Chaplaincy in a Secular Age

Most of us feel that ‘secular’ has something to do with being not religious or un-churchy. Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor’s major work ‘A Secular Age’ is an exploration of what it is to be secular and how we became immersed in secular.

Kate Bradford

Secular is a strange word. It is a word with a currency all of its own, with fluctuating exchange rates that depends upon which jurisdiction it is operating within. Yet, at another level, secular just is—it is to us, as wet is to fish.

In the West, secularism surrounds and engulfs us, it flows through us. We are in the world and how on Earth really, are we to be not of the world? What exactly, do we mean when we speak of ministry out in the secular space?

public saqareFor most of us, we feel that ‘secular’ has something to do with being not religious or un-churchy. Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, whose major work, a study of a secular age, would both agree and disagree with our sense of the secular. His weighty tome, A Secular Age, which runs to 888 pages, is about the dis-enchanting of our world. It is an exploration of what it is to be secular and how we became immersed in secular.

Fortunately for many of us, another Canadian philosopher, James K.A. Smith had written a shorter book, introducing some of Charles Taylor’s most important ideas in a more accessible format. Taylor observed that the world became disenchanted at the same time as the Enlightenment undercut faith, transferring trust to rational and empirical facts. People of religious faith felt pressured by the disenchanted secularity encircling them,  inspiring and feeding a gnawing doubt. Taylor has a word for this feeling of doubt—cross-pressured. Even more peculiarly, Taylor noticed that secular people without faith can feel haunted by an ancient memory of God.

Chaplaincy has been offered within public institutions for centuries.  J.K.A. Smith’s introductory guide to Charles Taylor’s Magnus Opus is invaluable to those of us living and ministering in the secular world.

Taylor identifies three meanings for secular. Firstly, Charles Taylor reminds us that secular is an old term, in fact, a medieval idea, which Taylor calls secular1Secular1 is to do with the earthly economy,  which was contrasted with a sacred or heavenly economy. Secularreferred to earthly activities such as farming, tending flocks or herds, industrial work, domestic work compared with the heavenly, sacred or spiritual activities of prayer, fasting, or meditating on scripture. Secular1 did not oppose the sacred or spiritual, it merely assumed, that all people were religious and also took part in scared or spiritual activities. However, some were engaged in secularwork, as were the common people, and others, such as priests, nuns, monks and chaplains were engaged in sacred or spiritual work.

From the time of the Reformation in England, secular came to describe a ‘public domain’, following Henry the VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and 1540s. The public City of London Corporation obtained grants (titles) of three monastic institution— the hospitals of St. Bartholomew’s and St. Thomas’ for the care of the physically ill, and Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane. These institutions were re-founded as secular institutions funded from an endowment by the king. The scope of the work was secular (not funded by the church) – that was the ‘domestic’ work of caring for people with earthly ailments and conditions.  The hospital also engaged a cleric/chaplain for caring for the spiritual needs of the patients. Patients were assumed to have both secular and spiritual needs, these needs were not in opposition to one another, but rather operated different ‘spheres of influence’—one earthly and one heavenly.

However, Taylor describes the way in which, the term secular continued to evolve and acquire the second meaning during the Enlightenment. Secular2 referred to the emptying of God, out of government and public spaces, and this included any discussion of higher or ultimate meaning, and a stance of neutrality was adopted. Secular2 exorcised religion from the public space, therefore marginalising it to the private domain. Secular2 is the worldview secularism, where one view secularism is held over and against the other worldviews, such as religion. Secular2 is an ‘either/or’  position rather than a ‘both/and’ perspective. Secularist follows a set of materialist beliefs as opposed to believing in God or transcendent realities.

The idea of ‘secular’ has yet, a further C20th C meaning. Taylor asserts this age is a secular3  age, and it is a contested space of competing for worldviews and perspectives.  Secular3 is filled with a diversity of religions and philosophies from which people vie for and choose from—or not, as they like.  This age is different from all that have gone before it—cultural life no longer centres around one religion into which people are born. To be secular3 is to be offered a dazzling array of ideas and faiths and out of this bazaar of philosophies of thought and belief, people must choose for themselves. This is the age of multiculturalism.

What have all these seculars to do with chaplaincy?

Well, they remind us to think about which level of the secular game we are playing—secular1, secular2 or secularwhich in turn helps us to identify the rules of that level.

Chaplaincy has a role in each level. In medieval times, chaplaincy, then as now, was a sacred office that had concern for both people’s secularand religious life. However, since medieval times chaplains have an enduring albeit limited role, in the secular2 space to perform religious ceremonies and rites, particularly around morality, war and death. These ministerial offices are funded by the secular institution up until the present time.

Chaplains minister with people—secularpeople. People of all faiths and none. Chaplains are religious specialists, who care for cross-pressured believers with doubts, and non-believers, alike who are haunted by a God-wistfulness, in which they cannot believe.

Author: Pastoral Thinking

This web-page is a place where chaplains, pastoral and spiritual carers are encouraged to think both deeply and laterally about the world we live in, and the pastoral care we provide.

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