What does an Evangelical Theology of Chaplaincy Look Like?
At a chaplaincy conference eight years ago, a small group of us started to talk about the theology of chaplaincy. We wondered what a truly evangelical chaplaincy practice look might look like in our public institutions if we had our own perspective, rather than borrowing ‘bits and pieces’ from differing schools of C20th pastoral care. As a result, some of us started to blog at Blogging Chaplains.
In a 2011 blog, I asked, ‘What does an evangelical theology of chaplaincy look like?’
We were not alone our questioning, as that blog post had thousands of visitors over the past seven years.
In the blog, I proposed that an evangelical theology of chaplaincy would draw on its evangelical roots in scripture; the evangelical history of chaplaincy and conversation with other traditions of pastoral care. Chaplaincy within secular institutions faces the unique challenges of any public theology. That is of a Christian ministry undertaken within the shared space of the public square. However, for all the differences between church-based ministries and chaplaincy ministry in the public square both ministries are concerned with the care of souls.
Like pastoral theolgicans, Thomas Oden and Andrew Purves, who within their traditions looked back to their past, we also should also look back to our roots to search for the way forward. For us, this would mean revisiting classic and reformed statements of faith of the early church and the C16th Reformers. Then reexamining the evangelical touchstones emphaised during the great revivals of the C18th and finally we should engage with the early-to-mid C20th protestant pastoral theologies which emerged in Germany, Switzerland, the US and the UK.
As we look at our history, we revisit the doctrines of God and humanity and the doctrine’s relationship with each other as we contemplate the needs of living souls. The balance of this relationship will guide the integration work between theology and the social sciences that inform the ministry encounter. It is the chaplain’s role to negotiate a way forward through the drama of life within the dramatic frame of scripture.
As we explore an evangelical theology of chaplaincy, we might observe that chaplaincy ministry has things in common with missiology and public theology. They are all ministries that happen in spaces owned by others and have their own language, customs and culture and there is an art to acquiring the skills necessary for co-inhabitation in this space.
Chaplaincy training does involve theory, but developing skills is more akin to an apprenticeship. It involves a repeated, spiralling process where theory and reality shape and reshape each other. These are times for listening, disengaging from self-preoccupation, suspending our disbelief, turning towards another and absorbing what is being shared and tuning into the heart of their matter, catching a mysterious spiritual solace, or aching disappointment, or a terrifying question.
The theory is truly tested as the chaplain lowers themselves down into the abyss of another’s suffering, the chaplain themselves enters the sufferer’s suffering. Issues that surround human life emerge: pain, suffering, justice, the groaning creation, a fallen broken world, alienation and forsakenness which may all co-exist alongside gentleness, kindness, the image of God, love, light, burden-bearing, redemption, forgiveness, peace, joy and eternity. The weighted issues cut across our common humanity, our frailty and our flawed morality.
We do nothing in our own strength: we are not counsellors, or social workers but simply fellow travellers who have been shown mercy in Christ and, as such, we extend mercy to another. We understand again our own need for Jesus’ death for us on the cross. An evangelical chaplain will be concerned that the ultimate need of any person is to see their story completed in Christ. As we accompany another, offering the spacious hospitality of deep attentive listening we are praying in our hearts, asking what is ‘good news’ for this person?