University of Roehampton’s Methodist Chaplain Nicola Morrison reflects on the events of recent months and the impact of chaplaincy in these challenging times.
As I reflect on the experience of being a College and University Chaplain during this period of social isolation and lockdown enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic there are many things I might write about. What rises to the top however are the challenges that all faith communities have faced in the need to quickly adapt to offering a sustained ministry in a virtual environment.
This, for me at least, has been a bit like trying to convince a pianist (which I am) to play the organ (which I cannot!); you can put the keys in the same order but when you come to depress them you discover that it’s a totally different beast. In this regard, chaplaincy within this period has been a positive opportunity to learn to play our music on a new instrument, so to speak, and like a fledgling organist I have laboured with technology and acquired skills that I had formerly resigned to the ‘one day but not yet’ catalogue for personal development. This learning, again like many ministries, was accompanied by a flurry of activity within our chaplaincy team to ensure that provision was maintained as we moved into an ongoing period of social distancing and lockdown.
Through our adaptation and activity the Roehampton Chaplaincy has continued to make a substantial and relevant contribution to our University’s community.
Within our team the provision included:
- offering individual pastoral and listening services virtually, as well as online opportunities to gather as a community (such as our weekly community lunch and co-exist café);
- offering regular opportunities for morning prayer and worship through the creation of a reflective video and live-streaming times for evening prayer from our ecumenical student house;
- using social media and portal pages as our core vehicles for communicating events and messaging (particularly important for celebrating religious festivals such as Pesach, Holy Week and Easter, Vaisakhi, Ramadan and Eid) and we’ve used Facebook to create a safe community space encouraging mutual support particular to our community’s varied experiences of the coronacrisis;
- extending our bereavement services. Mindful of the additional trauma of experiencing bereavement in isolation we expanded our services to include pastoral care, ‘virtual’ accompaniment of those marking a funeral at home, a video on coping with bereavement in isolation, and an online ‘wall of remembrance’ as a space where members of the university community can name those they have lost during this time.
This has been far from our normal way of working however and the experience has taught me that the context of the ‘virtual’ environment is a very different beast to the usual world of chaplaincy. At times I’ve found myself exclaiming like the psalmist ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ as the application of these new, yet-to-be-honed, technical skills feels different in both touch and response from the usual instruments of chaplaincy.
So, I ask myself, is my discomfort caused entirely by my unfamiliarity with certain digital platforms (zoom, unibuddy, aula and padlet becoming swift, almost mystical, additions to my professional lexicon) or is there something deeper, more spiritual, to it? What does this period, in which we have embraced digital engagement because we’ve been denied the presence of others, teach us about human relating as well as ministries, such as chaplaincy, that inhabit an incarnational role?
Incarnational ministry at a distance
If I’m honest, the experience of offering pastoral care, opportunities for worship and community activities exclusively through screens has been conflicting. I recognise that is has provided an essential touchpoint to those who have needed support, encouragement and contact in this extraordinary time. However, it has also felt akin to seeing in a mirror double-dimly as those with whom we interact are at the same time close and distant.
On a technical level we are at the mercy of consistent bandwidth, webcams and soundcards through which varying degrees of connection is possible, but even when technology is working smoothly the experience of interacting is muted, consigned to a 2D encounter in which our own image is distractingly reflected alongside the other (‘does my uncut hair really look that wild?’) and body language interacts just as closely with one’s independent environment as it does to the shared digital experience (‘I can see you’re distracted by something off-screen but I can’t work out what it is! – we are persistently experiencing more than one environment in the virtual and the physical!).
There are other losses to my more familiar chaplaincy context. For example, within a group context I can’t quietly check if someone is ok or discreetly follow up on something that I know has been on someone’s mind.
In addition, the joys of ‘banter’ which aid relationship-building are limited as conversations work best when facilitated or microphones are switched off to cut out background noise; affirming or refuting facial expressions, so dependent on eye contact, are almost impossible to read; opportunities for chance encounter through intentional presence have disappeared; and prayer, in which one might normally rely on sensing the presence both of others and the Holy Spirit, consistently has more the representative feel of a public act of worship than the intimate feel of pastoral encounter or small group meeting.
The Chaplains on Campus report of 2019 identified ‘the ministry of presence’ as one of seven primary aims of the HE Chaplain. I have always found the incarnational role of ministry difficult to articulate as its character feels so implicit. However, as with many things, loss has sharpened my understanding and appreciation of the gift of presence which we are all so used to taking for granted. The loss of usual mechanisms through which I, as a Chaplain, relate with ‘the university, with the individual student, and with God’ has enabled me to more fully appreciate the importance of the ministry of presence and our basic human need for the sort of recognition that comes from sharing space along with non-verbal forms of communication, which we often use to denote recognition, affirmation, value, unspoken thoughts and feelings, and the conferral of attention.
As essential as it has been to remain apart during the coronavirus crisis our human experience is impoverished when we are denied the closeness of others and we need only look to the very first chapters of Genesis and the creation of humankind to discover that the need for presence and companionship is a part of our created-ness.
From here we can scan across eras of biblical examples of interaction and relationship – David and Jonathon, Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, Naomi and Ruth, Elizabeth and Mary, the disciples, Jesus and John, (Jesus and everyone!), Paul and Timothy, to name but a few specific friendships – before we fall upon the doctrine of the Trinity, like stumbling punch-drunk into Rublev’s icon, in which we behold ‘being in relationship’ as a core characteristic of God, in whose very image we are made (Gen 1.27).
This again speaks of the inherent social nature of our created-ness and puts me in mind of some of Stanley Hauerwas’ thoughts. In his essay ‘The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics’ Hauerwas writes:
‘We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. I know who I am only in relation to others, and indeed, who I am is a relation with others. The “self” names not a thing, but a relation.’
Relationship and relating is core to our human identity and I realise now that part of my discomfort of living and ministering in lockdown has been an innate sense of loss of that ability to interact face to face. For me, human relating in this way is an essential earthly experience which points us towards the wholeness of recreation which Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Cor. 13.12:
‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’
I would argue that without the experience of personal encounter we feel one-step removed from our created purpose and one–step further removed from the eschatological gift of being ‘fully known’, seeing ‘doubly-dimly’ as it were!
Gratitude for new skills and perspectives
Looking to the future this experience has made me cautious of courting the world of online ministerial platforms at the expense of opportunities for personal encounter. It will no doubt emerge as one of many tools but there are inherent challenges to offering incarnational ministry exclusively through a virtual environment and the denial of our social created-ness has a times made me feel more like a ‘service provider’ rather than a pastoral and prophetic minister, ‘in-tune’ with one’s community through shared experiences of presence and relationship. I hope that this doesn’t render me a technophobe! The wonders of technology have undoubtedly helped us all to make the best of excruciatingly difficult circumstances.
I am hugely thankful that the digital world has provided the instrument through which we can continue ‘sing the Lord’s song’ at all; we have been able to creatively maintain our chaplaincy work and crucially maintain safe contact with people throughout this difficult time. I am also extremely grateful for the lessons this experience has taught me about inclusion which will be carried into our future chaplaincy work (and is of particular relevance to our remote learning and commuting student experience).
However, I am most thankful for the lesson that the adaptation to
ministering within a virtual environment, has taught me through highlighting
and affirming the wonderful, vital, and life-giving gift of presence. When safe
circumstances permit I look forward to developing my chaplaincy work in the
light of these lessons and wholeheartedly celebrating each moment over the
coming months when we are, little by little, able to gather together
 Aune, K, Guest, M & Law, J (2019) Chaplains on Campus: Understanding Chaplaincy in UK Universities.
 Williams, A. (2013) ‘A Campus Come of Age? Reflections on the Contemporary Role of University Chaplaincy through the Lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity’. Practical Theology 6 (2), 204-219
 Hauerwas, S (2003) ‘The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics’. in The Hauerwas Reader. London. Duke