The year I spent working as a chaplaincy assistant at King’s College London was one of the most enjoyable, and jointly frustrating, I ever had. Despite the meagre pay, which I could only survive on because I was sharing a house with four other people in a far-flung part of London, I often skipped home from work, bragging to my unfulfilled friends about how my job frequently involved little more than listening to stressed-out students complain about their essay deadlines whilst drinking our free coffee.
The reality, of course, was that it involved far more than that. During term-time I was rarely at my desk for too long, as duties ranged from helping a magnanimous third-year in his attempts to call a taxi for a woman who had collapsed outside the library, to trying to calm a spat between one of the junior chaplains and an undergrad after the former claimed that if Jesus had a political allegiance then he would have undoubtedly been a ‘one-nation Tory.’
At its best, the job involved connecting with a range of individuals during their highest and lowest moments, providing a listening ear during bereavements and homesickness and celebrating with them on birthdays and exam results days. Most satisfying of all were the things that were unsaid – such as seeing a first-year English student, who in his first term often came by the office out of loneliness, develop from being shy and unconfident to sociable and relaxed as the months went on. I made a group of close friends as the students who regularly dropped in were often engaging and amusing. Many felt happy enough to stroll into the office and flop down into a chair next to me, either to talk excitedly about a class or rant about an aspect of government policy. I enjoyed the feeling that we provided a service people relied on, and that the people who came through our doors were a genuine mix of Catholics, Anglicans, Hari Krishnas, atheists and others – sometimes with all those groups being present in one day.
The senior college chaplain was also one of the gentlest, most patient and interesting people I ever had the privilege to work with. As well as the admin and pastoral care, the job also involved researching possible routes into ordained ministry, and the guidance and space I was given to explore it were invaluable.
That said, there were many frustrations. Outside of term time, student numbers were thin on the ground and the days could be long, particularly when I was the only one manning the office. The pettiness within the Church of England, and indeed many other Christian groups, was often transplanted. Being shouted out by the college dean’s PA when I had underestimated how many service sheets were needed for the Wednesday chapel service, alongside being forced to listen to some over-caffeinated theology students discuss (for well over an hour) whether or not it was possible to have an ecumenical Eucharist, were low points. On the upside, mournfully recounting such stories caused my non-religious friends to dissolve into fits of mirth.
Overall, I left with the sense that it was a good model, one that served the religious needs of the institution as well as providing a safe space for the non-secular and secular alike. However, the KCL chaplaincy is a financially well-endowed institution, mostly because it resides within a university with an Anglican foundation and with a practicing Christian as its current Principal. Other higher education chaplaincies are not so lucky, up against universities that see them as encouraging Bible-thumping and brainwashing, or even as just unnecessary.
In terms of the future, such trends unfortunately seem likely to continue. The pressures on universities have meant that many are happy to cut chaplains’ budgets and force them into smaller physical spaces. My experiences left me with the belief that this practice is counter-productive to the well-being of staff and students.
When I asked one of the KCL chaplains what had stopped the chapel and chaplaincy common room from being turned long ago into another branch of the library, his response was illuminating: ‘We provide a cheap and ready counselling service for all the people who might have otherwise dropped out. In many ways, we save the university money, and they know it.’
Maddy Fry is a research intern at Theos
Image from bbc.co.uk, available in the public domain.