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Chaplaincy: long history of ministry on the edge

Presbytery Minister and the Queensland Synod’s Chaplaincy Commission Chair Rev Dr Ray Reddicliffe
WHILE OFTEN regarded as a “second” strand of ministry and not as central to the church’s life, the kinds of ministry that Chaplains offer to the sick, the poor and prisoners were of particular concern for Jesus.

Many Chaplains claim the ministry in which they find themselves is closer to the New Testament patterns than are the ministries typically exercised in traditional congregational settings.

Chaplaincy has a rich and long tradition dating back before 1677 when instructions were given for the local Anglican priest to hold services of Morning and Evening Prayer in Newgate Prison Chapel (England).

The fact that there was already a chapel in existence suggests that there was some form of prison ministry long before this and during the 18th Century the custom of appointing Chaplains to the major London hospitals developed.

Reputedly at the insistence of William Wilberforce and others on 24 October 1784 Rev Richard Johnson was appointed as Chaplain to accompany the First Fleet to Botany Bay.

Johnson held services on two of the ships at sea and at Cape Town.

On 3 February 1788 he conducted the first service of worship in Sydney under some trees and preached on Psalm 116: 12, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me.”

Chaplain Johnson was one of the busiest men in the colony conducting services and providing baptisms, marriages and funerals, and attended the execution of condemned men.

The number of Chaplains has risen dramatically in more recent years with changing employment and institutional contexts demanding ministers, both lay and ordained, who can orient their service to particular environments.

Chair of the Synod’s Chaplaincy Commission and Presbytery Minister Rev Dr Ray Reddicliffe said that chaplaincy is becoming increasingly diverse with chaplains now serving in general, psychiatric and aged care institutions; correctional and educational institutions; industry; police and armed services; and more recently tourism and sport chaplaincies.

“This trend towards diversification has inadvertently fuelled the development of specialisation even within the categories of chaplaincy,” Dr Reddicliffe said.

“For example, within hospital chaplaincy there are those who have sought to acquire knowledge and pastoral skills which pertain to specific areas for which they are particularly suited and where they make the most positive contribution as chaplains.”

Dr Reddicliffe noted that chaplaincy was one area where ecumenical work was embraced and many chaplaincies are cooperative ventures in ministry.

Over the last ten years Dr Reddicliffe observed that chaplaincy was now often being exercised in multi-faith situations.

“Previously we focussed on the Anglo-Christian contexts but now we have to take other faith traditions into account,” he said.

Perhaps the most marginal are those military chaplaincies which minister to the Army, Navy and Air force.
These have often been seen by the pacifist members of the church as acting contrary to the promotion of peace that they, as pacifists, believe to be an essential mission of the church.

This section of the church holds the view that the church should have nothing to do with the military and while Christian pacificism dates back to the earliest church so does the participation of “Chaplains” in the armed forces.

Once Christianity was embraced by the Roman Empire members of the clergy served in the armies of Christian Rome and in later history priests accompanied the soldiers in the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

Even today many Military Chaplains struggle with the tension of serving as officers of the military institution which employs them and their role as ministers of the Gospel.

Presbytery Minister Rev Kaye Ronalds has served as an Army Chaplain for 14 years and recently provided chaplaincy support to the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

“My role was to offer pastoral care and lead worship on Sunday,” said Ms Ronalds who finds conversations with Chaplains or “God botherers” often takes on a spiritual quality.

“From time to time I was invited into their search for meaning. People reflect on how they have to learn to function without their loved ones but at the same time keep their relationships sustained while they are away.”

Regardless of the sector in which they serve Chaplains actively seek the recognition of the church for the tasks they perform and see ministry as public and representative rather than individual and private.

In all they do Chaplains seek to proclaim Christ in word and deed, offer the sacraments of the church as a sign of grace and provide pastoral care to sick, bereaved or troubled people.

As Methodist theologian Donald E. Messer said, “Only when the church begins to move out in service and witness, inviting others to participate in God’s mission can the Church find new life.

“Evangelism based on waiting for people to drop in on Sunday morning hastens doomsday.”

Photo : Presbytery Minister and the Queensland Synod’s Chaplaincy Commission Chair Rev Dr Ray Reddicliffe