“When thou shalt look us out of pain”

During 20 years of chaplaincy in the NHS I faced all kinds of questions which might be grouped under the simple, short, yet daunting word: ‘why?’

It wasn’t only a question for people who might have seen themselves as religious. When I was present with families in traumatic circumstances there were often non-religious people among them. It seems that there is a basic assumption in life that there should be some reward for virtue, or at least a balance between the rain and sunshine. The suffering of the innocent, especially children, resists any attempt to attach constructive meaning. Occasionally a family member would venture something along the lines of ‘perhaps it’s for the best’, but when this happened it was often met with silence and muted rejection.

Time and again I was aware that in life-changing situations, when words were wholly inadequate to the experience of loss, the role of the chaplain was not orientated towards a solution. There was no good outcome, and in this context spiritual care was far more to do with helping shoulder pain than in any attempt to make things better. In my ethnographic writing about the experience of being a chaplain, offering compassionate presence in small spaces of great suffering, the simple fact of being there, bearing a particular group of associations, appear to be core components of the role.

There was more to this than pastoral empathy, valuable as that can be for people in distress. I was conscious at times that I was bringing the outside in. Even while being a member of staff, the religious identity I carried spoke of the wider community. When meeting a chaplain for the first time perhaps the most frequently asked question is: ‘where is your church?’, or mosque, synagogue or gurdwara. People of faith are linked to places of faith and the connection flows to and fro. In an institutional setting this can mean that the chaplain has a particular role in bearing the symbolism of community; connections to the past and the future; and a broad association with shared beliefs, culture, heritage and identity.

Yet there is a further dimension to this role – that of witness. The longer I worked in institutional settings the more aware I became that seeing what takes place, and holding that in the perspective of prayer and ritual, was part of what was expected. People cared that their experience, perhaps taking place at the dead of night in a large city, was not happening in seclusion. In their presence, words and actions, chaplains are personifying elements of the faith they profess. As I wrestled with this experience – and still wrestle – there is something in it about the God who doesn’t look away. I am not there to promote a God who can be bargained with in order to grant our wishes. The very least I can do is to behold this suffering, to touch and bless a life which is ending, and share the sorrow of the grieving whose lives are changing irrevocably. In the current circumstances of Covid-19 this can be experienced as a deprivation for both those in spiritual need and the chaplain tasked to provide it.

This element of pastoral ministry, the chaplain’s gaze, occurred to me again recently while reading Mark Oakley’s reflections on the poems of George Herbert. In The Glance, Herbert writes of a time when God “shalt look us out of pain”. It seems an odd notion, but I know from experience that looking has its own quality, and that in the silent relationship of beholding, much can be transacted. Following Herbert, this might be seen as a foretaste of a time when clarity of perception between God and humanity will dissolve the hurts and pains we all carry.

Maybe, in the request to witness those moments, and to be present with loved ones as they say farewell, there is a sign that this kind of seeing, and being seen, truly matters. That when we sense God’s presence with us, beholding our pain, there is hope that in the end this suffering will be lifted from us. It doesn’t diminish the experience we are passing through, with all its calamity, but it offers an unspoken hope that suffering is not – and never is – the last thing we see.

A Vow of Conversation

Recently I learned of the death of Tom Thompson.  Tom was the Lancashire vicar who provided my training during a 3 year curacy in the early 1990s.  I owe a lot to Tom and his seemingly inexhaustible patience when it came to shaping the ministry of the newly ordained.  Faithful, wise and unflagging, Tom kept a sense of perspective which fuelled his resilience and meant his beliefs were always grounded in the lives of the people he was called to serve.  As Anglican clergy we were both familiar with ‘physical distancing’, even before it became a sad consequence of Covid-19.  However, when I returned from London after taking part in the demonstration for women’s ordination on the day the Church of England voted for change, he greeted me with an instant and heartfelt hug.

There was a lot of laughter in the three years we worked together.  Tom was involved with various projects and responsibilities in the Diocese of Blackburn.  Blackburn was not seen as one of the most progressive dioceses in the Church, which had the advantage that church-going was still widespread and consistent.  It meant that our figures for church attendance were somewhat out of step with the wider church.  I’ll never forget Tom returning to the parish from Blackburn when some new data had been revealed.  At the meeting one of his colleagues had responded to the news with the excited exclamation: “At last, we’re catching up with the decline!”  Only in Blackburn…

While I was in the parish the local amateur dramatic society, based in the church hall, was resurrected.  It led to a host of pantos and plays, the kind of institution which acts as a place occupied by both church and non-churchgoing people.  It enabled the church to extend its pastoral ministry beyond the congregation and also, in time, see some people join the church family.  Perhaps the most ambitious production during that time was ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ by TS Eliot.  Tom took the part of Thomas Becket, with the play running for some eleven performances after Easter.  It was a demanding schedule but Tom put his heart and soul into it and found reward in the combined theology and poetry of the piece.  I was one of the tempters and recall the line I delivered to Becket: ‘the easy man lives to eat the best dinners’.  Tom was calm and persistent – not the clubbable type that used to do so well in the Church of England.  His best dinners were always with friends and family, not the suppers that nudged towards preferment.

As the Bishop of Norwich wrote in his obituary about him in The Church Times, it was Tom’s custom to give his curates a book when they were priested – usually a year into their curacy.  I shall never forget the moment Tom handed me this gift.  It was a book by the 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, entitled ‘A Vow of Conversation’.  As I received it Tom said simply: ‘it’s what priesthood’s all about’.  In the 28 years that have followed I have learned the wisdom of his reflection as my understanding of what it means to be a priest has been widened and deepened by a host of conversations – with those close to me; with people confronting some of the most demanding experiences of life; and in prayer with God.

As I remember Tom and give thanks for his faith and ministry I look forward to the day when we can renew our conversation once again.  May he rest in peace.

“Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his elect,
and he watches over his holy ones.”



Acquainted with Grief

Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time on April 13th 1742.  Easter Day was towards the end of March and the premier of the new oratorio fell within the 40 days of Easter celebrations.  Its majesty and scope take the listener from the words of the prophets, to the incarnation and on to resurrection.  Hearing the work again this year the words that stood out for me came in the text of the prophet Isaiah chapter 53 verse 3:

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief

Grief seems an apt emotion in the continuing turmoil of Covid-19.  It is grief at the loss of human life; the devastating impact on economic activities; dramatic social change and physical isolation; the severe restriction on cultural life and sporting events.  The world has been put on pause.  For the moment, we have come to grief.

At this most peculiar Easter, churches cannot even offer the consolation of people gathered together to say familiar words or sing joyful music of celebration.  Much will be done on-line and not in our usual places of worship.  For some even the theme of Easter Day may jar.  The suffering and isolation of Good Friday echoes our experience, as does the absence and silence of Holy Saturday.  Resurrection hope may seen a remote expectation for many.  The greeting between Jesus and Mary in the garden, a wishful reunion of the dead with the grieving; the lost with the living.

The biblical accounts of Good Friday describe events that shake our taken-for-granted certainties.  For the bystanders, soldiers and scattered disciples, the experience of the young rabbi’s death disturbs every complacent truth.  The solid earth moves; the daylight is darkened; the dead do not rest at peace in their tombs.  Profound grief, the loss of someone through whose eyes we saw and made sense of life, can shake and break and darken every point of reference that gives us our sense of place and purpose.  As one person said to me about her partner: ‘he was the landscape in which I lived’.

Many times I have stood or knelt beside those whose mourning is forever tied to a day when others are celebrating.  The times I have been in a delivery suite or neonatal unit on Christmas Day.  The conversation with a woman one Good Friday when her terminal diagnosis had re-framed the world and she found herself in that strange land between knowing an event is coming and the time of its arrival.  Grieving suddenly for all those moments of which she would never be a part – mourning the impending loss of what it means to be alive.  This Easter, perhaps more so than in previous years, many people will be reminded of the confluence of a special day and the experience of loss.

We can never move from Good Friday to Easter Day at a prescribed pace.  Telling the tidings of resurrection when people are still living with the pain of crucifixion or the absence of a loved one is worse than folly.  These journeys are made at their own speed, and for some it may never arrive in their lifetime.  For them it lies on the other side of mortality when ‘death thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete’.

Easter is celebrated because of the one who was ‘acquainted with grief’.  It is marked by those who place their faith in a good shepherd who was killed without good reason.  A faith which should have remained shut up in the garden tomb; sealed and guarded against any possibility it would ever again see the light of day.  Yet I am sitting here, writing this, a disciple of a faith that was destined to die two thousand years ago.  Still believing that there is more to life than what we see; following in faith and doubt a path trodden by countless people before me.  Not perfect souls – people acquainted and damaged by grief – who dare to hope that when we least expect it,  we are greeted by a moment of resurrection.

At dawn the women made their way,
with spice and sweet perfume,
to where their Lord and Saviour lay
enshrouded in the tomb.
But, wonder and amazing grace
to those whose hearts were grieved –
they saw their Saviour face to face,
and with their love believed.

Mary Louise Bringle





The Front Line

A bone of contention in the early months of WWI concerned the location of chaplains.  Initially, the military command banned clergy from the front*.  In response chaplains argued that they could not do their job unless they were shoulder-to-shoulder with the troops in the firing line.  Unless they witnessed the killing and the dying, the wounding and the suffering, they could not do their job effectively.  The soldiers would not respect their chaplains if they remained behind the lines, safe at a distant command post.

During the Covid-19 pandemic military metaphors abound.  We are in a fight, a war, a struggle to defeat an invisible enemy.  We need a temporary sacrifice of our freedoms to ensure the victory.  Supplies are maintained in shops but access to some things may be restricted.  The front line is seen as a place for heroes where service to the nation comes at cost.  Last week a narrative emerged about a ‘second front’ – the challenge to combat the coronavirus in the care homes which make up a major component of social care.

In both care homes and hospitals the presence of the chaplain is indicated by the scale of mortality and the scarcity of comfort for the dying.  However, the presence of chaplains in the front line is problematic.  Personal protective equipment has been in short supply.  Furthermore, every person entering and leaving a ward or bay adds to the potential risk of transmission.  In many if not most cases, chaplains are being held back, working at a distance in order to support patients, relatives and professional colleagues.  Even prayer rooms and sacred spaces have been closed.

One of the distinctive characteristics of chaplaincy-provided spiritual care has been the shared experience of many critical situations.  Usually the talking therapies reflect on the way someone explores the impact of an experience at a later date.  In chaplaincy the provider of care is often present in the moment of crisis, when bad news changes someone’s life or in the tragic experience when both birth and death arrive together.  Subsequent contact, such as the planning of a funeral, brings together people present at the moment (or near the moment) of loss.  I can well recall standing at the graveside of a baby I had attended and blessed in hospital and being thanked profusely by a grand-mother, unable to be there at the time of the loss but profoundly grateful that the chaplain had been there.

The way in which chaplains have to adapt their work during the pandemic may have lasting consequences.  As far as possible chaplains are now on the ‘virtual front’, projected into the pastoral situation by phone or internet video.  Yet this has a number of drawbacks.  It may require other NHS and care colleagues to set up the link by a patient’s side.  This time and facilitation may not always be possible on a busy ward or in a care home coping with Covid-19.  It also raises a question about what is freighted into pastoral care as part of physical presence.  It is more likely that someone will identify spiritual cues (such as a clerical collar or ID badge) if the meeting is in person.  It is possible that we have never fully investigated or recognised the impact of body language and the physicality of presence even though we have always acknowledged the judicious use of touch.

Chaplains will find it hard not to be on the front line, alongside colleagues.  As the duration of the pandemic extends this may alter.  In the balance between managing risk and gaining spiritual support I suspect that early restrictions may give way to a recognition that we need someone to ‘be there’; to stand in solidarity with staff and be able to form a spiritual link between locations of care and the needs of a family.  While other colleagues in the workforce of health and social care may be able to offer some of this we know from experiences that overt religious provision can land staff in difficulty.  The ability of the chaplain to burden the symbolisms of faith, belief, and community alongside the existential questions of mortality, may be a unique absence in the front line of care – and one that should be kept under regular review.



  • See: Rafferty, O. (2011). Catholic Chaplains to the British Forces in the First World War. Religion, State & Society, 39(1), 33-62.