'We're serving Jesus - without the labels'

December 20, 2002

Where once university chaplains dealt solely with issues of religion, today they offer more general support to those of any or no faith. Olga Wojtas reports

Bath University's Christmas carol service at Bath Abbey, led by university chaplain Jonathan LLoyd, was attended by more than 1,200 people this week.

Many might consider such leading of Christian worship to be a chaplain's key role, alongside ministering to Christian groups on campus. But this was as unreal a picture as the soft-focus angels on Christmas cards to which Mr LLoyd, an Anglican priest, admitted being "slightly allergic".

"We are not just here to meet the religious needs of the religious," he said. "Our role is to be chaplain to the whole institution, the whole community. We're not here to proselytise, we're here to be available, to be part of everything."

Chaplaincies may have had their roots in the church - the Anglican church historically funded most of the full-time chaplains in the older English universities - but their current approach is unquestionably inclusive, promoting themselves as open to those of all faiths and to those of none.

Most higher education chaplains in England - more than 200 - are Anglicans, but all chaplains work closely across denominations. The trend in new universities is for an ecumenical appointment, often funded jointly by the institution and denominations, including the United Reformed Church, the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches, Quakers, and Orthodox and Baptist churches.

The Scottish tradition is for the university to fund a full-time post. But whatever the arrangements each institution has for official posts, it is increasingly common for the chaplain to be backed by a team of religious representatives from different denominations and faiths.

University chaplains have a better grasp of ecumenism than their churches, according to Robert Jones, chaplain for Roehampton University of Surrey and higher education chaplaincy coordinator for the Methodist Church.

"Brand defensiveness is not helpful," he said. "Denominations are not important to the majority of students and this creates a different emphasis when approaching things ecumenically. Equally, most chaplains work in teams and need to be interchangeable wherever possible."

Their work could range from promoting multidisciplinary ethical debates to supporting friends and family in the wake of a student death.

Di Williams, an Anglican who recently moved from Lancaster University to be chaplain at Edinburgh University, said: "I often feel I hold the pain of a university. It is a function that is hidden largely, but there is a holding that goes on that might be missed if it wasn't there."

Far from being marginalised within an increasingly multicultural and secular society, chaplains found universities and colleges looking increasingly to them for support. And their role in welfare and counselling was not one that could be subsumed within traditional counselling services, said Ken Hopkins, dean of students at Kingston University.

Higher education was generally considered in purely utilitarian terms, geared to employability, he said. Without a chaplaincy, institutions risked neglecting students' spiritual needs, an important part of personal development.

Mr LLoyd said: "With the pressures on universities, people need space to reflect on and explore religious and spiritual questions."

Students were often narrowly focused on pursuing a particular degree to get a particular job and start paying off their debts. The chaplaincy could offer people the chance to stand back and think about a bigger picture, he said.

Many chaplains question whether there is growing secularism, arguing that while church attendance is falling, people continue to explore spirituality.

Hugh Shilson-Thomas, Anglican chaplain at Cambridge University's Robinson College and formerly chaplain at Kingston, said: "I don't think people's interest in matters of faith and their own sense of where they fit into the world are questions that ever go away. These are the sorts of questions that chaplains are pursuing, helping people on their journey of working out who they are and what they're going to do."

But chaplains' work is by no means confined to the spiritual, nor is this an aspect they emphasise in their dealings with staff and students. Easter Smart, Aberdeen University's chaplain and an American Presbyterian, said that many of the people who sought her out had no religious faith. The predominant culture among young people was scepticism about institutionalised religion, but this did not appear to mean disdaining those in a ministerial role.

"I do have a very strong Christian faith, but I was told: 'This is a job where you're serving Jesus Christ, without the labels' - and that's very apt." That was because Jesus dealt with each person as an individual by treating them differently, she said: "There are times when you know it's appropriate to bring God and faith into the process of healing, but never without asking, and frequently not at all," she said.

One chaplain was approached by a student considering an abortion. She did not come to see him because she wanted to know what the Christian church thought about it, he said, but because she wanted to be with someone she could trust, to sit with her while she thought through the issues. She did not come "to be told", the chaplain said.

Student depression is on the increase and chaplaincies are seen as safe places in which students can unburden themselves in confidence. They offer an alternative to overburdened counselling services, which often have to concentrate on the more serious mental health problems.

"But there's another group who may just want a cup of coffee and to talk about splitting up with a girlfriend," Mr LLoyd said. "We're available all the time, without them feeling they have to be counselled."

Mr Shilson-Thomas said: "There are those who come and seek us out, but we get to know a lot of people who we talk to in passing. I think you have to be highly motivated and focused to go and bang on somebody's door. One of the things about being chaplain is that you're around, so people get to know you."

Edinburgh's chaplaincy organised a pre-exam de-stressing "labyrinth", which is likely to become a weekly feature. It was based on a medieval meditation tool from Chartres Cathedral and consisted of a 32ft canvas circle on the floor, across which people followed a marked path into a space in the centre and then out again.

Ms Williams said: "It couldn't be more simple. Walking is the trick because to sit in a room and try to de-stress is quite difficult and needs practice and discipline. Walking is energetic, and the general thing is to have no expectation. Whatever happens, happens.

"People might use it to focus on an issue that has arisen. It might be a recognition of anxiety levels and just letting them loose a bit. Who knows what goes on? It's not prescriptive. It's operating on the level of psyche and spirit."

A key facet of chaplaincy was that it crossed all boundaries, said Ms Williams, and cared for the whole of the institution, not simply senior management, or the lowest-paid staff, or students. This could help an understanding of different perspectives.

"I will have conversations with the principal, academics, students, servitors, cleaning staff and catering staff. There are not many other roles within the university that hold that possibility."

This gave chaplains the chance to pick up patterns in the way the institution worked, she said, and on occasion they could suggest improvements.

Ms Smart said: "One of the chaplain's jobs is just to make people feel good about themselves and to keep up morale. That sounds really cheesy, but everybody's tired, and part of the role is to encourage people and make sure they're noticed and appreciated."

This involvement with the university community means that chaplaincies are increasingly expected to be multifaith. Chaplaincy buildings are generally used by people of all faiths.

Lancaster was a pioneer of this approach in the 1960s, specifically designing a building made up of circles that included prayer, cooking and study space for different faiths. Chaplains often tried to encourage not merely religious tolerance but also an active sharing of ideas.

Dr Hopkins said: "On the multicultural side, although the chaplain is from within the Christian tradition, a key factor in the role is that they should facilitate the worship opportunities for people from other religions."

When Mr Shilson-Thomas was at Kingston, he successfully bid for widening access funds for a multicultural awareness project. This included ensuring there was prayer space for Muslim students and exam timetabling that took account of other faiths' celebrations.

The chaplain was often the best person to tell the institution about these needs, he said, and was trusted as a member of staff to comment on them.

Mr LLoyd said chaplaincies got through "an awful lot of coffee", but he also stressed the importance of food in fostering links between diverse groups.

"Cooking and eating together is an important part of community-building and, in terms of all world religions, always has been.

"Sometimes it's quite difficult to work in a multifaith way because of the world we're in, but meals are still there even when other forms of communication are almost impossible. For me, it's about a biblical understanding of the word hospitality, welcoming the stranger."

This week's carol service, he said, was not intended to be a romantic, tinsel-fringed event, but celebrated the university community and raised challenging questions about the meaning of Christmas."For me, as a Christian, it's the fact that God loved the world - not the church - so much that He sent His son to be one of us," he said.

"There's something very radical about the way Jesus was born in a dirty stable to a homeless family, and it's actually saying that God meets us in all our vulnerability and imperfection and loves us as we are.

"It's a message that says we are a world community and it's a time for us to look at our relationships across the world."

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