Chaplaincy in Norfolk is a very modern ministry

At a time when our society seems increasingly dominated by secular habits and assumptions, and when religious attendance and affiliation seem to be in decline, chaplaincy remains a public face of faith in a variety of situations.

Rev Canon Chris Copsey, Development Worker for Good Work (Norfolk and Waveney Industrial Mission) takes a look at this varied ministry in Norfolk and Waveney.

Chaplains, both lay and ordained, work alongside those they meet, providing a safe space to talk and reflect on pastoral and spiritual matters. As chaplains, we may face the sadness and turmoil that illness or bereavement brings, or the joy of a new baby or a retirement. All of these life-changing events are extremely stressful anyway, and combined with the everyday stresses of modern life, can easily put personal well-being at risk.

Our role is to support and encourage individuals through the issues they are facing by discussing them face to face. This is a very different picture to a definition of chaplains from 1986:  'a Clergyman attached to a private chapel, institution, regiment, ship etc.' Chaplaincy continues to evolve and grow, reaching into the workplace and across communities. 

People may have heard of chaplaincy in hospitals, prisons and the military, but they are in many more places across the country. They can be found in sports clubs, working with the emergency services, at universities, airports and shopping malls.

Theos, the Christian think tank has researched chaplaincy, their findings put together in A Very Modern Ministry. Its work continued with reports on chaplaincy in Luton and early in 2017 a report on chaplaincy in Norfolk. They report that in Norfolk alone, there are 230 chaplains at work across 16 distinct areas in over 100 institutions and organisations. They cover everything from the air ambulance to the YMCA, supermarkets to Sea Scouts, mental health services to the Coroner's court. Norfolk chaplaincy has been described as ‘a vibrant and extensive scene’.

Often chaplains are not very visible in these places, but are an amazingly strong resource, described by one as ‘the glue that holds everything together’. Their everyday work attempts, and often manages, to reach a huge variety of people where they may need extra support.

They play a large role particularly in the more hidden parts of society, such as the homeless, refugees, asylum seekers and people leaving prison. These are a part of the community that can fall through the net that society holds such as family and friend networks.

As the Chaplain to the Coroner in Norfolk, I meet families at a hugely vulnerable and traumatic time as they come to an inquest. Each inquest brings different challenges; from raw emotions to fractured relationships and professional witnesses who can put themselves under their own powerful self-scrutiny. Every person involved in the process needs the opportunity to have extra support so they can express something of their fears and concerns.

I am hugely privileged and deeply moved as I hear something of their life story and what has brought them to court. These stories are full of wisdom, decisions, regrets, hopes and expectations. I have learnt much about courage and resilience, grace and love.

Many are surprised to find a ‘vicar’ in a non-religious environment. Some are relieved, and others exclaim: “I don’t go to church”, leading to the larger questions such as “what is heaven like?”, “why do you pray?”, “how can we forgive?” and “how can we remember him?” Asked by a chaplain if she would like to be prayed for, one woman replied that she didn’t know what that meant. Chaplains must unwrap and articulate God’s immense hope and love in the everyday world without relying on words that are significant in a faith setting.

The Revd Dr Liviu Barbu is chaplain to Norfolk County Council at County Hall, a very different setting.  “I would say that chaplaincy is the human face of God in the workplace… and to enable everyone to express their spirituality in their own way.” Practically, this means working with the staff and members of the county council, organizing opening prayers at meetings and taking part in civic events such as Remembrance Day and the Battle of Britain. Liviu must balance the principles of his faith with the expectations and needs of one of the largest employers in Norfolk and the political needs of all the parties in an elected council.

JulieWarrenDragonflyJulie Warren is a nurse and a Methodist lay preacher. She is also a chaplain across the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust, working with those across the age ranges living with dementia and other mental health problems. The photos taken at the Dragonfly unit in Lowestoft (right) show Julie at work. She explains: “Spirituality is part of their education curriculum. The young people chose the name SPACE (spiritual, peaceful, accepting, creative and energizing) to describe their meetings that take place weekly.” One of the photos here shows the group making spiritual altars of words and quotes that are inspiring and encouraging to them.

This is but a small window into the work of chaplains across Norfolk, and the many different roles we have in the community. It shows our many skills; we are non-judgmental and compassionate listeners. We can also be discerning, prophetic and critical friends, as well as mediators and facilitators. With only 11 per cent of chaplains in full-time employment in this role, many are also a fantastic voluntary resource. Most chaplains are rooted in church communities and supplement the already important parish work happening locally.

If there is a chaplain near you, please feel free to ask them to come and talk to you, encourage them and keep them in your prayers.

The Revd Canon Chris Copsey is Social, Community & Environmental Concerns Coordinator for the Diocese and a Chaplain to Good Work (Norfolk and Waveney Industrial Mission), Norfolk Coroner's Service and The Matthew Project.

This article and the accompanying photographs were reproduced by kind permission of 'The Magazine' produced by the Diocese of Norwich.

Published: 11/12/2017