A picture of Queens' College, Oxford. Image Credit: fenlio
Image Credit: fenlio

Chaplaincy in the modern age

In its early days, the University of Oxford was considered an extension of the Church’s educational system. Faith and academia walked hand in hand, and the spiritual well-being of the University’s occupants was of paramount importance. Thus, within the cloisters of the earliest colleges, chaplaincy became critical, the chaplain’s presence integral to academic life.

As we continue to step into the modern age, the role of chaplaincy at Oxford and other academic institutions worldwide has evolved. This is undoubtedly necessary, as all university roles have had to adapt to the increasingly diverse needs of the modern university community. Most colleges still uphold traditional Christian rituals such as evensong, or begin their formals with a prayer (other than anomalies such as St Catherine’s, which do not have a chaplain role at all).

However, there is arguably a widespread oversight when it comes to non-religious students recognising their college chaplain as a valuable source of spiritual and pastoral guidance, and it is too often assumed that the spiritual is something only relevant to students with pre-existing beliefs. But does it not remain that the challenges we grapple with on a day-to-day basis often delve into questions of ethics, purpose, and philosophical inquiry?  

To attempt to answer this question, I spoke with Alice Watson, the chaplain of Queens College. I attempted to reach out to various other chaplains, but received no response.

She remarks that “university can be a really good opportunity for people to explore their spirituality” but also emphasises her dedication to the overall welfare team. She explains that “the search for meaning, and peace, and spaces for reflection is a universal human instinct, and that chapels and chaplains can help with this.”

When talking about the role of the chaplain in the modern era, it is inevitable that controversial social issues within the church community will arise as a point of contention. Student comfort is paramount, given that we spend so much money to be here. Many students question whether any role tied to the church is able to be truly welcoming when it comes to matters of personal identity.

In response to these sentiments, Watson notably remarks that she doesn’t think any role in an institution, nor indeed the institutions themselves, should be above being questioned. She even explicitly goes further to highlight a modern shift towards overt inclusion, stating that “an aspect which has shifted, and which I think is a really good thing, is that college chaplains and chapels are usually overtly inclusive spaces. Sadly (in my opinion) the Church as a whole still isn’t always a safe experience for LGBTQIA folk, and can be difficult for women, with many Churches not affirming women’s ministry or ascribing more ’traditional’ gender roles.”

She goes on to say that “the Church holds a real variety of views, which is both a very good thing, and something which can cause tension. Most colleges actively want Chaplains who foster a more inclusive community. I think that this would definitely fall under what my ‘goals’ are also – to show people that not all Christians hold the same views on, for example, same-sex marriage, and that religion doesn’t have to sit alongside things such as sexism and homophobia. I think it’s important to have a space where people who are LGBT+ or exploring their sexuality and gender can ask questions about their faith or spirituality in a setting where they won’t be judged or pressured into belief.”  

Hearing such sentiments coming from a religious leader in an institution as old as Oxford initially surprised me. Again, this highlights that the preconceived notions non-religious students have concerning the role of chaplain may be worth reconsidering. In personal conversations with Jesus College chaplain Chris Dingwall-Jones, he recommended the study of black theology, explaining that there is an unfortunate lack of black theologians available to study at Oxford. It is therefore evident that at least some chaplains actively care about modernising the position.

Progressive chaplaincy certainly serves many non-religious students. However, when speaking about this issue publicly, one religious student voiced: “we can be liberal politically while not being liberal on the power of Jesus, the reality of God, the importance of real faith. This is where progressive chaplains fail”. The issue at hand here seems to be that chaplains who spend time promoting progressive ideals have less time to hold traditional Christian events and talks. Striking a balance between the two is what Watson promotes.

Religious diversity is another issue that is often debated when it comes to the suitability of the chaplain role to the modern era. Is still being an officially Christian country a valid reason to have a Christian role as the sole religious point of contact? Are we simply maintaining a Christian role for the sake of tradition and nostalgia? If we were to reach a state in which the number of Christian students declined to the same level as students of other religions would it make sense to still only have a Christian role on the welfare team?

Watson responds to such questions by explaining that “the role of Chaplains is to speak up for faith and spiritual practice in general, whatever that might be. I hope that I’m clear in saying that this is my faith, but I’m here for you no matter what you believe.” However, she also states that “it would be great if the university had specific roles for chaplains of other faiths.”

Watson says that her favourite part of being a chaplain is “mostly just getting to know students and getting to walk alongside them through the ups and downs of life. Chaplains get to witness some of the most fragile parts of people’s time at Oxford, and that is a great privilege.” She certainly relates to the hectic state that many students find themselves in during term time. As we enter the colder and darker weeks of Michaelmas, she recommends a walk in Christ Church Meadows or a hot chocolate from Knoops on busy days to ward off fifth week blues.

The role of chaplain has clearly evolved with time, but despite these efforts, some students still do not feel that they can associate themselves with a traditional religious figure. However, I believe that its relevancy in an era of growing concerns over mental health is paramount. It is often said that there is a God shaped hole in modern society, and while it may just be the Philosophy and Theology student in me, Watson’s belief’s are captivating. Engaging with your college chaplain is a worthwhile way of navigating the human search for purpose and peace.