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Ministry on the Hoof - Chaplaincy in a Modern University

By Ivor Moody.

This article begins by defining briefly what is meant by a modern University, in fact by outlining some of its postmodern tendencies which can lend to University life much transience and fragmentation. The author identifies the need for Chaplaincy to find ways, through its activities and liturgies, to build community on APU's busy, scattered town centre campus. Two models for ministry are considered: 'friendship' and 'brokenness'. They not only provide a glimpse of what Chaplaincy is doing at the University, but also form the basis of a theological justification for Chaplaincy's presence and work on campus, and its task of continuing to tell and to live the Christian Story.

"If you just sit in here, nothing will happen!" Seven years on, I still remember those salutary words delivered by the then Head of Student Services as he took me down to my office in the Chaplaincy Centre on my first day as Chaplain of Anglia Polytechnic University (APU). I remember them clearly, not only because I was feeling so unprepared for the task ahead, but because he was right. Gone was the security of a weekly, gathered congregation in a building called church; gone was the privilege of being surrounded by a people one had been called to serve who shared a common belief that the Christian story above all other stories represented the path to truth; and gone were practically all the regular and therefore comforting pastoral and liturgical requirements of the parish priest which had been my life for the previous fourteen years. Instead, there was the need to find ways to minister to a multi-faith, but mainly secular community. Above all, this was a community which was, and is, transient and mobile, scurrying across a busy, scattered town centre campus, which itself does little to foster any 'gathering'. The university was a collection of buildings servicing academic needs and requirements, but offering little or no communal space, which meant that, for the students passing outside the Chaplaincy Centre windows, there had indeed to be found ways of fostering some sense of community and friendship, and a chance to share the Gospel with them as they walked along the road.

There are several reasons why APU may be described as a mobile and fractured community, not least the fact that of the 14,000 students based in Chelmsford, 68% are part time, travelling into and out of the campus each day. As a paid up member of the postmodern knowledge economy, the University's boast to be a fast moving institution where things are decided and happen quickly, is due in part to the explosion of an electronic culture. This has had a deep influence on one of the biggest changes in Higher Education in recent times - the shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. The instant accessibility of an almost infinite amount of information on an almost infinite variety of subjects has encouraged the rapid growth in part-time students. It has enabled many of them, via the internet, and armed with efficient word processing capability, to combine a course of study with other professional and social commitments, which can result in comparatively little contribution to University campus life. This is exacerbated by a culture which is not only electronic, but consumerist, and the two together since the 1980s have enabled the move from elite to mass Higher Education. APU, in common with many other institutions, seeks to offer a customer franchise where potential students can pick and choose the type, duration and content of their course to blend in with their personal circumstances. Helped by the offering of courses in bite sized modules, not only have students been able to select products from the shelf that best suited their needs, but they are also able to determine the length of time it would take them to earn their degree. They are able to 'cash in' completed modules and use the credits earned to buy time towards the eventual attainment of a qualification. Where does all this leave a young Chaplain struggling to find his way out of the Chaplaincy Centre and into the lives and hearts of his fleeting, rushed and sceptical 'congregation'? Many would agree with Richard White, who states:

'With the triumph of instrumental reason and the increasing commodification of every aspect of life, there really is no place for the sacred'.1

Having given the briefest of glimpses with the broadest of brush strokes into a little of what makes life at a new University postmodern in its characteristics and outlook, it is the task of the rest of this paper to challenge White's assertion, and to do so, I will offer two insights into the work of Chaplaincy at APU. I will call them models for understanding Chaplaincy's ministry on campus, and both, I hope, contribute to a theology of 'ministry on the hoof' in a modern University which is challenging and relevant for ministry today.

Mention was made earlier of the need for Chaplaincy to practise friendship in its attempt to foster some sense of community. This is no mere attempt to be 'nice' though. John Inge2 affords friendship a sacramental quality. Avoiding what Zizioulas3 calls confessional pluralism, to be friends with each other is to obey Christ's command (John 13.35) and thereby to draw others into the recognition of a common humanity. This is a model for ministry which not only engages people whilst in pursuit of their academic and personal goals, but is one too, that traverses and transcends the numerous nationalities, cultures, faiths, beliefs and values represented on campus.

The Ministry of Hospitality

This ministry has three main aspects to it: first, hospitality. It is no coincidence that the offering of free food (kindly donated in the most part by members of local church congregations) represents a large part of Chaplaincy's activities within the University. There are several occasions, particularly at the beginning and end of semester, when many students gather round a Chaplaincy BBQ or a table laden with food. It is inviting fellowship in the face of a culture which, in its love affair with fast food, builds on the legacy of technology and consumerism by encouraging food to be consumed quickly and alone. Elizabeth Morse argues that the real sacrament of food consists in the hospitality it engenders: "The blistered 'sole' is also the aching 'soul'; both are weighed down and must be meditated upon".4

The Gift of Celebration

The second aspect is that of celebration. The University has policies and procedures for almost everything under the sun, but when it is required, effectively and meaningfully, to celebrate its achievements or mark its transitions, the response is often anaemic and inadequate. The offering of friendship by Chaplaincy as a model of ministry is as important for the institution as it is for the individual. It can act as a conduit between the sacred and the secular enabling a corporate expression of joy, anxiety or pain, through liturgies which often have to be as understanding and imaginative in their content as they do with being able to exploit opportunities within the life of the University, for people to give voice to their feelings.

So, for example, Chaplaincy organises a carol service which each year seeks to ensure that students and staff from across the Schools and geographically from across the area take part in a liturgy which is so constructed as to try and promote an inclusive feel for a University which is so disparate and often casual about its own richness and diversity. It has also organised a thanksgiving for new graduates and their families at the end of the bi-annual awards ceremonies. The joy and happiness so evident on the day, after what has often been a difficult and traumatic path to the obtaining of a degree, is translated into an occasion where Chaplaincy invites them, in the same Cathedral where they received their awards, to combine the secular with the sacred and give thanks for the good that has happened to them. Surely one of the most important functions of a good friend is to be there in times of need, and to provide a shoulder to cry on. In recent memory there have been some national and international events (Dunblane and the destruction of the Twin Towers being two of the most vivid) which have produced a corporate sense of shock, distress and bereavement. At such times the University is not a gathering place for individuals but a meeting point for a corporate need to pinpoint and express commonly held grief or despair. Chaplaincy, by offering a safe place to come aside for a while where people can be together to think and to pray, or to exorcise distressing circumstances or personal discomfort, is an opportunity for a ministry through friendship which is unique and precious. It echoes the Pauline imperative to "laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep" (Rom 12:15).

The Commitment to Serving Others

The third aspect of our ministry is that of service to others. The process of making friends within a University setting does not merely bring students together (and some friendships forged through contact with Chaplaincy have survived long after graduation), nor does it simply entail presenting Chaplaincy and the Gospel it espouses as approachable and accepting, important though that is. Making friends also enables Chaplaincy to involves students and staff in a recognition that they belong to a wider community, and that they are in a good position to think about or maybe do something for others less fortunate than themselves. Jesus rarely made or restored friendships without reminding those he affected that they were to "go and do likewise" ( Luke 10.37).

Some of the simplest liturgies organised on campus have enabled Chaplaincy to do this. Once it was a Jubilee 2000 display inviting people to sign a petition against the crippling debt imposed on the developing world and to take away and use a prayer card about the debt crisis. Another time, on the Friday before Remembrance Sunday, Chaplaincy put up displays around campus of pictures and photographs depicting current violence being perpetrated in the world. White poppies as well as red ones were offered for sale, and the word 'Peace' spelt in different languages together with prayers for peace from different faith traditions were left on display. Interestingly, both these rituals, like many besides them, were corridor ones, asking people scurrying to lectures or rushing to grab a coffee break to pause momentarily and spare a thought for brothers and sisters in need, and that peace might be given a chance.

Without question one of the biggest projects with which Chaplaincy is engaged is something called 'Mission Croatia'. Each June Chaplaincy organises for twenty five students and six staff (including the Chaplain) to travel to Kraljevica and Stancic in Croatia, where for two weeks repairs are carried out on the hospital buildings there, and the students (many of them student nurses) work alongside the Croatian nursing staff. This is a difficult and challenging task, because many of the patients are from tragic, neglected backgrounds and who have distressing disabilities. Nurses struggle constantly with poor equipment and chronic under-funding, doing their best to care for their patients often using nursing techniques long since shunned by the West.

Mission Croatia is the most dramatic and far reaching example of the friendship model of ministry, not only because of the scale and depth of caring for others required of the students and staff who each year travel to Croatia, but because in the attempt to change others' lives, many discover deep truths about themselves. The project has revealed that, even though many of the students who experience Mission Croatia have great difficulty about associations Chaplaincy has with any organised religion, nevertheless there is within them a deep and powerful desire to make a positive difference to others' lives. It is a spirituality which, even though it may have difficulty finding traditional, cultic expression, spills over into a desire to exercise a compassion and explore a love which perhaps never before has had the opportunity to surface.

Herein though is the key to the second insight into a 'ministry on the hoof' in a secular University offered by this article. One of the debates Chaplaincy has had centres upon the very word 'Chaplaincy' because the feedback from many students is that even mention of the word is synonymous with 'institutional Christianity' and is enough to make them close their ears. The consequences of this are often painful and hard to endure for ministry in a secular environment, not least in some of the opportunities for worship created by Chaplaincy on campus when attendance is poor, and occasionally non-existent! Feelings of frustration and disappointment often go with the territory in the attempt to minister on the hoof in a secular environment.

Yet even here, in the arena of uncertainty and failure, there is a ministry of friendship to be discovered, and with it a theology of what is going on between Chaplaincy and the University. If there is a brokenness which characterises Chaplaincy's ministry and presence on campus, then it shares a brokenness too, with many in the institution for whom anxiety and the threat of failure is also very real. For many students, even to get to University may have involved much sacrifice, heart searching and upheaval; for many more the experience of living and studying at University becomes a breaking process, where ideals and prejudices can be challenged and overturned, and lives for ever cast in new directions. The very transience and instability of University life mentioned earlier can play a big part in making University for so many a rite of passage. The requirement to minister to a mobile, transient community as they pass on street corners and down corridors means that Chaplaincy is well used to trying to find new resources and possibilities to relay its message, and to finding that its 'story' often goes unnoticed. It also means, however, that it can empathise easily with the frustration and disappointment experienced by many within the institution, and is often one with those who experience bewilderment and pain.

It seems to me that the sharing of this common bond is more than simply the bearing of one another's burdens. It is also an experience commonly defined by an ancient Christian language that speaks of the human transition from one state to another - from a situation of loss or need to a new identity and reality. It is a language which originates from the cross - "The point where Incarnation bows unders the weight of incomprehension, and the immanent is struck through by the transcendent"5 - and it has been given ancient expression by the Church, notably through the sacraments, and most especially through the breaking of the bread.

Why is this important? Because, as Andrew Walker says, "People may reject the Christian story, but our story will not allow us to reject them".6 If friendship is one useful, practical model for trying to understand Chaplaincy's ministry on campus, then brokenness is another, because it is a language which the Church has always owned. Through Chaplaincy acting as catalyst in its liturgies and activities, and through the experience of its own brokenness, it can offer back to the University a model for understanding its own secular experience. In the attempt to create and sustain community at APU, this is inextricably a part of the business of doing theology on campus, and the continuing effort to explore the nature of God in the midst of a secular, postmodern institution. Here is where Chaplaincy is, and here is where it must stay.

The Revd Ivor Moody has been Chaplain to the APU (Chelmsford Campus) since 1996. He has spent all his working life in the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford, serving curacies in Leytonstone in East London and Leigh on Sea near Southend, before becoming Incumbent of St. John the Baptist, Tilbury Docks.

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You are reading Ministry on the Hoof - Chaplaincy in a Modern University by Ivor Moody, part of Issue 29 of Ministry Today, published in October 2003.

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