became real. Their friend was among the dead. Speaking to those girls I understood in a new way that familiar phrase – sheep without a shepherd.

Sometimes the most rewarding moments for a chaplain can be sad moments like that. Too often one of us will receive news that a student has died and a call to be ready to offer support.  Any student death is tragic and impacts so many people – students on the same course, friends, flatmates, domestic staff, teaching staff etc.  Equally, the death of a family member or friend can completely disrupt a student’s University experience.

Speaking with a chaplain can mean the difference between giving up and finding the means to keep going despite the grief. That was the case for a student in her final year whose boyfriend died after crashing his car: stricken with grief she was ready to drop out, she couldn’t face returning to her studies and even when she tried, she couldn’t find the resources to cope with crippling grief. At the same time, I met with a young man, also a third-year student, utterly lost emotionally after his best friend since childhood had taken his own life.

Sometimes the struggle is with mental health. One student found it hard to take a break from her studies. She happened to come to a drop-in session I was running using origami as a mindfulness practice. These sessions became her regular motivation to prise herself away from her laptop and her books for 90 minutes. We folded and we talked. I became, in her words, one of her ‘turn-to people for keeping grounded’.  It was a proud moment for me when she acknowledged my help in her dissertation.

None of these students were people of faith.  Meeting with me every week for several months gave them what most people who seek a chaplain’s help are looking for – someone who is willing to listen with patience and without judgment; someone who will always make the time. Most rewarding for me then was to celebrate their graduations and to hear them say that they couldn’t have done it without me.

Countless stories like these affirm to me daily that this is what God has called me to do and to be as a Methodist Presbyter. After a career in law, becoming a minister came with a real sense of ‘doing what I’m meant to be doing’.  Offering this ministry in the context of Higher Education has given me the clearest sense of being in that ‘meant’ place and the deepest conviction of being engaged in the work of God’s kingdom.  

Methodist Chaplains are sent to minister on behalf of the Methodist people in various contexts – in schools, in prisons, in hospitals, with our armed forces, in universities, in airports, and so on.  Christian chaplains seek by their presence in these mostly secular contexts to offer love for Love’s sake.  They answer God’s call to meet people where they are, whether Christian or not, trusting that those they meet will encounter something of the unconditional love of God in Christ.  

Universities are like microcosms of the plural, multifaith, multicultural, multigenerational, multifaceted society in which God’s church ministers. Why would avowedly secular universities welcome chaplaincy as a service alongside other student and staff support?  Why would avowedly secular universities give a Christian chaplain a seat on the university Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committee?  

Universities buy into chaplaincy provision because chaplains gladly offer pastoral support to people of all faiths and no faith; because chaplains gladly commit themselves to working alongside fellow chaplains of different faith traditions, because chaplains gladly commit themselves to working within an institution’s equality and inclusion policies.  

Chaplaincy is about more than Christian student work. Christian nurture and encouragement, fellowship and worship do of course feature in the work of chaplaincy but are only possible because chaplains have won their place as, and have been welcomed as, valued guests of the host institutions - guests who are committed to a wider perspective than one that is faith specific.

Chaplains explore what it means to live out the good news amongst people of no faith, amongst people of many faith traditions, amongst those who feel they have ‘survived’ church and Christianity, amongst those whose initial assumptions are that Christianity is against them.  I always explain that my faith is what motivates me to offer this ministry of presence and availability and care. Faith is never a pre-requisite for those who seek a chaplain’s help.  

Much of this kingdom work is done on the spiritual margins among people who have no faith at all or who have been involved on the periphery of church – as children perhaps - and moved on. I find that they are nevertheless deeply grateful for the support they receive from chaplains committed to embodying God’s love for them. I thank God and the church daily for the opportunity to minister among them.

The Revd Melvyn Kelly
Chaplain in Higher Education