A School Chaplain’s Work – Some Reflections

Reflections on the Ministry and Practice of Anglican School Chaplaincy

This is the first in an occasional series of posts that invites us to reflect upon our chaplaincy ministry and practice. This series will include articles written by experienced chaplains to encourage us to critically reflect on our work in Anglican schools.

The Reverend Dr Brian Porter was a legendary figure in chaplaincy circles in Melbourne. He worked at four Anglican schools, Canberra Grammar, Ivanhoe Grammar, Melbourne Grammar and Brighton Grammar. I recently rediscovered this article that Brian wrote many years ago where he reflects on the ministry of a school chaplain. Sadly, Brian passed away in 2022 and I thank his widow, Muriel, for permission to reproduce this article. It has been lightly edited to remove some of the more dated references however Brian’s provocative style and his passion for the ministry of school chaplains remain very much intact.    

I well remember the local bishop quizzing me when I accepted appointment as Chaplain of Canberra Grammar School. ‘How do you justify spending all your time amongst the rich and privileged?’ he asked. My response was along the lines of our priestly, prophetic and pastoral calling to minister to people in their strength as well as their weakness, to scatter the good seed amongst the children of Australia’s bureaucratic elite who in all probability would themselves – or at least many of them – become professionals and leaders in due course.

1: Sector Ministry

From time to time those of us involved in so called sector ministries have been able to make the point that the parochial ministry is no more to be regarded as the most legitimate nor even the most important sphere of service for a priest. Indeed, we have pressed the matter even further and somewhat brazenly, to insist that the parochial ministry is itself but one sector in a diversifying pattern of ordained ministry. And the message has been registered, so much so that we no longer labour the point. There is no need: plainly the parochial ministry itself is under enormous strain as economic reality bites deeper and the rural model of a resident priest with a geographically defined responsibility fades into Anglican nostalgia. The church’s ministry of the 21st century is going to look very different and travel much more lightly with fewer full-time professionals surrounded by clusters of ‘tentmaker’ clergy who earn their own bread.

Once upon a time ordination could only take place into the parish sector. Now it seems that other sectors might be adjudged equally suitable places where a full range of experiences in priestly formation might be offered. Church schools, it might be predicted, could come to serve the church in this way in the years ahead with considerable mutual benefit.

What is now acknowledged more encouragingly by bishops and the church bureaucrats and synods at large is that ministry is exercised where people are formed, where they work, and in situations of need or crisis, as much as, if not more than, where they happen to sleep or gather for Sunday worship. In secular society too which is fairly minimally church-going even amongst card carrying Anglicans, the presence of a chaplain at school, in hospital or at work may be the only physical contact people have with the church. The chaplain thus has the daunting responsibility of keeping alive the rumour of God in a materialistic hedonist culture. With formal churchgoing on the decline, the church now goes out much more than it ever did to where people work, rather than sit where they happen to sleep.

2: Bias to the Rich?

As to the Bishop of Canberra’s de haul en bas or de bas en haul thrust, there is this to be said. Double income parents in the main have made possible this considerable growth and have elected to do so, often at notable sacrifice, for a range of reasons to do with factors other than social aspiration: elitism, family tradition or wealth or, let it be said, Christian commitment. Elements of all these motives are around certainly, and some children do come from fabulously wealthy homes, but in the main there is real financial sacrifice in the background in the generality of families supporting children at church schools. Are these schools biased to the rich? This is a common synodical gripe. How might the committed Christian principal and chaplain respond? Along these lines? The materially rich are to be ministered to, as souls for whom Christ died.

One may be excused for wondering whether Jesus showed any bias toward anyone. Certainly, he showed a bias to the needy, but not to any one section of them. The poor are needy in a direction which may be more obvious than others, and more easy to gauge in economic terms. But the message of Jesus was more than economic. Everyone was his concern; everyone had an equal need of God. His only bias was to sinners, and everyone was, and is, a sinner.

A case may even be made out for saying that the rich are particularly needy. Riches bring special temptations and therefore also special needs. We read that the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful was the object of Jesus’ love: ‘how hard it shall be for them that have riches to enter the kingdom’. And so it is today that the children of the rich are prone to a particular form of loss. Not infrequently they, more than others, are denied family love and stability; the simple secrets of true happiness often escape them rather than others who are considered to be less privileged. A sense of purpose in life and contentment in death are joys that no money can buy. There is indeed a deprivation of the rich.

Jesus has cause therefore to love the rich as much as everyone, not more, not less and such discriminations are far from the mind of school chaplains who deal with their charges, as Jesus did, as unique individuals, especially in their capacity to respond to the claims of his love. So much for the clichéd charge or elitism which school chaplains find boring.

3: Theological Models

Theological models of mission and ministry deserve an airing in the context of church schools. At either extreme powerful models operate; both are explicitly and implicitly evangelistic. Tight conservative Christians argue that children in church schools are to be outwardly and visibly evangelised at every opportunity. They are generally disparaging about the effectiveness of church schools as judged by their end product which is numbers of committed Christians ending up in the pews or even in the ordained ministry. At the other end more liberal supporters of the educational aims of  church schools would be satisfied if exposure to the climate of Christian faith and life were to be offered as one element in the smorgasbord of lifestyle choices which adolescents should consider on their way to the articulation of a personal set of beliefs by the time they leave.

Such a view sees the seed scattering task of chaplains as of quite fundamental importance in the long run and runs can be very long indeed. A successful chaplaincy by this criterion might result in the richness of old boy/girl contacts with the chaplain years down the track, and especially at points of decision or crisis in adult life. Much seed scattered amongst teenagers falls on pretty rocky ground but then it is there if conditions of germination change later on. There is an incarnational model of ministry implicit in this rationale. The chaplain is there as an identifiable public church functionary and may in fact be the only ordained minister the child ever knows by name. The church comes across in special focus through the chaplain and that is an awesome responsibility.

School chaplains then cover this whole spectrum from Billy Graham hot gospellers to shadowy Melchisedek figures almost invisible and irrelevant to the student’s experience of school or church.

4: Chaplains

The high-profile chaplain may be strongly committed to symbols: strict adherence to clerical dress, a powerful commitment to powerful acts of corporate worship in Chapel – the larger the better, – fine choral music, elevated and dogmatic preaching with little recognition or enabling of the ministry of others. Sometimes it works with spectacular success, sometimes it is alienating. The low profile chaplain probably shines in the classroom where he/she may be overburdened with too many classes especially in religious studies. There is often little difference between other teachers and this one.

The work of a school chaplain is in all its fullness pretty indescribable. If it is unbearable – as it would be for most parish priests if suddenly translated, so much being governed by bells and deadlines – it can sour ordained ministry. If a chaplain feels trapped in the perception that the work is akin to casting a false pearl before real swine, then the time might have come for him to move on in search or alternative employment with adults rather than children.

However, chaplains who find fulfilment in their work would be likely to see their responsibilities in these terms (not necessarily in priority order):

I. To initiate students into a Christian way of looking at life, the world, themselves and others i.e. into philosophy, religion, psychology, and culture, the things which ultimately matter. “What is the most important thing that you know?” is a pertinent question for the chaplain to ask.

2. To teach the Christian faith systematically according to a credible and worthwhile syllabus which these days allows for the pluriform belief systems in our culture (including the alternatives to religious belief).

3. To prepare some students at the peak of their adolescent idealism for some sort of public profession of their faith whether baptism, communion or confirmation. Confirmation is no more seen these days as a rite de passage administered as it was to me with 100 others in Form 2 as an expectation at that age.

4. To offer pastoral care to a complex and diverse and often deeply troubled, or deeply complacent community. The chaplain will be part of a pastoral care team but should be eccentric to it at crucial points such as

• being a confidant of and toward the principal

• afflicting the comfortable as much as comforting the afflicted

• being the conscience of the staff in reminding them of the Christian ethos of the school (most Anglican school staff are non-churchgoers)

• holding in the heart secrets which dare not be uttered.

5: Hazards for School Chaplains

The professional dangers faced by the school chaplain are not peculiar but may be experienced with particular intensity or ignored with increasing detachment from parish priests and their world:

I. Burn out. Few teachers are so critically exposed day in, day out, as chaplains. Teenagers are very perceptive and are quick to drive a wedge between profession and performance. ‘Religion can only be caught’ some would say ‘not taught’ and if the chaplain can neither teach nor win them over intellectually, or as guide, philosopher and friend, deep unhappiness will be inevitable and functioning for too long on automatic pilot will deaden the soul.

2. Authoritarian incompetence. This might see the Chaplain failing to discern the ministry of others. The clericalization of ministry is particularly dangerous to those in sectors which live with transient communities. Egocentric wolves are around who feed on their pupils. However shepherds do abound.

3. Comfort. School chaplains do not have to worry about money raising and by and large are well paid and holidayed. Chaplains who ‘dwell at ease in Sion’ need to ask where the mark of the cross is present in their lives lest they become hothouse exotica who would not survive in empty churches or high-rise ministry. Schools, prisons, and regiments all offer chaplains a guaranteed congregation, a clearly defined role and specific pastoral problems. Ministry can thus be similarly straightjacketed, routinised and deadening to the soul which longs for diversity, the unexpected, and an all-age ministry. School chaplains are especially prone to becoming platitude machines whose preaching draws on old stuff which has worked before. Unless they maintain active links with Sunday congregations, tiredness might see them give up Sunday church-going in favour of the beach house or golf and this can further marginalise them in an already insular lifestyle vis a vis the institution.

Most principals would regard the appointment of their chaplain as their most important recruitment task. This is because, whether the phraseology is acceptable or not, in terms of function the chaplain has to be a walking sacrament, an alter Christus. But then should not all principals of avowedly Christian Schools be just that? The chaplain happens to have the public function and focus which sums up in a personified way all that the school by charter professes. Good school chaplains are hard to come by. Word of mouth and the network are more reliable than straight advertisement it seems. The mixture of soundness and zanyness in terms of personality and the perceived and felt needs of the school will test the principal’s judgement and often his/her tolerance. But in most schools a pleasing sharing of the Christian responsibility for the community is established between the principal and the chaplain. It is lonely at the top and it may be that to the chaplain falls the lot to tell the Principal the truth when no one else will.

Andrew Stewart Written by:

Reverend Andrew Stewart has twenty years experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.

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