The “Lone Ranger”?

What picture of the contemporary chaplain is conjured of a chaplain at work?

It may be one that corresponds to the picture of St Martin, moved by compassion, encountering the poor man: the chaplain working as an individual with another individual; the hospital chaplain at the bedside or the prison chaplain in the cell.

Or we may picture the chaplain among a group, perhaps leading a memorial service in response to some community tragedy; the Army chaplain leading prayers with the troops or the school chaplain speaking at a school assembly.

These are common images, but they are of the chaplain as a loner.

When St Martin left the army to follow his vocation, inspired by the vision of the incident with the beggar, he set up communities of compassion. These were places of sanctuary where anyone, no matter what station in life, no matter what religion or race, could find shelter and sustenance. They were communities of open hospitality.

It has been easier for the churches to promote an individualised chaplaincy, based on the beggar encounter image. Churches can understand a model that is a simple extension of the parish priest model; the chaplain-priest in geographically isolated settings. If the parish can’t come to church, the church goes out to the parish in the person of the priest – to those confined in hospitals or prisons or abroad in the armed services. It is the priestly model. The priest-chaplain conducts religious services, hears confessions and connects with those communities.

Such a model assumes a level of religious uniformity within those communities. Even in our religiously pluralistic situation today, the appointment of chaplains of other faiths in the armed services or police forces is dependent on the relative number of people of other faiths who may be served by such an appointment. This is perfectly reasonable if one assumes an individualistic model of chaplaincy in the tradition of the priest-chaplain ministering to his (sic) adherents. If there is a sizeable Catholic constituency, a Catholic chaplain is appointed to minister to Catholics; a reasonable number of Buddhists, a Buddhist chaplain to Buddhists etc. Draw a pie-diagram of religious adherence and appoint accordingly.

Such a model begs the question, is there a chaplain for the religiously non-committed or for the “secular humanists”? Is the role of chaplain irrelevant (not seen to be needed) among the non-religious? And what about those minorities who don’t make the cut?

I think that in the university context a community model of chaplaincy is worth exploring, one that is strategised beyond the individualised image of St Martin and the beggar to St Martin’s communities of hospitality.

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