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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley


Chaplaincy, more than most other roles in school, is sensitive to change. Part of it’s strength is that it constructs its work around the perceived needs of those with whom the chaplain works. Therefore, any reflection on the future of chaplaincy has to take into account the wider trends in the lives of young people, families, teachers, religion and the wider community. As well as that wider focus, it is also important to look at the way that chaplaincy itself is changing and how we, as chaplains, might want to develop the role in the future. Therefore, there are two parts to this look into the future: a broad overview of the field of our work and how it might change and then a more specific look at how chaplaincy is likely to evolve. The first part is something we can do little about, the second part is something that the ACCE and CCE are in a position to shape to some extent in partnership with educational leadership.

At a world level the population is due to reach over 10 billion in the next 25 years. That will increase pressure on scarce resources, stimulate innovation and continue the trends to conservation and re-cycling. If food and water can keep pace with that expansion then the world will be a better place. If it does not national boundaries will continue to be crossed in greater numbers and our schools will be welcoming more and more arrivals from the developing world. There are expected to be over 200 million climate refugees by 2050.

Technology will drive much of the needed change in agriculture and in medicine to increase the supply of food and medicines. Factories will be more specific in producing goods to order and using 3D printing to manufacture components. This technical innovation and growth will continue to put pressure on education to prepare young people with high levels of coding and design skills in IT. Technology will continue to dominate in the years ahead and the humanities will continue to be in their shadow in education. That leaves schools with a broad spiritual and humanistic ethos at risk of losing their focus and chaplaincy may become more important in the years ahead.

Healthcare will continue to be under pressure as the UK population rises to over 75 million in the next 25 years. The kind of treatments and medicines available will increase and diagnosis will be speeded up by an increasing array of “wearable” technology that will allow Doctors to download your day to day vital signs and then provide a genetically matched solution to your health issues. Mental health provision less positive as we look ahead. Financial constraints will continue to limit its effectiveness and more work will be done to increase self-help solutions. Talking therapies will continue to develop but will employ more and more trained volunteers. The emphasis will be increasingly on prevention and early recognition of mental health issues in young people. Chaplaincy will be in a good position to meet some of the needs for preventative work but might be in danger of becoming “cheap counsellors” in school and lose their broader spiritual and community remit.

Education will continue to chase funding and will be increasingly involved with information technology. Partnerships across schools will continue to develop and the doors of the school will be more open to the local community. The focus on good teaching and learning will be maintained by a skilled group of educators who will continue to be accountable for the attainment data of their pupils. Schools will grow in appreciation of the need for a broad ethos to support the learning environment but may not have any budget provision to support this area of school life. The pressure to ease back on the narrow measurement of schools will continue. The push to explore ways of widening the curriculum into experiential and reflective arts and sports will continue with more success but these will continue to be seen as less important than the hard science, numeracy and literacy areas of school life which the pupils will need for their survival in a more complex world.

These additional, softer, ancillary services, (including chaplaincy) will need to be funded in new ways. Chaplaincy will thrive where a core budget can be allocated and where that is not possible part-time and volunteer chaplains will provide a chaplaincy that may not be as consistent or embedded in the school and its local church community. It is possible that a “lead chaplain” role may emerge that works across a number of schools to coordinate and integrate voluntary chaplaincy across the local community. That role would include supporting wider links between schools into the local and multifaith communities, establishing a pattern of shared events that link school and religious groups and also sharing a role in the appraisal and selection of volunteer chaplains in separate schools. These lead chaplains would be employed by a number of schools to ensure the quality chaplaincy provision in their school community. They would be commissioned by the diocese and the schools together so that strong links could be maintained between a changing pattern of parish life and the work of the schools. The absence of priest over the next decade will also create a sacramental vacuum in local churches and it will be interesting to see how flexible the church will be in training and commissioning a wider range of eucharistic ministers in each school to ensure a strong sacramental life. That would include more training, mentoring and evaluation of sacramental events within the school community under the direction of the chaplain.

Church will continue to struggle with a number of internal issues that limit its effectiveness. The expectation of rapid change is not realistic since the decline of the church in all denominations has been an observable trend since before the first world war.[i] Rising out of this long decline will not be rapid. Moreover, it is not clear whether large attendance was ever a sign of a healthy church, especially when fear formed a large part of the motivation for attendance.[ii] The change being experienced in the church is momentous and youth are asking for that change in the synod feedback this year. The paradigm is shifting radically so that what was central is now seen as more peripheral. It has been difficult for many Catholics to find a common answer to the simple question “what is the church for?”

Part of the future of the church depends upon its ability to establish new, more open, relationships with other groups in society and be seen to be part of a tradition that can answer the deepest needs of the human heart.[iii] At present the church is still too full of nostalgia for a past pattern to be able to see clearly the opportunities of this era. In the background many lay people are developing a confidence and assertiveness that will be much needed in the years ahead. It is lay people, supported by a smaller number of clergy, who will translate the Gospel into the language of today and help create an earthy and inclusive sacramental life for a wide range of people within and beyond the catholic community.

Chaplaincy will be in a good position to support this broadening attitude and to find new language and settings to live the Gospel in a multi-faith and secularised society. They will become the experts in bridging the gap between the church and the world. They will be immersed in social action and yet also imbued with a balanced spirituality that can invite their church to recognise where God is already at work in the wider community. The importance of this coordinating role will increase in so far as the chaplain is empowered to act not only in the school, but also to gain recognition as a minister of religion in the local church. Where that recognition is not available the chaplains role will be less effective.

Family life is a mixed picture in the UK. For every three marriages there are now two divorces which is the highest in rate in Europe. On the other hand, over 90% of people report that they are at least “fairly happy” with their family life. A quarter of all children live with a single mother now- again the highest rate in Europe. Children who have a less stable family foundation tend to do less well at school and the weakness of the home is a real concern for schools in maintaining the motivation of their pupils.[iv]

Which way will the family move? Towards greater diversity or to more stability?[v] That is probably the wrong question because family life is in flux and it has been suggested that change and constant adaptability will be the norm. The ability to manage diversity and change will determine how stable the family unit remains. People are living longer than before and many more people are living alone. As the trend to city living continues it is likely that more fluid family homes will develop in which two single mothers decide to raise their children together. These groupings may prove to be more stable than the “nuclear family” model of the 20th century.

For future chaplaincy this diversity means even more sensitivity and awareness of the relational network within which a pupil lives. It will require a strong pastoral sensitivity to the needs of these networks and a creativity in helping them to celebrate their lives and find meaning. For the individual pupil living in these creative relationships the chaplain will need to adjust language and recognise the uncertainties about core relationships that may be beneath the surface. For such families the home-school relationship may be very important and the chaplain can support the school in its relationship with the family when needed.

Secularisation has been rooted in our British culture for many decades. It is not new. Neither is it a movement to be disowned by Christians because it has a large overlap with many of the concerns of Christians in how to live a good and virtuous life and build a strong community. The son of the famous evangelist Tony Campolo is now a chaplain in the USA and has written as follows:

Secular chaplaincies can engender a new paradigm whereby theistic and non-theistic communities are not hostile to each other, but rather work together to become part of the solution for the world’s great crises, and not part of the problem.[vi]

This quote is a reminder that, as human beings, we have enough problems to face and enough common ground between church and secular thinking to work together for a better world. This approach to collaboration with those of other religions and none will continue to increase despite credal differences. This is a boundary where the work of healing, celebrating and nurturing can happen. It is also a common, flattened space, where beliefs can be explored and appreciated a space where individual faith may grow to maturity. The chaplain will need the skills to engage with those of no faith and to root their own faith in an incarnational God who is ever present even when denied by others.

The future should see an increasing ease in the use of mindfulness, meditation, liturgy and prayer in a way that includes people of all faiths and none. In time it is to be hoped that such skills might feed back into a formal church setting and make the normal process of parish life more available to a secularised public. This may help the Catholic church to become more outward facing rather than self-preserving.[vii]

Healthy Religion is one of the themes that will continue to develop in the next decades because of the more regular interface between so many different traditions as immigration continues to increase world-wide. The comparison between religions may lead to even more of a “pick and mix” approach to spirituality at an individual level which may not be healthy or balanced. The interface will also create many positive comparisons that may lead people to consider all religions as inter-changeable. The use of prayer, celebrations, ethics, authority and relationships in religious and secular settings will be brought into sharper focus and churches will need to justify or remove practices that are no longer appropriate. To some extent this process happens all the time. For example, the Catholic church no longer requires a woman to be “churched” after the birth of a child. In the future however, the need for change will be accelerated and those who are working across these boundaries will need to know clearly what is healthy and unhealthy if they are to guide schools and young people into positive engagement with different traditions and also challenge their own tradition where it maintains practices more suited to an older culture.


The chaplain is likely to be one of the key roles that has to manage the flux of change in church and society. They will need to be more informed, more reflective and have higher people skills than ever. They will need to draw on the mystical tradition that exists in many traditions and be able to root their accompaniment of others in a belief in the presence of God in both mystery and in human experience. They will need to be people who know how to be wise stewards who:

“Is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old."[viii]

Adaptability, openness, warmth, genuineness and faithfulness to the tradition will be core gifts for future ministry that also builds on strong ongoing formation and prayerful reflection. In other worlds, chaplains will need to be saints!

[i] Attendance in church fell up to 1913 when the onset of war raised attendance largely because of Belgian refugees, most of whom were catholic. [ii] That may have been fear of damnation or fear of the social stigma of non-attendance [iii] The future is in the hands of those who can give tomorrow's generations reasons to live and hope.” Gaudium et Spes42 [iv] [v] See this presentation for some background factors [vi] Bart Campolo Future of Humanist Chaplaincy Huffington Post [vii] “When the Church becomes closed up on itself it gets sick” Pope Francis Pentecost Vigil 2013 [viii] Matthew 13.52

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