What is the experience of Chaplains in Victorian Anglican Schools in the midst of a Pandemic?

We asked Chaplains in Anglican Schools (Victoria) about their practice and perspective during COVID-19.

The chaplains were invited to participate in a survey consisting of five questions:

  1. How would you describe your role/identity as chaplain during COVID-19?
  2. What theological resources (scripture, tradition, practices etc…) have you drawn upon in your role?
  3. Has your role/influence/effectiveness been enhanced or hindered as a result of the pandemic, if so, how/why?
  4. What is a new practice worth keeping going forward (beyond COVID-19)?
  5. Do you have any further reflections / questions?

The timing of the survey is significant as it was conducted during a State of Disaster, rising cases of the virus, a curfew in Metro Melbourne and surrounding areas and at the beginning of a prolonged school closure.

A total of 33 chaplains were surveyed, some with decades of experience others just months. The act of completing the survey was for some therapeutic and the responses revealed both candour and detail. In providing a brief summation of the responses, rather than analysis, I will address each question in turn and allow the voices of my colleagues to be heard.

How would you describe your role/identity as chaplain during COVID-19?

A range of images or perspectives were named both familiar and unfamiliar. Pastor, positive presence, carer, counsellor, healer, mentor, perspective giver, guide, anchor, listener, lamenter, outsider, gatherer, and teacher, reflect a range of insights from the chaplains. For some this did not reflect a large change of identity but rather a shift of focus in a changing season.

Three themes emerged as influencing the shape and speed of change: resources (physical, structural and relational), the hospitality of school leaders and a personal readiness to learn or adapt. A culture of trust gave permission for chaplains to try something in the larger community gatherings (chapel, assemblies…) whilst smaller gatherings such a prayer groups emerged largely as a movement from below with the chaplain findings informal fellowship with other Christian staff and families who issued invitations through friendship networks.

What theological resources (scripture, tradition, practices etc…) have you drawn upon in your role?

Of central importance to both the faith life of the chaplains and their practice during COVID has been engagement with scripture and prayer. The Wisdom Literature of the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes were named as places of focus so to the Parables of Jesus and 1 Peter. Series on Biblical characters have also been implemented e.g. Jeremiah and Job, with themes of sovereignty, lament, wilderness, comfort and hope commonly explored.

Finding or refreshing a sacred rhythm both personally and alongside others was cited by many as a blessed anchor during a time of change. A reacquaintance with the Daily Office in the Prayer Book, Ignatian and Benedictine practices, mindfulness, meditation, alongside local resources Podcasts, online sermons, blogs (A Place for Mission) and access to familiar global names old and new, Richard Rohr, C.S Lewis, John Lennox, N.T Wright, Jürgen Moltmann, Walter Brueggemann and Miroslav Volf continue to provide daily nourishment for the soul. Listening to music in the absence of communal singing has been seen as a good grace during COVID, likewise, the opportunity to invite students to provide music reflections from home for chapel. Outside the discipline of theology, psychology and mental health resources have also been found to be helpful and accessible. 

Engaging younger students remotely was for many chaplains unchartered waters, however, for chaplains who have ventured into this space they reported on the fruitful use of Godly Play, crafts and child-friendly liturgy in engaging the easily distracted.

Has your role/influence/effectiveness been enhanced or hindered as a result of the pandemic, if so, how/why?

In classic Anglican style an either/or question was reframed with a both/and response by a majority of respondents, citing both negative and positive change and also a wait, watch and see perspective.

A common reflection was that although the scope of engagement with families and staff at home had widened through the ease of remote online entry, the experience of genuine connection was mixed with some raving about its effectiveness for Parent Teacher Interviews yet questioning its limited nature in reading personal cues and buildings relationships.

The absence of physical presence from the chaplain’s daily practice was identified as an ongoing challenge, recognised by many as a distinctive call of chaplaincy and difficult to replicate through distant screens.

A number of chaplains reported a greater desire of staff (both churched and unchurched) to seek them out with questions, and a willingness to join staff chapel groups to stay connected and find perspective. Feelings of fear and anxiety have also been freely expressed to chaplains as a confidant who is both in the centre and margins of the school.

What is a new practice worth keeping going forward (beyond COVID-19)?

Three particular trends can be seen in response to new practices going forward.

  1. Continue with a new practice in its current form
  2. Translate the new practice into another form
  3. Implement a blended form

Some of the ‘new’ practices experienced and considered worth keeping beyond COVID-19 included: online prayer meetings, pre-recorded messages/services (viewed at own time), more regular phone calls to staff, blogs, podcasts, Daily Office, Godly Play (Junior School) and larger ‘Live event’ gatherings for families.

The practices or virtues of asking, listening, walking slowly, waiting and inviting, were also strongly viewed not so much as worth keeping but rather worth being more ‘intentional’ about going forward both personal and vocationally.

What is the experience of school chaplains in the midst of a Pandemic?’

It is complicated and yet revealing. Complexity is not necessarily a problem to be solved; it is just the way things are. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says that the theologian always starts ‘in the middle of things’ (Williams, ‘On Christian Theology’, xiii), and that is where the chaplain can be found during COVID-19. We reside like Jesus ‘somewhere’ in the messy middle and yet we continue to be on our way, lamenting and hoping, waiting and working, listening and naming.

Ryan Holt Written by:

Ryan is the Head of Chaplaincy at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, Adjunct Lecturer in Chaplaincy at Ridley College and is currently completing a doctorate with the Australian College of Theology, exploring the culture of service in Anglican schools today.

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