Anglican chaplains can be found on Canadian university campuses from Halifax to Victoria, and every year, they play a vital role in helping young adults adjust to the strains of navigating higher education.
But many chaplains face a number of unique struggles of their own, and often lack the resources that might otherwise be found in traditional parish posts.
A chaplain’s work is more open-ended than that of parish priest, and most are asked to serve as counsellors or wellness advisors, sometimes for students who are not themselves Anglicans or Christians.
Apart from working in an environment where they are called upon to counsel people with serious emotional and spiritual problems, chaplains often lack the peer support other priests have. Even the most remote priests get a chance to talk to other ministers at clergy meetings, but most dioceses (Huron being an exception) have only one university chaplain position.
Their ministry can also be precarious, and chaplains are often called on to justify the need for their work, or to help raise funds to cover it.
“It’s quite different [from parish ministry]. It’s distinct—it’s also a very stressful situation,” the Rev. Eileen Scully, director of Faith, Worship, and Ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada, said in an interview. “They don’t have a national association or a regular chance to be with their own peers…[but] they are front-line workers.”
At a conference held June 5-8 at Renison University College in Waterloo, Ont., eight chaplains from schools across the country met to compare notes on the challenges they face and how they might better support each other.
Present were Canon Megan Collings Moore, of Renison College; the Rev. Gary Thorne, of University of King’s College; the Rev. Jean-Daniel Williams, of McGill University; the Rev. Andrea Budgey, of Trinity College at the University of Toronto; the Rev. Chris Kelly, of Huron College; the Rev. Hilton Gomes, of Canterbury College at the University of Windsor; the Rev. Lisa Chisholm-Smith, of Queen’s University; and Ruth Dantzer, of the University of Victoria.
Ryan Weston, the national church’s lead animator of public witness for social and ecological justice, attended the gathering to see where he and the chaplains might share overlapping concerns.
The main issues discussed at the conference included the possibility of setting up a formal network for university chaplains, ideas for improving ministry and strategies for dealing with “huge, rising rates of serious mental health issues on campus,” said Collings-Moore, who helped organize the conference.
“We’re not social workers, but because so much of what we do is relationship-based, often we’re the first people students will trust as stuff happens, or starts to go downhill,” she said.
Indeed, according to Scully, one of the factors that led to the conference was a series of articles on mental health published in the Anglican Journal.
In addition to creating a network for peer support, the chaplains also think they could provide an important link between the national church and a demographic it sometimes has trouble connecting with: young adults.
“We are the group in the church at the moment that deals with young adults,” said Collings-Moore. “And let’s be honest, most churches are not seeing a whole lot of that group.”
Chaplains could play a useful role in communicating to General Synod what they are seeing among the students to whom they minister, she said.
For example, she noted that from speaking with students in the lead-up to General Synod 2016, many were puzzled that the church continues to wrestle with the question of same-sex marriage. “There were some definite kind of…why is the church still discussing this, however many years later?” she said, referring to the fact that marriage has been a civil right for same-sex couples in Canada since 2005.
University chaplains may not necessarily need a formal vote at General Synod, Collings-Moore said, but they could provide an important role in voicing the grassroots concerns of students. “We don’t even have the means, at the moment, to have a table at General Synod.”
A formal network of Anglican university chaplains would help lay the foundation for this kind of representation, and to that end, Collings-Moore was elected convener of the developing national association of chaplains.
Setting up a formal structure is not as easy as it sounds, as both Collings-Moore and Scully acknowledged. No list exists of all Anglican chaplains in the country, and even determining the criteria for who is an “Anglican chaplain” is more complicated than it might seem.
Only Anglican-funded chaplains were invited to the conference. But many universities have ecumenical chaplains who are not funded through a denomination and some of these are Anglicans. Do they count as Anglican chaplains even if they aren’t funded by the church or explicitly hired to serve in an Anglican capacity? Or are Anglican chaplains only those who serve Anglican institutions?
The ecumenical nature of the work also raises other questions. Should chaplains from other denominations be invited to participate in a national organization, given how closely they often work in university contexts?
Scully said that this issue had come up in the planning for the conference. However, since Anglican chaplains must deal with distinctive questions that arise from Anglican theological concerns—for example, sacramental ministry and the use of proper liturgies in student services—it was thought that a purely Anglican meeting might be more helpful.
Despite the larger questions the group is asking about who should be included and how they should be reached, Collings-Moore said the group is determined to maintain contact.
“We decided one of the big things we need is to stay in contact with each other, both virtually and probably every couple of years try to find a way to meet face to face.”