The following is a paper which I contributed to the Journal for Chaplaincy in Further Education (Vol 2 No:1 Spring 2006)

In his response to Rowan Williams’ paper Mind the gap: Thoughts on the Education of the Spirit reproduced in the first edition of this journal, Ralph Ison offers a humanist view of chaplaincy, spirituality and further education asserting that “chaplaincy is an unwarranted intrusion on society…but is particularly reprehensible when instituted in schools and colleges”. It is a brave and provocative assertion in a journal directed at chaplains.

In this rejoinder to Ralph Ison, I intend to build on Andrew Wright’s paper Diversity and Inclusivity: Further Education and the Cultivation of Spiritual Literacy[1] and set out the rationale for chaplaincy which we use in Lincolnshire Chaplaincy Services, a new ecumenical body which we have established to offer sector ministry across Lincolnshire. The need for such a body became apparent as we responded to the financial realities facing all the churches and the necessity of attracting funds from beyond the denominations to sustain the contribution of stipendiary sector ministry to the Church’s mission and ministry. Whilst we continue to be significantly funded by the churches, we are developing income streams which enable us to increase the number of chaplains engaged within industry, commerce, education and agriculture.

Generating income from colleges, businesses and funding bodies requires a clarity of purpose and an understanding of the contribution which chaplains from every faith community can make to putting spirituality at the heart of the institutions in which they work. Such clarity is essential at time of change for the FE sector, in an age of pluralism and in a time of uncertainty towards organised religion.

Ison rejects the need for chaplaincy and, as he develops his theme, sets out his credentials for being an atheist. These credentials are based on a lack of evidence that God or gods exist, together with his view that theistic claims can be disproved by logic and reason. He goes on to dismiss the idea of Descartian dualism of mind and body, and thus contends that he can rise above what he perceives to be the Archbishop’s problem with a gap between the two. In fact the Archbishop is concerned not with the gap suggested by Ison, but with the serious challenge of the space between ideas and practice. Dr Williams describes this void as a “soul-shaped gap in much of our culture” – a gap where, he suggests, spirituality needs to work and chaplains need to be found.

Ison admits that he has had little contact with chaplains and has only one experience of a student raising a religious question. He appears to offer this absence of spiritual questions as evidence to support his view of chaplains and chaplaincy. The absence could, of course, just as easily be interpreted as evidence that spiritual questions tend to be raised with those who are known to be sympathetic to the idea of spirituality!

Ison equates the role of the chaplain with that of pastoral care and in “opposing the very concept of chaplaincy” suggests that pastoral responsibility for students belongs with teachers. Few would argue with this – teachers should indeed be pastors to their students, but they do not have a monopoly on such care. The pastoral care of students is multi-faceted and young people are spiritual beings caught up in the complexity of relationships, hopes, ambitions and myriad spiritual experiences which are part of their move towards adulthood. Interpreting their experiences, offering shape and coherence requires more than either religious or humanist fundamentalism. The spiritual dimension to being human has to be addressed if we are concerned with the whole person and addressed in a way which is both coherent and also respectful of diversity.

Much to the disappointment of humanists, God just will not go away. Whilst attitudes to institutional religion may have changed, issues of faith continue to be part of the human experience. The 2001 Census reveals that the 16 per cent of the UK population who claim to have ‘no religion’ live alongside the 8 per cent who did not answer the question about faith and the overwhelming 76 per cent of the population who are prepared to acknowledge something about faith in response to a voluntary question.[2] Since 9/11 there has been a developing awareness that matters of faith and spirituality are significant factors not only in global politics, but in social cohesion. Whilst Ison puts a clear case for his atheism and humanism, castigating religion for being a “belief system”, he appears to forget that atheism is also a matter of belief – albeit without a system.

In the religious, cultural and economic complexity of our age, I would suggest that the primary role of chaplaincy within an institution is to uphold the possibilities of God within the life of that community, and to uphold these possibilities of God in the face of the myth of secularism, economic necessity, shifting political expedience and the commodification of everything including education. It is in the possibilities of God that a coherent spirituality can be discovered, respected and celebrated.

Coherence is not about a monopolistic account of either faith or religion, but is a recognition that the multi-faith perspectives which have shaped and are shaping our culture are rooted in coherent traditions which have ethical and communal implications. Schools and colleges do not live in a cultural vacuum, indeed in enrolling young people from across a community, they can be places of significant cultural complexity and confusion. In that drawing together of students and staff institutions develop a culture and a spirituality of their own. In a pluralistic community, however, the complexity and confusion can challenge not only the spirituality of the individual, but also of the institution. Chaplaincy has therefore to be concerned not only with the spiritual well being of the individuals, but also (and especially) with the spirituality of the institution – a theme to which I will return.

Andrew Foster in his review of the future role of further education colleges[3] focuses our attention on colleges of the future being places where “individuals value themselves, enjoy being who they are and have fulfilling and enjoyable lives” – a significantly spiritual aspiration! Foster looks to strong leadership to deliver the vision he sets out. He makes no reference to the spirituality of institutions, but I would suggest that it is the spirituality of a college which will deliver Foster’s vision of FE colleges of the future having, in his words, “a clear, well understood set of underpinning values linked to achieving excellence, delivering its core purpose in an inclusive way which improves diversity and equality of opportunity”. Spirituality, vision and motivation are interconnected drivers for change.

Andrew Wright offers a generic definition of spirituality and I will not reiterate his workings.[4] He describes spirituality as “the developing relationship of the individual, within community and tradition, to that which is – or is perceived to be – of ultimate concern, ultimate value and ultimate truth”. I would agree with Wright’s description, but would wish to broaden it. In engaging with college councils, employers and funding bodies and encouraging them to invest in chaplaincy, it has become clear that a working, accessible definition of spirituality is one which speaks not only of personal spirituality, but also of the spirituality of an institution. Wright’s definition sits comfortably within the academy, but may not connect with those who are not already immersed in that conversation.

Importantly for the work in which I am engaged, Wright’s definition reconnects spirituality with ‘value’ and releases the concept of spirituality from being solely concerned with living as a Christian, or more especially from the Pauline images of the followers of Christ being either led by or living by the spirit of God.[5] Yet it retains the notion of transformation through the idea of a relationship developing towards ultimate concerns, value and truth. Building on Wright’s definition, but wanting to make the concept more accessible, I would suggest that spirituality is that distinctively human ability and activity which enables us to find value beyond ourselves and to be changed by what we discover.

Such an approach embraces people of faith who derive value from their insights and experience of God through prayer, meditation, study and worship, leading to a personal transformation through that which they have discovered. It also includes those who have no faith but who are searching for values which are not rooted in self, and which challenge and stretch their imagination and lead to a deeper understanding of life and their place within it.

Finding value beyond ourselves is an essential feature of human growth, development and sociability. The psychologist James Fowler suggests, in his Stages of Faith model, that our spiritual development begins in the bonding between baby and mother. From this perspective, mother and baby find value beyond themselves in each other and they are changed by what they have discovered.[6] The biological processes of bonding also lay down pathways of trust, otherness and relationship – pathways which are spiritual because they move the centre of what is understood away from self. Our spirituality continues to develop as we form the relationships, language and experience which enable us to reach out beyond our own world-view to embrace a bigger picture. The values we gather in that the process of growing up become essential tools in our ability to form and sustain relationships, to feel confident about ourselves and understand ourselves in relation to community – it is a spiritual journey as we develop an understanding of what matters, has value and is true.

Faith communities are very much in the business of finding values beyond self and the process of personal and communal transformation which flows from what has been discovered. As people of faith we look for values contained within the possibilities of God, values which have a dimension which transcends the vagaries and pressures of culture, expedience, economics and political moment.

Faith communities explore the possibilities of God through the stories of their faith, through the deposits of spirituality which mark the quest for that value beyond self. The scriptures of the world religions are not antiquities for the curious, but living deposits of human engagement with the possibility that true values for human flourishing are to be found not in human wisdom but in God; values of peace, justice, forgiveness, truth, the place of the stranger in a world that competes for resources – the list is long. It is not a list of absolutes, but asks searching questions about how we are shaped by these things. The questions are there for individuals, but also for communities and institutions.

Ruth Deakin-Crick in her study of citizenship in the National Curriculum reflects that the concept of a value-free place of education is untenable. In a phrase which is as apposite for FE colleges as it is for schools she observes, “if a school is not explicit about its vision and its core values it will surely be promoting beliefs and core values of some kind … these may be ones of which the school is deeply critical and which may run counter to its stated claims”.[7] Deakin-Crick points to the risks of institutional silence in a society which shows many signs of rediscovering spirituality.[8] Chaplains are tangible signs of an institution finding a voice to speak of values being discovered, and the challenge of being changed by what is being discovered.

People of faith live within the stories of their spiritual journey and the journey of those who share their faith: stories out of scripture, stories of interpretation and stories of human experience. The purpose of those stories is not to believe in them for their own sake – that is fundamentalism – but to live out their implications in terms of discovering God and the values which flow from that quest.

Chaplains holding the possibilities of God within the life of an institution cannot escape the story of their own faith; it is the substance of their belief, it authenticates their ministry and it provides the framework for them to interpret the values which drive their college. This dimension of interpretation is, I suggest, a key factor in the ministry of a chaplain – the ability to interpret the values which are shaping the way in which a college is developing and the nature of the change which is occurring, to identify the nature and coherence of those values, and to help people understand how values have to be interrelated. We need to challenge and test our rhetoric about values and recognise its limitations.

A good example of this would be the value of inclusiveness. Inclusion has become a much used term in education and it is given prominence in Foster’s vision for FE colleges of the future. It is a deeply Christian value expressed in the stories of lepers being healed, and is a value which recognises that each person has a right to be part of the whole. It is however an aspiration for untidiness – because people bring their complexity with them when they are included. People do not always fit neatly into prevailing norms and systems – they can be institutionally untidy. So what do we really mean by inclusive? The rhetoric is fine, but what is the experience of inclusion for those who are culturally untidy? Chaplains are distinctively placed within a college to measure and describe the gap between rhetoric and experience.

Effective chaplaincy is inevitably rooted in pastoral work among students and staff. The network of relationships established by a chaplain, touching every place in an institution and transcending structure and status, ensures that the interpretation of values is rooted in an understanding of the whole and not in one dimension. Chaplains are distinctively, if not uniquely, placed to gain such an understanding. They can become an advocate for coherent values, because they have an intimate knowledge of what its like to be part of their college – a knowledge gained from being a pastor to both the principle and the students alike, to cleaners and to lecturers, to administrators and to site supervisors. It is why chaplaincy should not be relegated either to student services or human resources, for in either place there is the risk of only interpreting the values of the college through the experience of those who are uncomfortable or experiencing difficulties.

As an advocate for coherent values, holding the possibilities of God within the life of a college the Chaplain becomes the community theologian, enabling the whole community of a college to interpret its life and direction. A theologian is an interpreter of experience and possibility. Community theologians are much called on in times of crisis, of loss and at times when our veneer of civilisation is dented. What many don’t realise is that the contribution of a community theologian is equally needed when change is part of the agenda. A community theologian is an advocate for values which lead to human flourishing in the midst of change.

The pressure to hit targets, deliver value for money and achieve excellence brings with it the danger of colleges becoming soulless places and a system to produce results. Leadership which is assessed by achievement in measurable outcomes risks losing sight of the very real, but hard to measure, spirituality of human flourishing. It is the ministry of the chaplain, the community theologian, holding the possibilities of God and the consequential bigger picture which comes with such possibilities – it is this ministry which can infuse the drive for change with the humanising dimension of spirituality. The chaplain being an advocate for spiritual values can serve a college just by being there as the winds of change buffet the people who make up an institution.

Good education has always been rooted in spirituality – in finding value both within and beyond the institution – which leads to change being driven by a movement within the community celebrating what it has discovered and cherishes. If we are committed to excellence in education, then we must strive for an environment where the spiritual is celebrated and acknowledged. The role of a chaplain is both to nurture that spirituality and be a tangible sign of the spiritual being celebrated.

It is a warranted intrusion in the life of an educational community, for chaplaincy places spirituality – a precious dimension of being human – right at the heart of an institution.

[1] Vol. 1 No. 2 Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education Autumn 2005

[2] Source: April 2001 Census, Office for National Statistics, website as quoted in UKCH Religious Trends No. 4 2003/2004

3 Realising The Potential : A review of the future role of further education colleges. Sir Andrew Foster 2005,

[4] Vol. 1 No. 2 Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education Autumn 2005 pp 6-8

[5] Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:25

[6] Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for meaning. James W Fowler 1981, Harper and Row

[7] Transforming Visions: Managing Values in School, a Case Study. Ruth Deakin-Crick, 2002. Middlesex

University Press p13

[8] cf Understanding the Spirituality of People who don’t go to Church. David Hay and Kate Hunt, 2000.

University of Nottingham

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