Only Connect

Only Connect: Worship and Liturgy from the Perspective of Pastoral Care, is a book by Robin Green published by DLT in 1987. It argues for the importance of liturgy connecting with the experiences of people, rather than simply meeting the preferences of the person leading liturgy. I read it while serving as a curate in Lancashire in the early 1990s and its persuasive argument helped shape my ministry. Many years afterwards I came across an early observation of how service content can fail to engage with lived experience. Charles Dickens, visiting a workhouse on a Sunday, attended the chapel service and listened to the sermon:

The service was decorously performed, though the sermon might have been much better adapted to the comprehension and to the circumstances of the hearers.

A Walk in the Workhouse, Charles Dickens

Although connecting faith and life is the task of every Christian, a minister is often seen as holding a particular and public responsibility for this work. When bereaved parents asked ‘why?’ they saw me as being in some way responsible for explanation. For reconciling this loving God with the wrenching pain of parting which, of course, cannot be done.

The experience of bearing the symbolism of myth in daily life is rarely a comfortable reality. It was often with eagerness that patients in a mental health hospital would seek conversation as soon as I was on the ward. Perhaps for those struggling to establish a coherent world the idea of a link with God offered some hope for reconciling contradiction. Yet, as was so often the case, words were a poor offering for the kind of answers that were being sought. Silence was probably nearer the mark. Not infrequently I wondered whether the experiences of patients arose from the accuracy, rather than the error, of their perception. As Jeanette Winterson observed: ‘To be ill adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown’.

The installation and performance artist Chiharu Shiota created a work of art in the 18th century former chapel in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The picture at the heading of this blog comes from a visit I made to the installation in 2018. In the void of the building these seemingly infinite connections and crossings are peppered with stray sheets taken from hymn books. The work appears to introduce thin memories into the space, evoking the notes and words of well known lyrics such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter’. A spell of time-travel woven by this careful crafting of line, word and melody. The faithful witness of generations in this rural corner of Yorkshire appeared caught; fragile yet stilled. It as as though the winds of time have been frozen for a moment and the memories fixed and held.

As I reflect on the role of the chaplain I have often mused about the nature of site and connection. In a hospital I was asked with regularity ‘where’s your church?’ A minister is automatically connected with a place of worship and the community it serves. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the first empirical studies of chaplaincy in the UK – Michael Wilson’s The Hospital a Place of Truth. The project which led to the publication arose from the need to provide a chapel in a new hospital. The fact that the chapel’s construction was linked so strongly to the role of the chaplain says a lot. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that for many people sacred space is connected to what is seen to be a sacred person. If this affinity is real, then a chaplain on a ward represents a skein of connection spanning holy places; family history; future hopes (and fears) as well as the defining moments of life, whose recollection is proffered so quickly in pastoral encounters. Perhaps, in the threads of the chaplain’s presence, we catch both the stray pages of the past as well as the thin notes that sound the future.

In understanding the chaplain’s role we need to pay more attention to these dynamics of presence. While much work is being done to establish the metrics for outcomes of spiritual care we should not ignore the significance of the chaplain’s identity. Just as the identity of a doctor or nurse shapes the character of interactions on the ward, so the nature of the chaplain also provides the context for a particular kind of discussion and disclosure. However, unlike many others working in a hospital or care home, the chaplain may mark the intersection of widely divergent narrative threads. As a religious building evokes particular thoughts and reflections, so the links of sacred space spill over into the perceived identity of the chaplain. In order to understand the value of spiritual care provided by a chaplain these issues of identity should not be ignored. Without them a crucial dimension of what the chaplain offers could be lost – and we may fail to ensure that what chaplains provide is adapted to the comprehension and circumstances of the hearers.

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