Chaplaincy in a Secular Culture
Posted on May 25, 2010
On the good word of Mark Sayers, I used some of my birthday money to buy “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor. I’m about a chapter in and I can already tell that it’s going to stretch my thinking about our culture and what it means to be Christian in it. I thoroughly recommend it.
At the same time, I was asked to speak at the AGM of the Bendigo Chaplaincy Committee, a band of stalwarts who support the various chaplains in Bendigo. Here’s part of what I said, and you can read the whole speech here:
Charles Taylor, author of “A Secular Age”, puts it like this:
The shift to secularity…consists…of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.
Our culture’s whole approach to religion has changed: in our public spaces, in our individual beliefs, and in the soil in which faith takes root. Most of us are conscious of these changes, but our minds haven’t caught up with the reality. So, in some way, our minds still operate in the past, where God was central. But the rest of our culture is living in a different world.
What do these changes mean for chaplains? Chaplains mostly know these things – I’m saying them because chaplains rely on us, and we need to have a realistic view of the context they work in, and realistic expectations of what they can achieve.
- God and public space: Chaplains used to occupy public space in schools through sermons at Easter and Christmas, Christian reflections in school newsletters and the like. As a teenager at a state school, I clearly remember the chaplain preaching at Easter and Christmas, and as a primary school student, being taken to the local church for an Easter service. Now, it’s becoming rarer for chaplains to give a Christian message at state school assemblies, as was once common. We can’t expect our chaplains to publicly proclaim the Christian message in compulsory school activities. We can’t expect Christians to be given privileged access to schools simply because we are Christians. That time is going and will soon disappear.
- Individual Belief and Practice: when few people believe or practice a religion, is there a place for chaplains to foster religious practice in schools? When parents are not religious themselves, is it ethical for a chaplain to encourage religious practice in young people and children? In any case, chaplains are not building on a foundation of familiarity with the stories of Abraham & Jesus. More likely they are confronting an ignorance of these. We can’t expect chaplains to spend lots of time discipling young people, producing biblically literate young people
- The atmosphere of belief: it is difficult for chaplains to encourage belief in a context where belief is now seen as odd, and unsupported by the majority of institutions in our country. Chaplains now have to rediscover what it means to create soil in which the seeds of faith can grow. That is a hard task, because we haven’t had to do it before.