The Nuances of Workplace Chaplaincy
The great American comedian Groucho Marx is famously quoted as saying, “I find television very educational; whenever someone turns it on I go into another room and read a good book.”
Following the Prime Minister’s televised address to the nation last Sunday evening (May 10th) which appeared to create more questions than it actually answered, one might also be left with a similar feeling. So we waited eagerly next day for publication of the fifty page document which contained specific details of the road map to easing the lockdown, followed – by the news junkies among us at least - Boris Johnson’s update to Parliament the same afternoon in the hope that watching television might in this instance prove old Groucho wrong.
People will ultimately draw their own conclusions and interpretations especially given the many mixed messages in the official briefings to the media. What was noticeable however amongst the measures outlined was the call for sectors such as food production (though sadly as yet not breweries), other manufacturing industries, scientific research, logistics & distribution to begin returning wherever possible to normal working, the same for construction. Yet it’s these sectors which have been instrumental in keeping food on our supermarket shelves as well as delivering to schools, hospitals and care homes, in making and delivering essential items of medical equipment to where they were most needed and taking food parcels to those in isolation. Add to that the heroic efforts of the NHS, supermarket staff, postal workers, bus and train drivers, home carers etc we as a nation can be justifiably proud that bad as things appeared especially with the high number of deaths, it could have been much worse had the NHS been overwhelmed as was first feared. Naturally questions about who was ultimately responsible for this failure or that failure and how we can be better prepared in future will have to wait for another time, but questions there must be. Looking closer to home, should we not also be asking what would be the Chaplains role be if we ever have to face such a crisis again?
At times such as these never was the presence of a workplace Chaplain more urgently needed: if only to bolster the reassurance of the listening ear which forms so much of our ministry. But at the same time, never have many of us felt so redundant because we are currently considered a non-essential presence, reduced to informal contacts with individuals where our contact details were already known or were made public knowledge to those whom we serve by their employers.
Of course nobody is suggesting we should take unnecessary risks particularly around a pandemic, but listening to the experiences of those who were at our virtual chaplains meeting this morning, I concluded that there is not only a lot of frustration but also a possible sense of being surplus not only to current requirements, but potentially future ones too. Conversely organisations such West Mercia Police, have insisted on a Chaplain’s presence in their control room so someone has clearly thought of the pastoral needs among their staff. It is often said within the military that when planning for a war, a good General will always factor in the presence of a Padre before his artillery and tanks. Perhaps this is where the value of chaplaincy can manifest itself; in the soft power that comes from being the calming, reassuring presence that those on the front line can turn to during times when they are really up against it. Like our colleagues in the NHS, Care Homes and prisons are currently doing despite the potential dangers, could and should we be prepared within reason, to be that presence in those places where workers are continuing to provide an essential service in challenging times? And if so, how can we ensure it happens?
Naturally there will be voices raised in opposition specifically around issues of Health & Safety and Compliance with Process. These are terms which entered into our daily language long before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is that, at times, focusing on compliance has been allowed to assume a higher priority than working towards a best or desired outcome especially where there is a greater pastoral and spiritual need to be considered.
Historically what would have happened had the early disciples practised a culture of safety first when taking the Gospel of Christ out to their dangerous and uncertain world? There were no hidden meanings to their message of hope even in darkest times, yet at times we seem to have allowed them to creep into our own ministry when faced with a worldly crisis.
This is what is meant by the Nuances of Workplace Chaplaincy.