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Chaplaincy: a very multi-faith ministry?

Chaplaincy: a very multi-faith ministry?

The Theos report ‘A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK’ provides a comprehensive study of chaplaincy across sectors, marking a significant contribution to the field of chaplaincy studies. However, the report acknowledges the predominance of Christian voices in its account of chaplaincy, despite the development of multi-faith approaches to chaplaincy. While the report questions the continued dominance of Christian voices, I suggest that there are several factors contributing to the dearth of perspectives from minority faith groups involved in chaplaincy:   

1)    Chaplaincy terminology needs to be reconceptualised. The report acknowledges the potential problems that minority faith groups may have with ‘chaplaincy’ as a term with Christian origins. It is possible that the predominating conception of chaplaincy as a form of ‘ministry’ is unhelpful to faith groups who are not familiar with the terms and ideas surrounding ‘ministry’ or ‘ministers’.  This is not to suggest that the distinctively Christian origins and history of the chaplain should be ignored, but that we might gain more from paying attention to the innovative ways in which minority faith representatives articulate their professional pastoral role and the ways that chaplaincy roles are interpreted.

2)    The Christian narrative still dominates academic and public understandings of chaplaincy. Academic research has only just started to explore the involvement of minority faith groups in chaplaincy on their own terms, rather than as an incidental element of chaplaincy dominated by the Church of England. Similarly, the BBC’s coverage of the National Secular Society campaign to remove state funding from healthcare featured a chaplain wearing the dog collar as a representative for healthcare chaplains nationwide. The relationship between chaplaincy and Christianity (and Establishment in particular) was reinforced in the public eye. The recent documentary about chaplaincy at Birmingham Children’s Hospital has done much to redress the balance, although such a localised case renders it difficult to appreciate the extent of minority faith involvement in chaplaincy nationally and across sectors.

3)    Minority faith groups are drawn to particular kinds of chaplaincy. The motivation for chaplaincy work has a religious, spiritual and moral dimension. Muslim and Jewish figures in chaplaincy often refer to spiritual rewards for visiting those who are sick. A much larger proportion of Muslims can be found in healthcare and prison chaplaincy, where there is a greater sense of fulfilling a religious obligation in spiritually liminal crisis settings, rather than in theatres, sporting activities, and shopping centres. Given limited resources, both in terms of finance and personnel, it is understandable that there exists a hierarchy of settings that are prioritised in accordance with levels of perceived spiritual need or crisis by minority religious groups, often showing a preoccupation with chaplaincy in public institutions. More recent manifestations of non-institutional forms of chaplaincy, such as town centre, sports, and waterways, will therefore continue to be the domain of the churches. Given the interest in exploring these recent proliferations of chaplaincy in the report, it is unsurprising that we do not hear from minority faith groups in these areas.

4)    Specific minority faith group involvement may be influenced by particular political agendas. Government funding for the Prevent Violent Extremism programme was a significant factor in the growth of further/higher education and prison chaplaincy, leading in particular to a high concentration of Muslim chaplaincy representatives in these sectors compared to other sectors. The concerns about the impact on the perceived neutrality and trustworthiness of the chaplain have already been referred to in the report. However, the development of chaplaincy for other minority faith groups has not been spotlighted in the same way, perhaps rendering it more difficult for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews to make inroads into institutional chaplaincy.

5)    Structural inequalities affect the availability and priorities of minority faith chaplains.  While there have been significant developments in providing part-time and full-time posts to Muslims in particular, there is still a considerable reliance on the goodwill and voluntarism of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and other faith groups who may be called in as necessary. Consequently, faith groups have limited availability to meet with researchers, or even generate their own knowledge base for the further professionalisation and training of the next generation minority faith chaplaincy representatives.

The above points call for further research that reconceptualises chaplaincy beyond the boundaries of the Christian narrative, and negotiates the practical problems of accessing minority faith groups in chaplaincy. In doing so, it may be possible to identify the multi-faith developments taking place in chaplaincy that proved so elusive in this nationwide study.

Jo Bryant is a PhD student in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on the integration of minority faith groups in acute healthcare chaplaincy.

Image from bbc.co.uk, available in the public domain.

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