Geoffrey Ballard, Canberra Regional Meeting

Geoff BallardIn September 2014 Canberra Regional Meeting endorsed me to be a volunteer chaplain at the Australian National University (ANU). I am a former Anglican priest with a degree in theology, along with the necessary education and experience as a chaplain and later as a psychologist/psychotherapist, so I could fairly easily slip into old shoes. Underlying my passion for this type of role is my belief in the value of friendship. In early retirement I now have more time to return to this area of interest. Chaplains at ANU must currently have the endorsement of their “faith” community; that is, be a bona fide member of that “faith” community. Other than the coordinating chaplain, all the chaplains are unpaid volunteers. This is generally the situation across Australian universities, albeit some of the volunteer Christian chaplains are paid clergy in their own denomination, fulfilling what they would see to be part of their job description.

Chaplaincy in Australia and elsewhere has traditionally been the work of (Christian) religious denominations/communities caring for their own members. Perhaps because Quakers do not have clergy, it follows that we do not have a tradition of Quaker chaplains in Australia. Currently in the UK it is quite different. There they see it as a legitimate ministry – a visible presence and witness in hospitals, jails, educational institutions and even on the streets, as they reach out to those of other faiths and none in ways that many Friends do not. They are supported by their local Quaker community in these roles. Quakers/Friends have Elders and a Pastoral Care and Oversight committee that are responsible for the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of their community – a caring role. They keep in touch with their own members and attenders who are in hospital, aged care facilities, jails and education institutions. In contrast, the Chaplaincy role can cheekily be described as “loitering with intent”, “hanging around”, and a “wasting time” ministry in the community, to particular sections of the community. Some would argue that Chaplaincy is now gaining a unique place within our secular society alongside other caring modalities such as social work and general counselling, specifically to help meet the religious, spiritual, emotional and pastoral needs of the general community.

But, the general Australian community is no longer largely Christian. It is multicultural and multifaith within a broadly secular society. Modern chaplaincy or pastoral care to be fully accepted as a caring modality in the community must be inclusive of our different traditions, including secularity and atheism.

Historically, religious chaplaincies are present in almost all universities, here and overseas, often catering to specific religious traditions, and fostering community. Non-theist, or atheist students have previously not had access to this type of community, a place to foster their identity and spiritual life. Yes, there is spirituality without religion! (See Sam Harris’s book: Waking Up reviewed in this issue.) In the USA and the UK there are now Humanist chaplains in some universities alongside religious chaplains. Humanists also want to be sanctioned by universities to be able to engage with the many who claim no faith – the “good without God” community. At Flinders University in Adelaide there is currently a Pagan chaplain. So there has been a progression from mainly Christian chaplaincies, ministering to their own flock, to multifaith and interfaith chaplaincies: focusing on the quality of relationships between people of diverse faiths, and also those of no particular faith practice, hopefully resulting in deeper acceptance and understanding. Surely this is congruent with the Quaker Peace and Community testimonies.

What do students want/need? How effective are the chaplaincies? I do not think we really know. Chaplains are not good at research! Formerly they had a mission. Religion has a legitimate place in culture, but should we be concentrating more on spirituality and spiritual development and less on religion? After all, refined religion is more about metaphor than literal belief amongst contemporary theologians. Will universities when cutting costs see the need for Chaplaincy, as we have known it?

I come from the Canberra Friends (Quaker) community. I sit in the Chaplaincy office from 1 to 4 pm on Thursday afternoons, as well as wandering around the university grounds, experiencing and familiarising myself with the environment. I arrive as a Roman Catholic Mass is finishing in the chapel. The male Muslim students come and go to their prayer room. And later in the day, people from Sukyo Mahikari, a Japanese new religion, are offering the True Light in the chapel! A student (or perhaps an academic, an administrator, or anyone who works or studies there) walks in, I welcome, I wait……I have no agenda…..what is the person’s agenda? A conversation commences….the ending is unknown. Students sometimes ask, or another chaplain will say, what community/church I am from. If I am asked about Friends (and I have been) I may say (before giving them one of the Quaker pamphlets available) that Friends are without creed and dogma, accepting everyone on their own (spiritual) journey; that Friends offer a unique group meditation experience called “meeting”, along with challenging values. There is a diversity of beliefs from theist to non-theist, and a history of peace activism. I could add, but don’t, Friends tend to hide their light under a bushel! Remember, at the ANU I am a chaplain, who, although a Humanist from the Canberra Friends community, am not there to proselytise. That is definitely not my function and is not sanctioned by the university. But on the other hand, when a person asks me about my faith, what I believe, I can give them an honest answer. It can be an opportunity for interfaith dialogue and increased understanding through conversation, about a particular belief, ethics, whatever. If a student wants to talk to a chaplain from a particular faith, we of course refer them on to the relevant person. Just as we refer to the Counselling Service, or other organisations, where appropriate.

The Chaplaincy Centre at ANU is a place for: emotional and spiritual support. Information on religious issues, local churches and places of worship. The Chaplaincy Centre is: a safe place. A place to be yourself. A place to chat with friends and meet people. A place to sit around and have a coffee. We welcome all people. Any culture or lifestyle. Any faith or no faith. Any racial or ethnic background. Without discrimination. We promote and support action for justice, peace and the integrity of the creation (from the ANU pamphlet on Chaplaincy).

How do I see my role? (Of course, there is a duty of care, legal responsibilities similar to clergy and the helping professions.) Essentially, it is to be available, the “hanging around” from earlier. To have time – time to sit and listen. To be a friend. (Friendship is hard to define: there are different types, and what I am briefly describing here is different to your most intimate friendships.) It is offering friendship, a place of hospitality to create a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. The opportunity for others to find their way, not my way. Henri Nouwen has a great description of hospitality in Reaching Out: The Three Movements in the Spiritual Life, p. 68-9. A place of hospitality can be literally a physical space or metaphorically a place that we carry with us into the surrounding environment.

I have worked previously as an Industrial chaplain with what was known as the Inter-church Trade and Industry Mission (ITIM). I had a role offering friendship in large organisations. This work has morphed into the more secular Employee Assistance programs. Help without the friendship ingredient.

Some of the elements of friendship that should be present in the chaplaincy role (and any good therapeutic role) are: genuineness; ability for accurate empathy; speaking the other’s language; and making sense of the other with an ability to convey that experience.

Friendship is becoming ourselves while being with others. Chaplaincy is a mode of friendship whereby people can become themselves through being with another. The chaplain is being another. Empathy is the key ingredient. And it is about time and space.

I am sure many of you would know Carole King’s timeless song: “You’ve Got a Friend”. It is a song that resonates with people. It is a song that I have connected with since I first heard it at a university eatery over 43 years ago, yet not, at the time, knowing why.

Chaplaincy can be defined as the offer of an intentional friendship with a spiritual dimension. With appropriate training and skills, it is a way that Friends can witness to the wider community; to be more actively engaged in witness and ministry in the community. This may be anathema to many modern Quakers; I don’t think George Fox would object.

Chaplaincy as we have known it is changing, especially in the university sector. Administrators who plan direction and make budgetary decisions may ask about evidence of its relevancy and value. It is up to chaplains like me to prove their worth.

Should Quakers be involved in this work? I think so. I am surprised that the Religious Society of Friends does not have Friendship as a testimony. Friendship is life-changing. C.S Lewis (in The Four Loves, p. 69) wrote, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. [Whereas] the modern world, in comparison, ignores it”. Cicero said, “Without friendship life is no life”.

I know it is not normally the Quaker way, but we need to shout to the world around us that the spiritual journey encompasses friendship, belonging and the development of community. A place for that to happen is vital for our well-being, not least in universities, where the leaders of the future generations will be educated. Chaplaincy and a Quaker presence can be an important element. Quakers are one of the few spiritual communities that welcome all, and engage with people of difference, whatever your belief, or no belief, those struggling to live a good life, looking for meaning and purpose. But we fail miserably at engaging with the young, especially the young adult elite.

I look forward to other Quaker Meetings in Australia encouraging and endorsing suitably qualified and gifted members of their faith community to work in the various chaplaincy roles in the general community, especially that of chaplaincy with the young adult. It is a good idea.

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