By Revd. Michael Page CWC
A few days ago I was involved, on behalf of a charity where I am a trustee, in a conversation with another charity. The conversation was about looking at ways of working together in order to operate more efficiently for the benefit of those we all want to help. The sticking point was around the fact that the charity I represented has a faith basis whilst the other one is strongly secular.
We went back and forth for some time trying to understand where each side was finding difficulty until it dawned on me that our friends were concerned that our faith basis meant that our goal was getting others to adopt our way of believing, whereas we saw our faith basis as simply being the reason why we wanted to offer help. Once we were able to reassure them on that point, and by changing a couple of words in a draft statement of intest, we rapidly made progress.
When I was working as a prison chaplain I would occasionally be rebuffed with something along the lines of: “I’m not interested in religion” (although the words were not usually as mild as that!). I would then explain that my role was mainly about making sure that a person was OK and that they knew how to make contact with family or gain access to healthcare or were not retreating into themselves or any of the host of challenges that somebody serving a prison sentence might face during their time inside.
Even though I didn’t wear a clerical collar or any of the other external signs of the clergy, it was the very name ‘chaplain’ that created a barrier towards understanding the kind of support I might be able to offer.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And the question I have been asking myself is whether ‘chaplain’ is a helpful title to give to the people who carry out the broad sweep of supportive work that we know chaplains are often engaged in?
Over recent years I have heard of a number of organisations in the public sector and the business world that have dismissed or rejected support or services from any group that seems to have a faith dimension at its heart. What has happened to have caused those organisations to have such a negative response to any offers to help?
Whilst there may be all sorts of reasons for such a response, perhaps – just like the conversation I described – at the heart of the problem is the mismatch between perception and reality. We say: “We’re the church – or mosque or gudwara or temple – and we’d like to help.” They hear: “We’re the, whatever, and in exchange for some support we want you to adopt our beliefs.”
Somehow, we have to demonstrate that our support and help is unconditional. At the height of the pandemic, people of goodwill – of all faiths, and none – freely offered all sorts of help as a gift to their neighbours. And that help was gratefully received.
As a nation, we are in the middle of preparations for Christmas. The reality of Christmas can be very different from the way it might be presented in tv adverts or glossy magazines. For some, it’s an opportunity to meet with friends and family; for others, Christmas underlines their sense of loneliness. For some, it’s an excuse to indulge to excess, for others the empty cupboard has an even hollower echo.
For some, there will be gifts galore, for others there will be nothing,
For the Christian, the season of Advent has just started. It is also about preparing for Christmas. But this preparation is not about frantic buying and overindulging. Rather it is about expectant waiting. Waiting for a gift. We don’t know what the gift will truly look like nor how it will affect us. But it will be freely offered, with no strings attached.
As people of faith, and in our roles as chaplains, we have a part to play in sharing this gift – of a full and worthwhile life – with those around us, freely, unconditionally, with no expectation of any reward for doing so. There may be difficulties, people may misunderstand our motives. But let’s not be discouraged.
May this Christmas time present an opportunity to draw a challenging year to an end and space to anticipate what lies before you.
Revd. Michael Page, Trustee, CWC
By Revd. Michael Page CWC