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An old model for a new problem

An old model for a new problem

This is the last in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here

The narrative of religious (or at least Christian) decline in the UK is something of a vicious circle. People are no longer going to church as they once did, and with each generation in which fewer people go to church it is harder to spread the Christian message and so persuade the next generation to come. It is not a problem limited to churches. In a broader sense British society has by several estimations become increasingly mobile, un-rooted from any particular sense of community and increasingly individualised.

Being faced with such a scenario requires religious groups to be a little more innovative in reaching people and making the case for their value in the public square.  However, it is a situation which, at least for Christians, does not require an entirely new solution. The answer might lie in a very old idea – chaplains.

In the public imagination chaplains are Anglican ministers based in a few historic institutions – prisons, the military, hospitals, public schools and Oxbridge colleges. In fact, the history has always been broader than that. There was a police chaplain in the 19th Century in London, industrial chaplains who grew especially prominent after the First World War, and port chaplains from the early 20th century. Even theatre chaplains can trace a recognizable lineage back to the turn of the century.

It is an old model then, but one capable of being perfectly suited to the needs of many religious groups in the UK today. The principle is simple enough: if people will not come to church then the church has to go to them. Crucially, once it gets there it has to earn its right to be involved in a secular space; it has to demonstrate that it has a real value for the settings and institutions in which it hopes to work.

In this regard chaplaincy since 1990 is one of the great success stories of religious involvement in the public square. Today chaplains can be found not only in the “traditional settings” of hospitals, prisons, the military, schools and universities. They are also in shopping centres, town centres, sports clubs, airports, workplaces, theatres, ports, trains, courts, the police and emergency services, and a vast range of other settings across the UK. As a flexible and broad concept it has proved uniquely suited to adapting to different contexts and making it to where people are rather than waiting for the people to come to the churches.

The spread has been extraordinary, but would not have been possible without chaplains providing an enormous appeal to different organizations in these various settings. In the course of research for Theos’s forthcoming report A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK we heard time and time again from key stakeholders who placed an immense value on the work of their chaplains. From the Premiership football club manager who takes a chaplain to each new club he manages, to the army officers who wouldn’t go to war without a plan for bringing chaplains along, chaplains are carving out a role that perfectly marries the needs of organizations with those of their religious group.

It is also a phenomenon that is breaking new ground for non-Christian faiths. There are now some 350 Muslim chaplains in the UK and in various settings one might find chaplains from Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Baha’i, Paganism, and even atheist humanism. Though the terminology remains obviously Christian it is proving to be sufficiently broad as to provide avenues for other faiths into the public square that were previously closed. One Sikh chaplain noted the value this provided him in educating people about who he was and what he did: “People see my turban and they think I’m the Taliban! Now I get a chance to explain things”.

As chaplaincy grows further it will inevitably meet challenges about how it assesses the impact of its work, qualifications and accountability and more generally about the proper place of religion in the public square. These debates have already been going on for some time, most notably in healthcare, with much publicised cuts to some chaplaincy teams (though evidence suggests other trusts are actually increasing chaplaincy hours). Yet chaplaincy is already meeting many of those concerns, with more and more chaplaincy qualifications and impact assessment criteria emerging each year. As to the question of public money, Theos’s research suggests that a high proportion of people working in chaplaincy are either entirely unpaid or receive only expenses. A detailed case study in Luton found that only 13% of 150 chaplains working in the area received a salary and of those fewer still were paid out of public funds.

There will be ongoing questions as the field grows, but if one thing is clear, it is that chaplaincy has proven already to be an extremely versatile form of religious engagement. It is growing into ever new fields and organizations and so is bucking the perceived trend of the decline of organized religion in the UK, all while providing a vast range of valuable services in very different settings. Amid reports of the inevitable withdrawal of religion from the public square, chaplaincy provides a powerful demonstration that religion need not be side-lined but can continue to play an influential and valuable role in public life.

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos

Theos’s report A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK will be launched in March. See here for further details, including the chance to get tickets for a Theos conference on chaplaincy at which the research will be launched.

Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.

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