Tending the fire: Chaplaincy past and future

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It’s 25 years since I first got involved with the Chaplaincy at the University of Bath. There have been a lot of changes - Eastwood seemed the trendy newbuild, imagine Bath without a computer science department!

There are some things which had their own place in time but don’t happen these days - pilgrimages to Iona during the Easter vacation, chaplaincy trips for international students and prayer pilgrimages in Wells Cathedral. Introducing people to the spiritual heritage of that ancient building and praying together in that apparently empty, evening time Cathedral is a special memory.  Former inspirational colleagues remain, well, inspirational. Among many memories I particularly treasure working with a Quaker colleague on Peace and Justice projects.

But the essence of chaplaincy hasn’t changed. There are two images which come to mind: the market place and the fireside. Life in the church shouldn’t get trapped behind its doors. Life inside the church is essential – we need to worship; we need to have a place to gather. But the Church has a life outside its buildings. That’s because God’s people, all of them, not just the signed-up Christians, are out there, living, working, sorrowing, rejoicing. Chaplaincy lives outside the church building, alongside everyone.

Like all chaplains in big institutions, there have been times that were heart-breaking. No-one expects a student to die, no-one expects a parent and spouse to die in the workplace. More often than not, it’s the chaplains that become a focus of support for stunned relatives and friends, the chaplains who act as servants alongside those caught up in the storm of tragedy.

But Chaplaincy also has times of intense joy. Seeing friendships form and deepen, discoveries of personal gifts and abilities, people discovering a sense of personal identity. It’s often like seeing a fire coming to light. Watching someone receive their degree at graduation and knowing just how much that achievement demanded. The word “privilege” doesn’t do justice…..

A chaplain also tends a fireside. Faith spaces aim to be safe spaces.  People come in and find an atmosphere that is somehow different from the sometimes-brutal environment of competition and work. One student said: “This is the only place where I don’t feel I’m being assessed.” It’s been a place where people knew they could drop in and find someone who would listen to them.  I know that some of those conversations were milestones on a life journey. What greater privilege…?

Scraping mushed baked beans or pasta off the bottom of a huge pan and isn’t particularly exciting, but for me it was an oft repeated part of many hospitality events. Endless washing up can be the place where conversations happen, jokes shared, community is built.

Building community means the appreciation of difference. Universities are unique places for getting to know people from backgrounds completely different from one’s own. I’ve especially appreciated the opportunity to see boundaries of understanding being crossed, stereotypes broken down, mutual understanding growing – and knowing that this greater understanding would be taken home to other contexts, hopefully sowing seeds that would germinate in places completely unknown to me.

So – looking back on the last 25 years of chaplaincy I feel an enormous gratitude. I also feel a lot of hope. How can one not spend a lot of time around young people and not feel hope!?

Mother Sarah

The Chaplaincy Team: From the end of May 2024, Mother Sarah is stepping back from her Chaplaincy role to spend more time on Parish projects. She will still be our link to the Orthodox community in Bath and students and staff are very welcome to get in contact with her. We will really miss her Friday visits to campus and thank her very much for all the wonderful time and expertise she has gifted to the University of Bath Chaplaincy over the past 25 years.

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