This is the fourth in Companions in Faith, a series of seven in which Matt Gardner, Anglican Journal staff writer, presents Anglican and Lutheran perspectives about matters of mutual importance.
A pair of Anglican and Lutheran hospital chaplains say the pandemic has meant a “new world” of exhaustion for them—but also life-giving work that has transcended conventional boundaries of denomination and faith.
The Rev. Tracey Stagg is an Anglican vocational deacon and spiritual health practitioner for Alberta Health Services at the Red Deer Regional Health Centre; the Rev. Dwight Biggs is a Lutheran minister and leader of spiritual care at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie, Ont. Both report feeling exhausted from their heavy workloads during the pandemic, which they say caused a massive increase in demand for the kind of help they provide.
“We’ve all flipped into a new world,” Stagg says. “There’s a lot of grief. There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of frustration.”
The heightened need for spiritual care has been exacerbated, they say, by difficulties such as the absence of volunteers to support them when greater restrictions are placed on hospitals.
“Some days I’m not sure that I can do one more day,” Stagg says.
But the pandemic has also meant a new kind of hospital ministry. Giving comfort to people facing sickness and death has a way of bridging differences between faith traditions, they say, but this has been particularly true during the pandemic.
“COVID doesn’t discriminate against who it attacks,” says Biggs.
When the pandemic hit, Stagg says, “We, I, did what needed to be done. We cared for whoever was near us … We just became very flexible in whatever needed to be done, in whatever faith language it needed to be spoken in. We did whatever we could do to bring honour and peace and care.
“I am there to walk with them, and to support them,” Stagg says of patients and their families.
She describes being present to support a Muslim woman who was sobbing and praying in Arabic as her husband neared death, as “sacred” and a “blessing.”
“Did it matter to her in her faith tradition that I wasn’t an imam?” Stagg recalls. “No, because that’s not really what was going to be important at that time. It was about the grief. It was about acknowledging her, her family, her husband, her faith.”
Biggs says he has offered Lutheran rites when a Roman Catholic priest is unavailable.
“I check with [Catholic patients] to see if that would be OK,” Biggs says. “If they wanted to do the rosary prayers or Hail Mary, if I’m comfortable with that, which I am, [I] pray with them and perhaps I’d ask them to pray it [too] … I draw upon what I know while being respectful of where they’re at.”
Because spiritual care in hospitals so frequently crosses religious and denominational barriers under normal circumstances, the full communion partnership between the Anglican Church of Canada and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada plays less of a role in their work than in other ministries of the two churches, Stagg and Biggs say.
Stagg says she doesn’t really feel the impact of full communion in her ministry at the hospital, beyond a special familiarity and comfort with the Lutheran church as a whole.
The close connection of the two churches might mean more, they say, for Anglican and Lutheran patients.
“When I think of people I know from within my own Anglican church, I suspect that if they were in hospital and there wasn’t an Anglican available, that a Lutheran would bring that comfort— because for 20 years, there’ve been ways that we, in small communities and larger communities, have been trying to work together,” she says.
Biggs says an Anglican patient may smile a little when he identifies himself as Lutheran, because of the feeling of connection it brings.
Despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, both Stagg and Biggs are committed to continuing their ministry.
“I know that there is no other sacred place that I would be,” Stagg says.
“Even when I come home and just crash at the end of the day,” Biggs says, “I can’t see myself doing anything else at this time.”