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.

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