Day in the Life: A conversation with Revd Dr Tess Kuin Lawton, Worcester College’s Chaplain

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Earlier this year, I stumbled into my first Woodroffe Ethics Society meeting in Worcester College. The Woodroffe Society was set up in 1947, to discuss moral and ethical issues, and since that time, it has always been led by the College Chaplain.

On a Tuesday lunch time between 12.30-2pm, the morally curious amongst us meet for a ninety-minute expedition into the ethical quagmire of modern life. Topics range from veganism to abortion, and the coffee-fuelled discussions, always leave the mind expanded and utterly confused.

These meetings also introduced me for the first time to Worcester’s college Chaplain, Revd Dr Tess Kuin Lawton. After chatting to her weekly for this lunchtime period, I became rather curious to know what it is a college chaplain actually does.

We see them hurrying around college, and a lot of us recognise the distinctive dress, but having only really been exposed to Tess in my third year of four, I thought it might be helpful for the other bemused, but nevertheless curious, Oxford Student, to understand the life of a college chaplain.  

So just before Easter, I went to visit Tess in her office in Worcester, and we sat down to have a conversation about all things chaplaincy related. Here is what I managed to discover.

What exactly is a Chaplain?

‘I know, this is the thing. If you’re unfortunate enough to hang out in a hospital, then you know about chaplains. And if you go to a posh private school, then you know about chaplains. But actually, it’s true, why would you? Chaplains are, as it were, vicars in secular employment; of course, the idea of a chaplain, is that you are a presence there, but that the people in that environment are going to be more transitory.

So, for you lot, this is your home, but it’s your home for a short period of time. And the same would be true of a hospital, or in a prison. And there are increasingly chaplain’s in business environments, so you get chaplains of shopping malls now, and that kind of thing.

It’s essentially a priestly presence in a place where there is quite a lot of transitory stuff happening, but there is nevertheless some sense of community, and of course a college, much more so than a hospital or a prison, has the potential for a really strong sense of community.

How did you become a chaplain?

I did theology at Durham. I knew from about the age of ten that I wanted to be a priest. Possibly, mostly because I was totally in love with all the kit. Did theology at Durham, and that was the thing, I wasn’t actually allowed to be a priest at that stage, because women couldn’t be priests. So I got to the end of my degree, and they just passed the vote that said that women could be priests, and I had a bit of a panic, and thought, ‘No I can’t possibly do this’, and so I did a PCGE instead, and then I taught, for years, and then I did a masters and PhD along the way.

And so, when I trained to a Priest eventually, I was in my thirties. And at the end of it all, I was looking for a job, and Magdalen College school were advertising for a Chaplain. And I don’t know, it was just one of those things, and I thought, maybe going off and training to be a teacher was not a side line maybe it was actually part of the plan. And so, I went along and decided I would see how I felt, after the interviews. I was absolutely buzzing afterwards, I came out and thought ‘Yep, love it’. And so, my first job after being a curate in a parish was to be a chaplain in a school.

How did you end up at Worcester College?

‘It seemed like an obvious thing to do when there was an advertisement for it, there were a couple of jobs actually, Brasenose went at the same time. And well, I got the job there and decided to come here because I wandered around the grounds. I just thought, ‘Yeah, this is a good place to be kind to people.’ So, I came here and I take ten services a week in chapel, and I have the space and the time for them.

I wasn’t actually allowed to be a priest at that stage, because women couldn’t be priests.

So, I am I correct in saying then, part of your job is simply being a presence for anyone, regardless of religion, who may need to come and chat?

Absolutely, absolutely. What’s tricky though, of course, is that does sort of rely on people knowing what a chaplain is. So, it’s also about familiarisation. It’s about me trying to be someone who’s reasonably normal, whilst also walking around in a dog collar.

I’ve never been somebody who would not walk around in a dog collar, because I think if you are a chaplain, people need to know that’s what you are. If you’ve got a uniform, then you should wear it really, I think.

Is there a particular type of chapel community?

So obviously, we have a chapel community, we do morning prayer. Lots of people come to morning prayer because its Oxford. It makes me laugh so much that so many people go ‘Yup, I need a deadline to get up.’ So that’s why they come. 8.15am we stagger in to morning prayer. It happens every day, and it takes twenty minutes, and by the time we finish there is usually about ten minutes for breakfast, and then you’re ready for your nine o’clock. It’s all good. So, lots of people come, which I wasn’t expecting actually. As a priest I’m supposed to say morning and evening prayer every day, it’s nice to do it in college, and lots of people do use it as a way of getting up.

So, there is that kind of that community, there is the choir, which is a community in itself, and we put on four choral services a week, beautiful music, and a lot of people drift in and out to that, which is what I always hoped would happen. It’s an amazing resource, just to have that to calm yourself down at the end of the day, and people come in from off the street as well.

I think if you are a chaplain, people need to know that’s what you are. If you’ve got a uniform, then you should wear it really, I think.

But the people who I see, pastorally, and who come and knock on my door and say can I come and have a chat, are almost entirely not people that I see in chapel. So, in that respect, there is a sense that I am somebody that they can come and talk to. Often about death actually. That is something, which I suppose you associate a chaplain with, maybe. But death, bereavement, grieving, stress, friendship issues, a wide range of stuff.

I quite like the fact that I’m not the welfare officer. Some chaplains are in some colleges. We have an incredible welfare team here. They know their stuff. But it’s quite nice to be somebody, a bit like the college nurse, someone who augments the team, but isn’t actually the main person. And also, people can come and talk to me about stuff, and then say, do you think I should go to welfare with this? So, I can be a sounding board or a triage, that kind of thing, or someone you can talk to like a friend, if you’ve got something that you can’t talk to your friends about, then I’m a useful sounding board.

Is there a community of chaplains from the different colleges?

Yes, there is, there is a group of us. And we keep in touch, and we meet two or three times a term, if we want to, really, and I would say there is never a single time, in those meetings when we are fully quorate. But we are around.

How do you deal with differences of opinion with other chaplains, for example, on issues like homosexuality?

Amongst the chaplains, we tend to share things that have gone well, good practice, things where we’ve been able to be helpful, useful, or do the right thing. We’ve never really had a forum in which we could argue or debate about those kinds of things.

But it is true that within the Christian faith, same as Islam, same as any faith, you’ve got this spectrum, particularly in terms of how you treat your scriptures. And there are a group, of churches, in Oxford, and there are some evangelical chaplains as well. Who do take a very literal approach, I suppose, to the authority of scripture? And these are ancient texts… nobody today thinks that slavery is a good idea. Including, all my evangelical colleagues. But if the new testament, let’s say endorses, or accepts slavery, which it does, even Jesus (there is no point at which he says it’s a really bad thing we need to get rid of), then surely there is a methodological approach we can take to women, and the subordination of women. Because some of the stuff in the New Testament about women is shocking, and also to homosexuality.

So, I sort of live in hope that it will change, but I am still part of a church where I cannot marry people who are same sex, I’m not allowed to. I can’t even bless them. That upsets me, but it’s the way it is at the moment. It will change, but the church is a slow-moving beast, I think. But it’s primarily to do with how we interpret scripture in the context of today.

How many people in college do you think come to chapel?

So, at the end of last year, I sat down and I wrote out invitations to this service, I did an end of college service for the finalists, just as a way to mark it, and religion does that quite well. And I went through it, and I reckon that I had involvement with about 25% of people. Probably about 15% of them were people that I had met through chapel, and the other 10% were people that I had just chatted to.

Interestingly, the postgraduates I see a lot more of. They’re a bit older, they know what they want. They know what chapel can offer them. I think my job in a lot of respects is just trying to encourage people to come into chapel. And then obviously I have a core group of people for whom it is tremendously important and who are religious, and for whom my teaching and spiritual direction is useful, but that is a much smaller number.

surely there is a methodological approach we can take to women, and the subordination of women. Because some of the stuff in the New Testament about women is shocking, and also to homosexuality.

We have some services where there is literally nobody else apart from us and the choir, the chapel can seat a 100, on a Sunday, we regularly have around 85. And then Tuesdays and Thursdays maybe around 40. But I’m a licensed priest to five churches in the countryside in the Cotswolds, and I regularly take services with 4 people, so to have 40, is loads.

Our chapel is bonkers, is its just bonkers. It’s completely different, you will not come across a chapel like ours anywhere else. It’s just this riot of colour, of decoration, even the floor, when you’ve stopped looking at the walls and the ceiling, is covered in art and mosaics as well. It’s just the maddest place. And I’m part of the group that talks to incoming students every year. And I do try and give some sense of that and say to people please come in. Don’t come in for a service if you don’t want to, but just come and sit in that chapel and look at everything. And we don’t allow chapel to be booked as a room at all, and it is open 24 hours a day.

Do you conduct Weddings etc. in Chapel?

Yes, so last year we had a couple of baptisms, one with a teeny-weeny baby which was adorable, one with one of the students, and three confirmations as well. In the summer I have a stream of past students who all want to get married in the chapel, and I think we did six weddings last summer. Weddings always, which are lovely, it’s quite an intimate place for a wedding, because in a college chapel you sit opposite each other – it comes from the Benedictine tradition where the monks sat opposite each other and sang to each other. And when it’s full for a wedding, everyone can eyeball everybody else. And I always say that to the bride and groom, you know you’re going to feel like everyone is right there!

What is the coolest part of your job, what do you enjoy the most?

Actually, I would put Woodroffe right up there. Because it’s just so off-piste and you never know where the discussion is going to take us, and it also keeps me on my toes and I love that sense of us all sitting there at the end of the session and talking about what we’re going to discuss next week. I think genuinely that’s one of the best bits. The thing that I’m most interested in is just talking to people and hearing what life is like for students here. In terms of the most privileged stuff, people just opening their souls to me, and just telling me everything, it’s extraordinary.