In my first post in this series, I reflected on what the Covid-19 situation might be saying to our world generally. In the second post, I asked what questions this time was raising for our students, and in this third post, I want to invite us to reflect upon how it has impacted us in our role as chaplains.
Covid-19 has asked us all some hard questions. It asked hard questions for us as chaplains – what was our role in our school communities when our schools moved online and students went about learning at home? As chaplains we rely on presence and engagement to be effective in our roles. During offsite learning ‘presence’ had to take place online and our sense of engagement with our community was considerably hampered.
As the crisis began, schools had to make critical decisions on the run or to ‘start flying the plane while it was still being built’ (one of my favourite phrases that came into vouge at the time). We found ourselves sailing into uncharted waters, (to mix metaphors) with little to guide us as to the best way forward.
What was the role of the chaplain in offsite mode? For some of us, with a teaching load, the waters were easier to navigate as classes continued online and we could connect with students that way. But for those chaplains with a largely liturgical role, things were a bit more challenging.
As I look back on our response to this time, I am reminded of a favourite story.
There was a Vicar who was working late one Saturday evening in the Church vestry trying to prepare his sermon for tomorrow’s service. He had been working on his sermon all day and he was getting tired. It was fairly dark in the vestry except for the desk lamp but as he worked away the Vicar became aware of a light behind him. He turned around and sure enough there was a light in the middle of the room steadily growing in intensity and brightness. The Vicar was puzzled by what he saw and rubbed his eyes but the light was still there.
As he watched in amazement the light got brighter and brighter and soon a figure could be made out. As the Vicar looked on incredulously he could see that it was Jesus. The second coming of Jesus was taking place in his Vestry! The vicar was a bit panicked feeling that all his years of theological college hadn’t really prepared him for what to do when the Son of God manifested himself in his vestry. Being an Anglican Vicar in a flash of insight he knew what to do. He would ring the Bishop and seek his advice.
He rang the Bishop and explained the situation. ‘Jesus is returning in the middle of my Vestry. What on earth should do I do?’ The Bishop replied calmly – ‘try to look busy.’
I suspect that many of us fell into the trap of dealing with offsite learning by trying to look busy. Generating lots of prayers, chapels, readings and reflections, but it didn’t take us long to start asking the hard question – was this the best way to be serving our school community or was it just about doing something and ensuring that we were getting noticed by the ‘powers that be?’ Were we making videos of services that no one was watching so we could feel better about ourselves? We all had a go at writing a coronavirus prayer for our school community and struggled to make words like coronavirus and Covid-19 fit into a liturgical rhythm. Was writing prayers the spiritual equivalent of stockpiling toilet paper? Trying to show that there was no need to panic as we were still in control – or at least God was.
Pastoral care has also been a challenge. This time has made me appreciate how much of my work is done ‘in passing,’ conversations with students and staff that happens on the run; catching people between lessons, at the photocopier, or on duty in the playground. Much of my pastoral care happens by noticing how people are going and picking up on when a student or member of staff looks a bit out of sorts. I found these sorts of cues a whole lot harder to pick up off a screen. It also made me appreciate how ‘reading a class’ is such an understated skill of teaching. Your ability to get a sense of how a student is going by seeing how they are engaging in the class you are taking.
During lockdown, I like many of us, passed some of the time watching things online. I watched the latest Pixar film Onward which was released early to streaming services when its cinema run was cut short when covid restrictions came in. Onward is set in a magical realm where magic has faded from daily life. Magic was once prevalent but over time technology has replaced the things that magic used to provide. In the world of Onward magic is real but its use is simply no longer relevant to modern life.
Onward is the story about two brothers – Barley and Ian. The older brother Barley still loves magic and the stories of days gone by, but he finds it difficult to generate any enthusiasm in it from those around him.
Perhaps it was just the headspace I was in when I watched it, but I found myself seeing an obvious parallel from magic in the world of Onward to the Christian faith in our day and age. Christianity might have been seen as helpful by society some time ago but in recent years we have moved on. I found myself in my role as a school chaplain identifying with Barley, trying to interest people in something that many of them feel that they can happily leave behind.
Apologies for the spoilers, but Onward is about the younger brother Ian whose Dad passed away soon after he was born. Ian is too young to remember his Dad and feels resentful that life has deprived him of one of his most important relationships. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday he gets given a present that his Dad left for him: a magical staff. The brothers try to use the staff to bring their Dad back to life for the day but only succeed in bringing the lower half of his Dad’s body back. Barley and Ian then embark on a quest to find a gem that will enable them to complete the spell to fully bring their Dad back.
Ian carries around with him a list of all the things that he misses about not having a Dad. By the end of the film Ian realises that many of these things he thought he was lacking in his life because of the absence of his Dad could be found in his relationship with his older brother Barley. Like all good quests, the journey the brothers undertake makes them appreciate in news ways what they already had to begin with.
Covid-19 has provided us all with an enforced period of reflection. We have had no sport to distract us, no movies or concerts to go to. Even church was different. We have used this time to rediscover old treasures in our houses, trying new recipes and to reading that book that we always said we would read one day if we had the time.
Hopefully this time will have caused us to be more appreciative of what we already have. A shifting of our attitude away from always longing for what we don’t have to a deeper sense of gratitude for what is already around us.
One of the books I read in lockdown is ‘Virus as a Summons to Faith’ by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann relates the story of Pastor Martin Rinkart who ministered in Germany amidst the Thirty Year War in Europe. Martin faced all manner of hardships including having his wife die of pestilence and yet still composed the stirring hymn ‘Now Thank We All Our God.’ This hymn contains the line ‘Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices.’ This line seems at odds with what was going on in the world around him and yet fits with Martin’s deep sense of faith and trust in God. Brueggemann reminds us ‘The work of ministry is to render the virus as penultimate, to see that even its lethal force is outflanked by the goodness of God.’
As challenging as it feels at this point in time, I hope that we can all cultivate this sense of the goodness of God so that we can share this sense of hope amidst adversity with our school communities.
 P 32 ‘Virus as a Summon to Faith’ by Walter Brueggemann (Cascade Books: 2020)