Agents of hope: why the UK urgently needs a new movement of chaplains

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From the stress and strain in all strands of the public sector, to increasingly popular calls for mental health support coming from celebrities and professionals alike, the importance of personal wellbeing has never been higher on the public agenda.

The need is huge, and society knows something needs to be done. Enter chaplains: the often unseen agents of faith, bringing hope and help to people across society, from regulated sectors such as hospitals, prisons and the military to contemporary sectors such as retail and transportation.

Where else do we see a Christian uniquely equipped, and invited into a place, to stand in the gap and meet people's needs? Chaplains work a ground that is increasingly secularised and supremely challenging for many.

I sometimes stare up in awe at the elaborate churches built hundreds of years ago. They symbolised the status the church had in the community at that time, and yet many have now lost their central function – they are becoming pubs, nightclubs or even bookmakers! But I don't think that this means the Church has lost its role in the community – far from it.

With the value placed on mental health support only likely to grow in our society, Christians need to continue to pursue the chance to be the hands and feet of Jesus by being visible and available and bringing hope to people who are searching.

Traditionally, training to become a chaplain in the regulated sector would take years. But with an urgent need, a growing pandemic of mental health crises, and various sectors becoming more open to having a chaplain in their midst, we need to look at chaplaincy differently. We need a movement.

A movement can respond rapidly. A movement can spread the Gospel passionately and demonstrate the hope of Jesus. A movement is visible and its participants are available.

Being physically present in the places where people live out their day-to-day lives, chaplains have a visible platform to provide a listening ear and offer words of comfort and encouragement. They also make themselves available for prayer and for one-on-one conversations about faith, allowing people to explore their beliefs and find meaning in their struggles.

In our increasingly secular society, Christians can sometimes live in a cultural bubble. We even have our own language: "Christianese"! In contrast, chaplains are trained to communicate the impact of faith in a way that is accessible and relevant to people from all walks of life. Many people who are seeking spiritual guidance may not have a strong background in Christianity, and it is the role of the chaplain to be able to explain complex concepts and ideas in a way that is easy to understand.

With the UK's strained public service sector and so many facing challenging circumstances, sometimes the only people bringing hope are the chaplains. Several chaplains that I know personally have been equipped to step into the aftermath of traumatic, national events – sharing hope in seemingly hopeless situations. Others exist as a constant in their communities and share the Gospel through their day-to-day interactions.

The call now is for chaplains to respond to the growing need for mental health and well-being support – to bring hope and help where it's needed the most and to share the Gospel passionately and relevantly as and when the opportunity arises.

If we want to develop a movement of chaplains across the nation, we have to equip Christians with a toolbox of skills that enable them to share the hope they have with others, wherever and whenever they might be approached.

I run a Contemporary Chaplaincy course through Waverley Abbey College, designed to encourage and facilitate this movement. Through our part-time, online course, our students are gaining a deeper understanding of what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus. They're becoming bilingual – translating "Christianese" in order to share their hope and bring help to any sector they feel called to work in. And rather than waiting for the course to be completed, our students begin working in their desired sector immediately upon beginning the course, so they can put their learning into action straight away.

This movement of Christian chaplains is essential. By making ourselves visible and available, and by communicating the message of Christianity in a way that is accessible and relevant, we are able to create a movement that responds to what people are always looking for: hope.

Keith Foster is Head of Chaplaincy at Waverley Abbey College.