John Richardson on the joys and tribulations of a chaplaincy in Higher Education

LATE NIGHT discussions over coffee, alert minds keen to debate the existence of God, intelligent study of the scriptures, an idealistic desire to change the world, the search for personal meaning – almost none of these are things I come across daily in my work as a University chaplain. So what is it really like, and why have I stuck at it for fifteen years?

In 1983 I arrived at what was then NELP – the North East London Polytechnic. Some idea of what I was in for might have been gleaned from the fact that there were just four applicants for the post, compared with one hundred and eight for an Oxford chaplaincy I heard about. NELP has since been reincarnated twice, first as the Polytechnic of East London, when the expectation was of a massive expansion in tertiary education, then as the University of East London, in a general atmosphere of uncertainty about the future.

In that time the institution has gone from being chaotic and untidy, but fun, to efficient, brightly painted and slightly dull. As such, however, it is simply representing wider trends in society as a whole, where ‘bottom line’ accountancy, production targets and monitoring procedures take precedence over idealism and vision. Indeed, I have derived a certain ironic satisfaction from observing similar trends operating in that other institution for which I work, namely the Church of England.

In this period, there have also been radical changes in the religious culture of the institution. In 1983 my typical Christian student was white, upper-working or lower-middle class, from an independent or mainstream non-conformist background. Today, that student would be a black African Pentecostal, or if white, connected to one of the former House Church denominations. More importantly, experientialism, not to say wackiness, has become the prevailing Christian spirituality.

Most of my students have been Charismatic theologically – indeed I was one myself when I started in the job. But as the student body inevitably reflects the picture in the wider church, so trends in spirituality have impinged on us. The Toronto Blessing, for example, was enthusiastically taken up by our students, just as it was endorsed by a local church which several of them attended. By contrast, studying the Bible as a source of direct spiritual input has never met with much enthusiasm. Indeed, it would be fair to say that many of the Christians with whom I work do not know how to read, in the sense of following a text and deriving its meaning. Instead, ‘direct inspiration’? is assumed to be the norm.

Having myself moved from Charismatic to Evangelical, I thus often find myself at odds with those who ought to be allies. At various times I have been accused of cynicism (probably true) and not believing in the Holy Spirit (definitely false). In fairness, I have not always been sufficiently tactful in responding to those whose ideas I regard as barking mad. However, experience has shown that even with a suitably conciliatory approach, it takes anything from a half a term to more than a year for students to realize that I am not ‘the enemy’ – and some never learn it.

Unfortunately, the problem is being caused by the outside churches, and here it is particularly important for the average New Directions reader to recognize the sociological divisions that underlie the theological stratifications in the church. Oliver Barclay has pointed out that in 1981 the number of people in Free Church congregations in England finally overtook the number attending Church of England congregations.[1] Given that many Anglicans are not attending theologically conservative churches, this therefore means that Anglicans are a minority influence on grass-roots conservative spirituality in this country.

By the same token, Anglicans are also ignorant of many of the trends at the grass roots. In our part of East London, for example, by far the largest congregation (running into thousands) is a black-led church in Hackney. Before rejoicing in this, however, it should be noted that a key influence on that church is actually the theology of white American proponents of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ and so-called ‘Positive Confession’, one of whose spokesmen boldly proclaims,

God intends for every believer to live completely free from sickness and disease. It is up to you to decide whether or not you will.

Such ideas, even when not directly taught, seep through the Christian body and make it unsurprising that orthodox spirituality cannot gain a hearing (cf 2 Tim 4:3-4).

At the same time, there are other academic and cultural trends which influence Chaplaincy work. Many full-time students now hold down part-time jobs, and the academic timetable means that they are often only in the University for two or three days a week. They are also less ‘clubbable’? than was the case ten years ago, reflected in that fact that there are very few University societies other than those based on a common ethnic interest. The Islamic Society has a large membership and dedicated Prayer Rooms are provided at the main precincts, but even there it seems to be the dedicated few who do most of the work. Sadly, the average Christian seems disinterested in meeting with others, giving ‘lack of time’ as the chief reason.

Academically, the trend has been towards delivering a product rather than educating the person. Our product is the degree. The means of production is the course. And the point of the exercise, as far as most students are concerned, is a secure future and a well-paid job. In this environment, ‘productivity’ becomes a key value, so that academic and administrative staff are under enormous pressure to get ‘?results’, whether in terms of higher pass rates or lower costs. The ‘ethos of overwork’? that dogs commerce thus now also prevails in academia, so that the fifty or sixty hour working week becomes the norm rather than the exception. Where the nineteenth century tied people to the factory bench, we now glue them to the computer screen, with a consequent price in personal stress.

Although I have been unsuccessful in trying to wade through Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University (and allowing for the fact that the University he himself founded in Ireland was a failure) the ‘idea’ to which he refers nevertheless urgently needs to be re-examined in our day. We need to remember what Martin Luther wrote:

The welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures, building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armour. … A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honourable, and well-educated citizens.[2]

In such a depressing situation as our own, what can an isolated and individual chaplain do? One of the simplest things is to wear a dog-collar alongside one’s staff ID badge. At very least, this signals that the institution has not abandoned the notion of God. Equally, it has the valuable effect of allowing one to be seen to be around. Beyond that, one seeks to minister pastorally much as in any other situation. There are Christians to be taught and encouraged and there are non-Christians to be pointed to Christ. Of course, this is done with a sensitivity to the ethos of the institution, but as I have indicated, sometimes it is the institution which lacks sensitivity, both to its proper goals and the needs of its employees!

From a practical point of view, whereas in the past Christian students organized their own groups and activities, I have found it increasingly necessary to do this for them. This reflects not only their lack of experience in leadership, but also the diversity of spiritualities which makes it difficult for the inexperienced to overcome the tensions in any ecumenical gathering. Another useful approach has been a series of ‘topical talks’ (naff title, but effective concept) which present subjects of a general interest yet with a Christian ‘spin’. There are, however, few opportunities for ‘daily offices’ in contexts like my own, and this may be one reason why conservative Catholics are not often found there. Similarly, Evangelicals tend to assume that the work is covered effectively by bodies like UCCF, but this is actually not the case since the weakness of student leadership, coupled with their distancing from mainstream Christianity, means that they neither recognize nor avail themselves of the resources on offer.

The rewards of ministry are thus fairly slim in a ‘New University’ context. Yet I constantly meet students who look back on their time at University as one which, through personal contact, laid the foundations for their later spiritual understanding and development. For those who like a challenge, it certainly offers one, and in the present climate it also reminds our society to raise its sights and, occasionally, to look if not to heaven then at least at the stars.

John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London


1. O R Barclay, Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-1995 (Leicester: IVP, 1997), 103

2. ‘To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany, that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools’: LW 45:355-356, emphasis added.