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03 March 2014

Serving on the front line

Serving on the front line

Being a chaplain and acting as a representative of the Church can be challenging whatever the environment.
Richard Woodall finds out more from those involved in chaplaincy work...

The most important part of the Church's ministry takes place outside the building, you could argue.

That's certainly the case for chaplains who work across a wide variety of areas including health, the police and the oil and gas industry. Their growth in number over the last two decades has put their role under the spotlight, with the National Secular Society recently contending that religious bodies should be funding chaplains in hospitals rather than the NHS. 

But what are chaplains here for? And does their presence make a difference to the lives of those they interact with or are they just viewed as a unnecessary and irrelevant by the people they spend time with?

Father-of-three Antony Feltham-White (pictured), aged 46, has been a chaplain in the Armed Forces since 2005. He felt the calling to become a chaplain because of a desire to spend more time with those outside the Church.

He has toured on duty in Iraq for seven months as well as twice going to Afghanistan. Despite admitting some tours involved a lot of "getting shot at" he finds the time with troops fulfilling as well as taxing.

"Each tour you go out on is different. Most army chaplains would be prepared to serve on tour time and time again were it not so exhausting. You find there are lots of people who want your time."

But if you want to be a chaplain, why not go somewhere safer, or more predictable?army man

"We send young men and women into dark places in the world and it's important we show them some light too. I help troops focus on what they are doing, to be there if they are called to exercise lethal force as a last resort.

"You have to let God take over – but I feel I am doing exactly what God wants me to do."

But it's not just on the battlefield they need support, he said.

"There is an enormous legacy when members of the Armed Forces lose a friend, they have no time to grieve and are forced to compartmentalise. Then when they come home it's difficult to bring it back and deal with it."

Rev John Boyers, aged 64, is chaplain at Manchester United and a Baptist minister.

Before taking up the post with the Premier League side in 1992, he was chaplain at Watford Football Club.

It has been a path that has allowed him to build trust with some famous faces.

"Chaplaincy work in sport is about relationship and trust. If people can't trust you, you have nothing to offer them.

"Over the years some of the players got to know me when they were younger, well before becoming household names. As relatively unknown members of the academy development system, they got to trust me as 16 or 17-year-olds, appreciated my support and concern, and my role in the club. Now, as members of the first team squad, their attitude remains the same.John Boyers

"The biggest challenge is the size of this club. When I was at Watford there were 45 people including coaches and players on the playing side and maybe 30 on the non-playing side. But Manchester United is absolutely huge; there are 800-plus full-time staff and 3,000 part-time staff.

"The constant challenge is building relationships and letting people know how they can contact you."

What about the biggest man at the football club? The manager.Does he have any contact?

"Sir Alex was always very supportive and positive and I've found David Moyes no less so," he said. "The role of chaplain is about providing part of a support network for players and other members of staff. It's not just spiritual; it's pastoral as well, giving help and encouragement when it's needed.

"Chaplains don't help all of the people all of the time, but for some people, some of the time, the chaplain really is important. You see both the pressures and problems of people who are world famous – as well as those who do not make it professionally – and the issues and challenges which face other 'ordinary' members of staff."

Rev Bob Mayo, parish priest at St Stephen and St Thomas in Shepherd's Bush, London, is chaplain at Championship side Queens Park Rangers. The 51-year-old vicar said the role is "an intentional presence".

"There tends to be a 50/50 interest from the players as well as an underlying level of intrigue. They like the fact there is contact but you're very much on their territory. Some banter and others like a deeper chat. You tend to be the one person who is known across the club."

Rev Mayo, a QPR fan, added: "It's a really tough world as a professional footballer. In most jobs you would be given three months' notice if your employers want to move you on; in football if you get a transfer the new team often want you the next Saturday. That's hard if you have family and are settled."

"We send young men and women into dark places in the world and it's important we show them some light too."

But it's not just the glamorous or dangerous careers chaplains operate in. One big area is health and work in hospitals particularly. Illness and death tend to be occasions when people will ask questions they otherwise wouldn't. It's also an opportunity to demonstrate God's love and care.

Rev Rosie Finch, 74, is a chaplain volunteer at Gloucester Hospital. She previously worked at Ipswich Hospital in a similar role.In addition to offering Communion, one of the main roles when visiting patients is simply listening.

"Some people will talk to a chaplain rather than their family or friends if they have concerns about their health.

"Quite a lot of elderly people who are in hospital have some sort of church connection but because they are immobile or their vicar has changed they seem to have been forgotten by the Church. When they come to hospital they reconnect with their faith and that's really important.

"Because the nurses are pressed for time they often don't have time to listen to patients. As chaplains the key thing we have is time. But tragic circumstances also mean it's not just the elderly who occupy a chaplain's time," she said.

"Being called out to a parent who has just lost a child is very difficult, or even where a young person has committed suicide.You just have to rely on God."

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