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.

Crossing Over the Road

In a remarkably short space of time other people have become dangerous.  Or, to be more precise, they have become bearers of danger and a risk to health.  This remarkable transformation runs counter to so much that we have been used to doing, almost without thought.  It is telling that politician after politician has spoken stern advice only to breach it themselves within moments.  Those who have cautioned against handshaking, and then turned from the podium to stretch out a hand to a colleague.  The people who warn against the habit of touching our faces and then lick a finger to turn a page.  This week, a Bishop who put his clergy under caution of discipline if they led public prayers and then was seen the next day in the House of Lords offering prayers in full regalia.

The Christian faith is full of touch.  The care of the Good Samaritan; the father’s embrace of the prodigal son; the women whose haemorrhage would not cease.  Time and again the images offered in scripture reference reaching out; breaking taboos and welcoming the excluded.  Clergy engaged in pastoral care often encourage people not to avoid the bereaved.  We have spoken often about the damage that can lie in the simple act of crossing the road in order to avoid a difficult conversation.

During my daily walk I am now scrupulous in avoiding others.  As I see people approach there is a careful choreography of avoidance.  Occasionally we exchange a shared smile as our actions simultaneously mirror each other and we risk close proximity.  Perhaps people are speaking a little more, but there are some who appear to feel that even a ‘hello’ might be infectious.

At this stage it is difficult to know whether the behaviours we are being compelled to adopt will leave a lasting legacy.  For good reason we are learning to distance ourselves from others: even the grieving cannot be offered the consolation of a hug.  Already the distress of this enforced separation is taking its toll on people as we retreat into our own space and the safety of our personal two metre exclusion zone.  While many will still enjoy the company of people living in the same household, this cannot be true for all.  In 2017 it was estimated that 15% of adults in the UK were living alone.

The longer-term question is how the accumulation of micro-acts of physical distancing will change us.  Will our sense of self and our relationship with others return to how they were before – or will we be left with a lingering sense of separation?  Understandably our efforts at the moment are focused on the preservation of life, the continuity of vital supplies and the care of the most vulnerable.  Yet we ought to be aware that such dramatic shifts in expectations and daily conduct will almost certainly leave marks on the shape of our spirituality, our relationships and our sense of connection.  At the end of this crisis I suspect that the impact of inequality will be made starkly visible as the suffering of the poor, elderly and disabled, will be disproportionate to the whole.

As we enter the final days of Lent there are plenty of images offered of isolation and its pain.  From the agony in the garden to the abandonment of the cross, from being disowned to being made a public spectacle, distress and suffering are linked to the experience of distancing.  Perhaps our hope at this time, drawing on our spiritual resources, is to point to a resurrection in which life will in time be both renewed and altered.  That the pain of solitude can be transformed into a far richer understanding of our shared humanity, and that the idol of individualism can at last be dismantled in our public life for the sake of the common good.



Spirituality; connection and; Covid-19

It’s early on a Sunday morning in York.  Normally, even at the start of the day, the streets are populated with tourists; photographers; joggers.  Today things are strangely quiet.

Already we understand that the Covid-19 pandemic is a defining moment in our history.  It will be thought about, spoken about, written about and – no doubt – turned into multiple films and box sets, for the rest of my life.  The consequences of an easily transmitted and debilitating virus, bringing a serious risk of critical illness and death, are profound.  Our health, our economy, the taken-for-granted ease of travel, will all be changed for years to come by what is happening now.

Perhaps one of the last affects to be understood widely will be its spiritual impact.  Recently I’ve been reviewing some training materials about spiritual care.  Like every project in this field a key element of the work rests on the definition of spirituality.  There are so many of these which, although similar, all have skilfully nuanced and context-specific differences.  If there is one word more than any other to permeate these attempts at definition it is ‘connection’.  Whether to nature; to self; to others; to God – the idea of being linked to something or someone beyond ourselves is at the heart of our spirituality.

With the approach of Covid-19, slowly but surely, countries are battening down the hatches.  Pubs, bars, churches, galleries, museums, restaurants and cafes are now closed in the UK.  Any place likely to attract a large gathering has shut its doors.  On Mothering Sunday people have been discouraged by the Prime Minister from visiting their mums.  Family gatherings should not take place.  

In The Guardian on Saturday 21 March 2020 the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage evoked the memory of Eyam in a poem written in the light of the pandemic.  It is strange to think that only a few weeks ago Armitage was reading poems from his collection Seeing Stars at the York Theatre RoyalNow it feels like recalling a different world.

Yet even in the Great Plague, which began in 1665, the surviving villagers of Eyam were able to gather together – but apart – for Sunday services in a place called Cucklet Dell.  Worship went on and people met at a distance.  There was a feeling of connection and community, even in adversity.  In 2020 we are facing a far less deadly contagion by remaining in our homes.  Many people, but not all, have the benefit of being connected to loved ones through the internet – today we share an immense place of virtual meeting.

I wonder what the long-term toll will be on our sense of spirituality and spiritual wellbeing?  There is something about physical presence, as Peter Speck put it in the 1980s, of simply ‘being there’.  It doesn’t feel that communication at-a-distance can replace this personal proximity.  In our homes and streets we will no doubt continue to wave at the people we know, but in all other respects we are living at a remove.  This is expected to last for months.

Maintaining our spirituality must be a vital strand of our response to Covid-19.  Given the requirement to distance ourselves socially we must do everything we can to sustain connections spiritually.  Human life and wellbeing needs a sense of linking to the ‘other’, whoever or whatever that might be.  If the fine web of our relationships begins to fray – if distance becomes the new normal – there will be serious consequences with lasting effects.  

The role of chaplains and faith communities must be to bring renewed energy, vision and invention to the task of preserving spiritual connection.  Streaming services and podcasting messages and music will go some way to achieve this, but more is needed.  Our identities are developed and defined in communities and every effort must be made to limit the harm that can follow isolation and disconnection. From lights in windows to personal messages and gifts that token our care, now more than ever we need to strengthen and sustain the bonds that keep us truly human.



‘after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” ’ (1 Kings 19: 12-13)

Last week I led a Sunday morning reflection for a group called Hospice23.  Those attending were hospice staff motivated in their work by a sense of vocation.  The residential was held at Scargill House and it was a beautiful and bright early morning drive over to Kettlewell.  The theme I’d been asked to address was stillness.

Stillness is something people respond to differently.  For some it can be a precious respite after a busy day.  For others the idea of stillness drives them crazy: they want to be up and doing!  While stillness might always have the same qualities it can come out of quite different things.  In the passage at the start of this blog stillness follows storm.  I am sure that those working in health care know that kind of experience, in all sorts of ways, and not least when the struggle to preserve life is confronted by the reality of loss.

When we are still, the questions we have been trying to avoid come quietly into our minds.  It’s when Elijah is met by sheer silence at the entrance of the cave that God asks him: “What are you doing here?”

Sometimes those in our care need us to be still.  Rushing about gets things done but it can also lead us to miss things we ought to hear.  In the middle of a storm, on a busy ward or in our daily work, we need to keep hold of the capacity to be stilled.  Without stillness in us patients will never feel fully seen or have their individual needs acknowledged.

If you have the chance from time to time to walk by the tarns and waters of the Dales there is a lesson nature never tires of teaching us.  Without stillness there is no reflection.

Be still: and know that I am God.  Psalm 46:10


Lord, every day, for just

a moment, still our busy world.

Speak to us in peace; draw us deeper into your love

and let our stillness be of service to those we are called to serve.    Amen.