Chaplaincy on the front line

by | Jun 19, 2017 | Opinion, Review

Home E Opinion E Chaplaincy on the front line

The two terrorist attacks in ten days at the Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Borough Market, which claimed 30 lives and 107 people injured will change their lives and those of their families forever. The pain and trauma for individuals, families and the emotional reflections of those who so professionally and courageously ran towards the danger will last long after the media move onto the next story. The united sense of revulsion felt across the religious and political spectrum of the UK is combined with the thoughts, prayers and compassion shown to the victims and their families by so many.

When critical incidents happen, a myriad questions arise. When it comes to a Christian response, compassion should be the first action. Compassion is a strong motif of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptic Gospels and His care for the victim, the vulnerable and the sick is powerful.

Behind the scenes of outstanding hospital care, emergency services, police and intelligence investigations and a British spirit of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is the work of the many Christian chaplains who respond to critical incidents with courage, representing the compassion of Christ in the most harrowing and demanding circumstances. Whether they are Chaplains to the Police, Ambulance Service, NHS Hospitals, Civic centres or a host of other institutions, their ministry carries on behind the scenes. Their incarnational, relational ministry outlasts our short and distracted memories. Garry Serra Di Migni and Jayne Irlam are co-ministers at Church Without Walls, a fresh expressions church in Manchester, and are both police chaplains. Writing in The Baptist Times online, they observe,

“Our main ministry right now is to the police. Several of the officers we know were at the scene within 20 minutes of the explosion, and all of them have attended the scene subsequently, and hence seen things that nobody should ever have to see.”

 Chaplains bring an incarnational presence, a relational confidence, listening to the paradoxical tensions and emotions which people often struggle with following critical incidents. They also help provide a suitable ritual framework where people come together to remember, reflect or stand defiantly in the face of outrage. Winnifred Sullivan, writing in the North America context maintains,

“the chaplain is emerging as an indispensable person for the administration of care […] the religious professional best suited to public ministry in the 21st century—the best one able to broker between the institutions of the secular, religious hierarchies.” [W.A. Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care and the Law (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 53]

Chaplains are invited by and formally designated through the employers of institutions to operate within the public space. They are expected to bring spiritual support, pastoral care and moral guidance to members of the organisation. This means that faith expressed through chaplains and the role faith plays within the ministry of chaplaincy, is acceptable in the public space and is largely uncontested.

In the UK, since the mid 1990’s, chaplains have made deep inroads into British communities and institutions well beyond the traditional military, educational, hospital, police and prison chaplaincies. As Ryan’s empirical Theos research publication demonstrated:

“Chaplains are everywhere. Quite simply, throughout British society in 2014 the variety of people involved in chaplaincy ministry is absolutely enormous and encompasses a range of organisational settings (fields) as broad as British society itself.” [B.Ryan, A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK (London: Theos, 2015) 14.]

Chaplains from the Christian Church often argue that chaplaincy is on the frontline of missional leadership, spirituality, ethics, the public square and engagement, discussion and debate with other world faiths, humanism, secularism and atheism.

That is a big claim. The extent to which this claim has substance and relevance for the 21st century UK Church and society is one reason for studying it as a specialism on the MA at Moorlands College. What is not in doubt is the truth behind the slogan we used in advertising for Army chaplains: ‘Ministry at the edge of the Church is often at the Heart of the Gospel.’ Chaplains on the frontline, such as Garry and Jayne in Manchester, are also in need of our prayers, as we continue to pray and offer compassion to the victims and families of the Manchester and London attacks.

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