Interesting Times: Ruminations on “Virtual Chaplaincy”.

At this time the university in which I work has not cancelled face-to-face lectures, nor declared a closure as we await the dreaded lurgi, Covid-19. While staff are being encouraged to take suitable measures to prepare for remote working, whether that’s through the online delivery of lectures and teaching material (already part of the existing provision) or looking at how administrative and support functions might be maintained, I’m trying to get my head around what “virtual chaplaincy” might look like.

Chaplaincy, it might appear, is hardly suited to remoteness. At the heart of much that I do is something about being present. I cannot deny that a large degree of serendipity (or providence) exists in my work. Through being where people are, being visible and available, conversations happen and relationships are forged and strengthened. In the simple offering of space in which to stop and rest, or pray, or in the offering of hot drinks and a listening ear, community is built, barriers lowered and the love of God shown.

However, it’s not inevitable that I’ll be unable to work (or more correctly, to perform my ministry role) if I’m forced to work from home, or self-isolate in the event of mild symptoms. Ample experience has already shown the value of pastoral conversation via phone, text or online messenger apps. As strange as it might sound I’ve engaged in prayer over the phone line, first over 30 years ago, so why not using more modern solutions? (And if that sounds weird, what is prayer other than a communication form engaging with a non-visible other? No less bizarre than sending a stream of electrons out into the ether as an email…)

A 16th Century icon of Simeon Stylites (Image: Public Domain)

Then there are the services of worship. One of the slightly odd aspects of the solo use of liturgy, through service books (in the terms of old, or legacy, technology) or apps, such as Daily Prayer (in a more up to date context) or websites, is their presumption that the activity of praise, worship and prayer is a corporate one. The liturgy uses the plural forms of “we” and “us” to reflect a corporate engagement extending beyond personal isolation and remoteness into something far bigger. When we pray alone we are not truly so. Instead we join and partake of a corporate mentality that extends beyond the line of sight, or of hearing. Saying Morning Prayer, praising God, reading Scripture and bringing the needs of the world and individuals before God in prayer are neither inherently social nor inherently individual. As a good general rule there is value in community, if only as prayers tend to cover a wider variety of topics & burdens can be shared, but there is also the great tradition of individual prayer and meditation upon the divine (though I have no inclination at present to confine myself atop a pillar in the wilderness in the manner of Simeon Stylites!)

So if, or when, the time comes and my work goes on line, what might happen? I can forsee a pruning of redundant files… if I can access them. There may be rumination in working practices, or the delights of policy updating. Perhaps a plethora of publishing social media posts and blogs, if I can find enough of value to say. I might even get to offer “ghostly counsel” via the medium of Skype, or live-stream Morning Prayer (and if my wife’s work VPN spares me any bandwidth!)

And in the times between, when, like now, I’d normally sit in public spaces and be available, you never know, there’s time to read, or create, to get some RPG stuff done.

Whether we like it or not we live in Interesting Times… and I need to get to Morning Prayer.

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