Chaplains always walk a fine line between the pastoral care of distressed people and the risk of making the intolerable, tolerable. It is an experience that runs deep in the history of chaplaincy. The workhouse chaplain and the workhouse master were designed to operate as ‘good cop, bad cop’. One the stern disciplinarian; the other the ‘friend of the poor’. Perceptive critique of this relationship arrived at the jarring description of the chaplain as the Sunday gaoler.
More recently – the early 1990s – an NHS CEO was feeling somewhat anxious about selling the concept of greater autonomy to a largely left-wing audience. As one of the first implementers of the new ‘Trusts’, the CEO imagined that there could be popular opposition to anything that might smack of gradual privatisation. So he asked the medical director and the chaplain to sit on either side of him on the platform. Not only that, but he was keen to see the medic in a white coat and the chaplain in a clerical collar. Armed with the presence of medical authority and religious support, the CEO judged that this would help lessen the opposition.
In a similar way during the organ retention crisis it was often left to chaplains to engage with parents and conduct the ‘reunitings’ – when newly discovered remains were buried alongside the original casket. Around the country special religious services were held to mark the experiences of loss which these circumstances had made more complex. I was involved with the one at Leeds Minster and preached the sermon. After the service one relative said that he felt better about the sermon than he had when he attended a similar event in the south of England. On that occasion the local bishop had preached and, when the relative saw him after the service, he asked the bishop: ‘So when’s the NHS going to give you your thirty pieces of silver?’ The relative thought the bishop had done everything possible to defend the institution – but done nothing to express solidarity for the grieving families.
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu’s reflection emphasises the need to ensure that pastoral concern is matched with prophetic witness. It is better to stop the circumstances that lead to suffering rather than focus exclusively on saving those already drowning. Many well-meaning people baulk at the political involvement that requires injustice to be challenged – but in doing so risk participating in propping up systems that are fundamentally pernicious.
In meeting with members of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch I learned about the ‘Day of Courageous Conversations’. This took place in 2015 when the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, The Most Reverend Dr Thabo Makgoba, hosted representatives of the South African mining sector, civil society and faith communities to discuss the future of the mining industry. The aim was to see a way forward for sustainable mining that limited its damage to local communities.
The Most Reverend Dr Thabo Makgoba
One possible outcome of these conversations (which are continuing) might be the allocation of chaplains to the mines. Given that mining is undoubtedly at the sharp end of capitalism, not to mention environmental harm, chaplaincy in this context will be daunting. The balance between spiritual sticking plasters, and challenging unjust and injurious practices, will be extremely challenging. Perhaps, if chaplaincy is provided in this industry, there need to be clear and anonymous ways in which chaplains can reflect back to senior church leadership the concerns they identify. This could in turn enable and resource prophetic witness which would allow pastoral care to continue while moral questions are raised and pressed forward. Only time will tell if this is an ethical and faithful way in which to balance the need for compassion with the risk of complicity.
If any chaplain ever feels that there are no tensions between the organisation they serve and the people they pastor, this is probably the clearest warning that something is wrong in their ministry. Chaplaincy will always be at the messy interface of personal experience and institutional power. In the midst of all the distortions this creates, the chaplain’s calling is to stand by and for the things that belong to the Kingdom.