What Is a Chaplaincy Anyway?
When I go cycling down to St Abbs, I pass a farm with a board outside saying ‘Growing great vegetables’ and I feel admiration and envy! I want a strapline like that for the Chaplaincy: no nonsense, say it like it is, state what you do. But I can’t think of one!
We do have a strapline: ‘For all faiths and none’, but it doesn’t state what a Chaplaincy is or does. It tells us who it’s for. Anyway, despite that strapline, most people, if they even know what the word ‘chaplaincy’ means, assume it’s for Christians, or other religious or spiritual people. As a fabulous focus group of 2nd year undergraduates explained, what jumps out is the word ‘faith’, and so they assume that the Chaplaincy is not for them.
Time for a name change?
This would seem the obvious answer, and honestly we think about it every year and ask others to help us, and the discussions always come back to the same place.
Here is an example of one such exchange:
‘The name ‘Chaplaincy’ is old fashioned and rather off-putting, especially for students/staff from various diverse backgrounds…..I and many others would never go near something called “The Chaplaincy” for fear of what it might entail. I have discussed this rather arcane title with various members of staff and all agree that the name Chaplaincy for what is effectively a counselling service is unappealing.
I know The Chaplaincy’s tag line says it is for people of all faiths and none – but still, it has strong connotations.’
‘We have long wondered about a different name for the Chaplaincy, and revisit this question every year. We would welcome suggestions! Please do send some to us.
We have so far found that every alternative name we have considered is too narrow. We are not a counselling service, and while we operate the University Listening Service this is only one aspect of what we provide. We also run the Edinburgh University Mindfulness Initiative, take the lead of some of the UoE Refugee work, lead on responses to national and international tragedies, provide reflective space within the institution for thinking about the nature of the university, its vision and values, etc.
Healthcare Chaplaincies have moved over to using such terms as ‘spiritual care’, but that is also too narrow for us and doesn’t capture the community and social justice aspects of our work.
The term ‘Chaplaincy’ does capture all of these elements. Chaplaincy is a growing movement at the moment, in all manner of work places, sports teams, fashion houses etc, not to mention the more traditional services in prisons, hospitals, educational institutions and the armed forces. Chaplaincy is growing as a diverse movement, with an increasing number of Humanist, Muslim, Sikh, Pagan, and other Chaplains.
So while we would be interested in another name that did not put people off, we may find that we change our name just as ‘chaplaincy’ comes to be understood for the diverse entity that it is.’
We can continue with that rationale, hoping that by modelling a very wide diversity of backgrounds, traditions, activities, and so forth, we will help ‘chaplaincies’ to be seen in a new and attractive light. We also know that we are not entirely managing to pull this off: while lots of people do get this, and the Chaplaincy Service is well-used, we also weekly encounter people who don’t see the Chaplaincy at all, or don’t see it as for them, because ‘Chaplaincy’ has Christian and possibly old-fashioned connotations.
What does the word ‘Chaplaincy’ mean?
It derives from the word for ‘Chapel’, which traditionally is a side place of worship within a larger church, or a private place of worship within grand houses, and more recently within institutions, including universities, hospitals, prisons, airports and such like. The word is of Christian origin, and is often related to the story of the cape of St Martin of Tours. The story is that while serving Rome as a soldier deployed in Gaul, Martin cut his military coat in half to share it with a beggar. That night, Martin dreamed that Christ was wearing the half-cloak. The half that Martin kept became a relic that was housed in a sanctuary. The sanctuary was named ‘capella’, after the cape, giving us the word ‘chapel’.
This story lends to Chaplaincy a heritage of social justice, hospitality, and protection, all of which feel to chaplains to be part of what they provide, alongside a listening ear, faith or belief guidance, and religious or spiritual practice.
What does the Chaplaincy do?
Our Chaplaincy here at the University of Edinburgh is regularly consulted by universities across the UK and internationally for advice on how to run a chaplaincy, because we are regarded as sector-leading, or as the benchmark for university chaplaincy.
I see Chaplaincy activity as falling under three main categories:
- Support for all members of the University, without discrimination or judgement
- the award-winning University Listening Service (1-1 support for students and staff)
- gatherings for groups in times of crisis (e.g. students and staff from: Nigeria, with the current flooding; Iran, with the current political unrest; Ukraine, with the war; Russia, with the war)
- support for friends, peers, families, staff (and for alumni or family members, where appropriate), when a student or a staff member dies
- support for groups who are supporting others, e.g. flatmates of an unwell student; bringing together staff across the university who are engaged in similar support roles
- hospital visits
- providing courses and training that support student and staff wellbeing, including: Mindfulness; Abundant Academy; Dreamwhispering; Grief Group; and bespoke wellbeing trainings for Schools and departments
- Providing space for activities that support us all in our wellbeing, such as Chaplaincy walks, hosting crafting and other creative societies, and choirs and dance societies
- Religion and belief expertise, guidance, practice and exploration
- Guidance for the University or for individuals around practicalities such as dress, food, prayer or quiet spaces, time-tabling and religious festivals
- Daily and weekly practices such as Tai Chi, Yoga, Mindfulness, Communion, Lectio Divina
- Over 30 Chaplains and belief contacts of diverse traditions (including Humanist and Pagan, and including LGBTQ+ chaplaincy), available for 1-1 support or group facilitation
- A place for multi-faith and belief exploration, where students wish to learn from one another across traditions
- Support for good campus relations, where, for example, Jewish society and Islamic Society forge strong friendships that hold through the challenges of Middle East politics; or Secular/Atheist/Humanist Society and the Catholic Society host shared dinners and engaged, respectful conversations over the sanctity of life
- Hosting or collaborating in celebration of major religious festivals across the year
- Reflection on the vision, values and purpose of the institution, calling it to its best self
- Being a barometer for what is going on for students and staff, and reflecting this back
- Providing blogs, podcasts, and films that speak to the C21 University environment
- Creating initiatives that meet the challenges of contemporary life at University, such as Why Don’t You Write Me, PhD Book Club, Slow University, and the Abundant Academy
- Our long-running What’s the University for? Series and film
- Spaces and initiatives for addressing big themes for life at University and beyond, including fear of failure, suicidality, climate change, support for refugees.
I’d love a strapline as straightforward as ‘Growing great vegetables’, but it’s hard to find one that captures the breadth, depth and diversity of a Chaplaincy. Here are a few possibilities:
‘Our home from home’: a way that users of the Common Room describe us
‘A place to study and help yourself to hot drinks’: this certainly tells it how it is, and we’d love more people to know! Of course, it reflects only a fraction of what Chaplaincy offers
‘The most diverse community on campus’: I genuinely believe this, although it plays the game of comparisonitis!
‘The Chaplaincy is a miracle-worker’: feedback from one of our users, which captures how a lot of people respond, once they discover us.
‘Like a youth-club, but for grown-ups’: I love this one, which comes from a focus group, and perhaps it is a winner.
But we would still be standing at Welcome Week stalls trying to answer the question: ‘But what does that mean?’
So if you can help us, with name or strapline, or feedback, we would be truly grateful!
Send responses to: Chaplaincy@ed.ac.uk Thank you to all our wonderful past, present and future users, and to all who help us to reflect on what we do.
These reflections are from the University Chaplain, Revd Dr Harriet Harris, email@example.com