Faith in connections with all the community

24th April 2009 at 01:00

It has been said that the problem with words is that you never know whose mouth they have been in. "Chaplaincy" and "chaplain" are two rather dirty words in this respect, having travelled a long way to be with us from their militaristic origins within the Roman Empire. But for some time now they have been undergoing reassessment and reinvention while having the accumulated dust of centuries knocked off.

A few weeks back I visited Hartlepool College of FE. I came away buoyed by how chaplaincy (or, if you prefer, multi-faith student support) can still play a vital role in college life. It all began with a single question: how many languages are spoken in college? One year on, they no longer need convincing that issues of faith, belief and identity concern every member of the college community, staff and students alike.

With assistance from Connect FE, a Learning and Skills Council-funded group, the college today boasts its own Respect values initiative, a lively faith development group (including Sikhs, Mormons and atheists), and hopes for a new quiet room. To help assist the head of equality and diversity, a female Anglican priest has been invited to become the college's first spiritual adviser (note: not chaplain).

So here is what a contemporary approach to chaplaincy can look like: out go the men in black stereotype, tedium-producing religious education and the fear of proselytising. In come face-to-face and faith-to-faith encounters and innovative approaches to building up the college's spiritual and moral life.

Such original approaches to chaplaincy can also help the college with thinking about where it connects into the wider community and how it gives a voice to those who feel marginalised and overlooked.

In a fundamentally secular world such as further education, the involvement of faith communities can create ripples - if not waves - of unease for many. But here is a bit of gospel truth: any seriously reflective religious (or secular) tradition will care passionately about education, and it will do so according to the treasures which that tradition holds in trust from its long history of pedagogical reflection.

Frequently, faith traditions remind us that all education and training - from PhDs to bricklaying - must find the time and space for nurture of the whole person, arguing that to accept anything less is to risk marring the image of the Divine within us.

It follows that spiritual and moral formation - the primary objective of the national curriculum, let us recall - cannot be diluted for those young people who choose further education post-16. Indeed, it is precisely during late adolescence that matters relating to the formation of personal identity - the slow and painful business of creating an inner life in particular - demand greater attention.

If colleges do not engage with the challenge of providing a framework for spiritual and moral development, what will ensure that our students' desires for a better self are not ignored or lost amid FE's frantic pace of life?

The Hartlepool model shows us that an organic and adaptive approach to chaplaincy does not require huge additional resources to get things going, although it does need enthusiastic volunteers and supportive senior management. Ultimately, only passionate support and constant encouragement can grow and sustain creative chaplaincies. Like the students and staff they aim to serve, what chaplaincies need most, after all is said and done, is love.

The Rev Dr John Breadon, Churches' National Adviser for Further Education.

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