Not bragging but explaining. A bit of a review, now the Chaplaincy has been reviewed to be relaunched on September 17th – 28 years and a day after my ordination.
As chaplain, the actual number of ‘pieces of work’ that I produce is probably less – though not that much less – than in my time as a local church minister. Over and above visits and online resources, especially those connected with Season of Creation, there are also requests for articles and video input from various other mission organisations like, this Spring, the World Day of Prayer.
There are protracted email conversations, which sometimes bear fruit. There’s one getting lively now, pinging away on my computer as I write. A vitally important aspect of the Pope’s film ‘The Letter’ was how the impacts of the climate crisis brutally impinged on the experience of the people he had drawn together as ‘voices’ of youth, indigenous, poor, and nature, even in the graced midst of the experience they shared in Rome. Whatever we say, pray and do, the background is frighteningly constant upheaval.
So, life as chaplain goes on, with contacts with students, lecturers, pastors, and “irritating” local activists. Reponses to contacts with journalists, for which I’m very grateful, though handled with caution after some painful times in previous ministries, which still leave their internet footprint. (Maybe I’ll know the Kingdom is near when the D**** M*** gives sympathetic coverage to sensitive matters.) The dangerous amount of personal energy involved is, quite comparable to some ‘normal’ full-time ministry, with, perhaps, even more scope to dig pits before you realise you’ve stepped in them. The higher profile dictates greater care on copyright and other matters which frequently pass under the radar at a merely local level. Personal resources have to be firmly managed, space made for family, and signs which might lead to burnout – or even ‘singe-out’, kept an eye on. The loving and informal good advice of friends ( you know who you are) is always heeded and welcomed, even if not always “followed”, because even that, like other Good News, involves discernment.
But what is it, that quite reasonably justifies the allocation of an entire ministry post to the environmental chaplaincy when local churches struggle to fill vacancies? For the provision of housing and expenses across denominations? There’s a case, of course, for seeing the project as an expensive luxury, but also as “the perfume poured over the feet”. An offering , in love. What it can’t and mustn’t be, is one more excuse, merely to appear be “doing something” .
From week to week, I spend time most of all with the carousel of lectionary texts which have spun round and round in my daily work over the last quarter century. I’m enjoying and valuing them more than ever.
Especially when dealing deeper than the English of popular translations brings up a far greater inclusiveness, even in ‘original’ texts than I ever would have imagined.
If it felt right, I have plenty to fall back on, even after a major breakdown of my key hard drive ( don’t ask further!) . But what takes the most time, energy commitment and foolhardy daring – all of which I’m trying to encourage in churches and my colleagues in ministry and those in training – is dealing with the respectable ‘voices in my head’, as it were, which prescribe and prohibit, because of the deep respect I have for the academic and ecclesiological culture which provided my training and formation in Christian ministry. In which, to caricature somewhat, nature is subsidiary, or even expendable, rather than protagonist in the Work of God, and in which humanity, or even ‘men’ is the default definitive. Inevitably, almost all published theological writing is going to be behind the crest of the wave of the climate crisis. Even the most prestigious writing from the end of the last century does not and cannot take into account current pressures -and readable signs – for a differing relationship with Creation.
If this job is to be done conscientiously and with integrity, I will be sticking my neck out pretty well every day.
So, like some other chaplaincies, in hospitals or with the military, perhaps, this has emerged as a distinct and often lonely vocation. To embody, at cost, the confidence I long to see in the churches I work with: the confidence of Moses to turn aside to the blazing bush, rather than dutifully be bogged down with the flock. The confidence of Joseph to take note of his dreams rather than pursue received decency and withdraw from Mary and her baby, the lifeline support they needed. There are plenty more examples to be inspired by. Especially those where the deepest loyalty had to be expressed by something which, on the surface appeared subversive or disobedient. Jesus above all, has not come to seek the setting aside of the Law, but its fulfilment. And for me, fulfilment implies continual, dedicated, responsive recycling – which enables the enjoyment of some good old songs as well as exciting new ones!
So, although my foundation is the long experience of a general practitioner in pastoral ministry, each day is also pioneering. Each step into the risky unknown, but carrying the heavy responsibility for the orthodoxy and theological coherence of what I say, do, record, edit and upload. URC vows require ‘a holy life’ . Church of Scotland specifies ‘circumspect’. The Presbyterian Church in Wales, which provided part of my ordination, looks to ‘God’s unspeakable gift’ (!!!) for which we give thanks.
It actually sometimes hurts, and feels unsafe to depart from well-worn voices which speak, like the conscientious translators of so many ‘versions’ of the Bible in English (or what I want to check, in German or French too) in the idiom they believed they were expected to use. Martin Luther’s “look the people in the gob” (dem Volk aufs Maul schauen!). As a linguist too – 4 years of German at University including one at Mainz – I’m constantly aware of how seldom a precise equivalent can be given of a particular thought; and how the process of Biblical interpretation – especially in that poetic, spiritual and pastoral task we call preaching – always has about it something of ‘conversion’ in the sense of change-of-mind, repentance, rethinking. This is something to live with and enjoy, rather than shy away from or feel frustrated about.
With every sentence and every sequence of video: what is the Spirit saying/what is the wind blowing into the Church today, that the Church may give Good News to all Creation? Even if, like the Gospels themselves, a great proportion of that Good News takes the form of warning.
So for every sort of sign that things are getting through, thanks be to God!