The Perilous Position of the Chaplain’s Podium

At the recent ASA conference in Hobart I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak as one of the 7*7*7 presenters (7 topics, 7 speakers, 7 minutes). The following is a slightly edited version of my presentation. My aim was primarily to encourage chaplains in one particular aspect of their role by sharing my reflections around some of the challenges I have been grappling with recently.

As a chaplain in an Anglican School, when I get up to speak at an assembly or chapel, I know that I have organisational permission to speak. I don’t have to argue for a spot on the program. In fact it is in my job description. I would be questioned if I didn’t speak. What a wonderful freedom!

But this is not the whole picture. Yes, I may have organisational permission to speak but do I have cultural permission? Do the students and staff sitting in front of me actually want to hear what I may have to say? While they may be compelled to attend, do I have their permission to speak?

The answer depends largely on the topic I choose to speak on. Humorous anecdotes are acceptable; Riffing on the School’s values is tolerated; General affirmations of personal worth are taken as their due; Permission to speak is granted.

But what if I dare to tread in more dangerous territory? Tread on more perilous ground? What if I delve into the wonders of human relationships and sexuality? What if I give voice to the fears we have of death and dying? What if I question the purpose and meaning of life and perhaps even raise the possibility that God might be involved in some way?

My experience is that, more often than not, on these topics, permission to speak is not granted. It is nothing personal. It’s just that the Church, the public Christian voice, has lost the right to speak into many of the most awesome and awful parts of life. Society has voted and when it comes to matters of life and death, love and lust, meaning and purpose, the Christian voice is, as a friend recently put it, ‘rather on the nose’, particularly in the minds of many of our students.

Why this has come to pass is a matter for another time. For now I just want to suggest that this is the reality we find ourselves in. Chaplains speaking from a perilous podium. My thinking on this coalesced recently through a series of events, starting with the unpleasant experience of a guest chapel speaker gone wrong. The details are unimportant but essentially a guest preacher in chapel managed to elicit outrage and tears from students and a slew of complaints from staff. The crime was two-fold. Coming from a university setting, they misjudged the sensitivities of a Secondary School audience and miss-pitched the tone of the talk. An understandable mistake and one which would usually produce more yawns than complaints. The more heinous crime was that they talked about death! And life after death! And it became clear very quickly that on this topic permission to speak was NOT granted. How dare this Christian get up and speak in our chapel service about death and what may follow!

The fallout was fascinating (and painful) and really got me thinking. Sadly, the issue became very real for us not long after. Tragically, one of our Year 10 boys took his own life. Suddenly death was amongst us and many discovered that they did not know how to deal with it. To be honest, many still do not know how to deal with it. In denying others the permission to speak about it, they lacked a language and framework to navigate their grief.

So who does have permission to speak into the lives of our young people about purpose, meaning, love, sex and death? Where are they turning for answers?

Musician Nick Cave identifies one voice that has spoken into the depths of human experience for time immemorial, the voice of music, when he says, “What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings.” Music has long been the language of the soul which makes the likes of Kanye, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande potentially the priests of our time!

And our sacred texts? It’s a book nearly everybody knows. We reference it in our daily lives. We use its complicated moral systems to define our social and political stances and to understand ourselves better.

I refer, of course, to the “Harry Potter” series.

There are other sacred texts as well. You’ll find them screening in cinemas and streaming on your screens. A content analysis of the top 100 highest-grossing movies of all time indicates that epic, awe-eliciting movies (such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, or more recently the Marvel universe) account for an inordinately high percentage of the top 50. Awe is very much on the agenda.

So where does this leave the chaplain? Is it all bad news? Should we give up our place in the chapel pulpit? Or at the very least, stick to the safe ground of school values and personal empowerment? The short answer is no, and what I want to leave you with is a brief and largely untested alternative.

My proposal is that we take a leaf out of the Old Testament Prophets’ playbook. It’s time to break out the stunt, the dramatic act. Instead of trying to deliver a neatly packaged, theologically precise, reasoned address (a la Paul in Athens), maybe we need to be a bit more provocative and ambiguous. We need to, as Dr Gooder challenged the chaplains on Thursday, find the heart language of our young people.

Jeremiah challenged the pride of Israel with a pair of worn out jocks. Ezekiel warned of God’s judgement by drawing a picture then laying down next to it for a year. Following that he gave himself a haircut that would make Dustin Martin proud! Isaiah captured the attention of his audience by preaching naked.

The Prophets knew how to speak when no-one wanted to hear what they had to say. They were creating memes long before memes were a thing. There are challenges of course. It requires creativity and imagination.

It requires us to relinquish our role as keepers of truth and to allow our students to draw their own conclusions.

But if the meme is part of the language of our students, perhaps even a part of their heart language, then let’s give them something meme-worthy.

Now I’m not suggesting that your next chapel address should feature a pair of underpants. I’m not sure that an Ezekiel-style haircut would meet the professional dress standards of most of our schools. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be explaining to the senior leadership why laying down for a year was a good use of the chaplain’s time. But with a bit of creative thought and a willingness to entrust some of the interpretive work to our students, it is possible to be a part of and even have a voice in our students exploration of the wonderful and awesome parts of life.

We may not get to give the answers but we still have a great opportunity to signpost the questions.

The podium may be perilous but if we approach it creatively the potential impact is still profound.

Thank you for giving me permission to speak.

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