With no visitors allowed, we found ourselves ‘being church’, filling the gap where other clergy from the community were unable to visit their church members. By Katie McClure.
People have said to me ‘this must be a particularly hard time for you’, as they consider my work during the Covid pandemic as part of a multi-faith chaplaincy in a large teaching hospital.
But in reality this is what chaplains do, we deal with unspeakable loss and separation every day. It is a particular feature of our work that we are with people when their world is turned upside down and everything they thought they knew has been stripped away. The key is being there.
So when the first wave of Covid began in early March, our role didn’t change, but how we could do it did. At first, some staff wanted to protect us from exposure to infected areas, or didn’t see spiritual care as an essential intervention, while others thought we were the most important part of the jigsaw.
We knew we had to minimise face to face contact, and there would be barriers to compassionate communication to overcome which were posed by wearing the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) ‘Routine’ referrals decreased and our large team of volunteers who would visit people on the wards were unable to come into the hospital.
As a department we decided to ‘engage fully on the floor’. We raised our profile by creating laminate cards for wards to publish our availability to talk in person (as usual) and (additionally) by phone or tablet.
We also set up a telephone line for staff and patients, offering prayer and pastoral or religious support. We created wellbeing podcasts and a Twitter feed with resources like a ‘prayer for the day’.
While gathered services stopped in our chapels, the space became, with all the necessary precautions in place, important spaces for reflection and personal prayer for weary staff.
With no visitors allowed, we found ourselves ‘being church’, filling the gap where other clergy from the community were unable to visit their church members. We also found ourselves ‘being family’ to patients, holding their hands, reading letters and poems or helping facilitate online calls to loved ones at home. We could sit with someone dying of Covid or anoint them, and let their family know.
We were also asked to go regularly to the mortuary to offer a simple act of remembrance, so that no-one would go to their death with their name unspoken or unheard.
In ways formal and informal we offered support for staff, where many conversations were about risk to, or separation from, their families, their own vulnerability and fears, the practical changes in their life and working routine, sickness and absence; the ripples go on. With the ‘second wave’ now in full swing, many staff are exhausted, and again making huge sacrifices.
Within the hospital as an organisation, we contributed to the spiritual care section of a newly created ‘Every Name a Person’ toolkit for staff, helping them to remember the humanity of each patient who dies.
We played our part in the revived Ethics and Law Committee. We were also invited to participate in the countywide ‘Vulnerable Adult End of Life’ Workstream, which brings together representatives from all sectors of healthcare in hospitals and the community. This gives us extraordinary insights into the bigger picture and ongoing valuable opportunities to have a voice where we were not previously heard.
In faith terms, healthcare chaplaincy can feel like it is on the edges of the church, filling the space between congregational life and the hospital/institution.
Because our work has cultural and pastoral dimensions as well as the spiritual and religious, we cannot proselytise but we can speak into people’s situations and offer them support and hope.
Sometimes people want prayer or to be anointed, other times they simply want someone to speak with, and the dialogue may turn to exploring the vestiges of a faith whose seeds were sown much earlier in life. Faith is often kindled in times of challenge, and chaplaincy is in the right place for those sorts of conversations, especially in a pandemic.
Speaking about people’s differing experiences of Covid, the hospital Chief Executive Officer said recently ‘we are all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat’. For us as chaplains, there have been more moments of feeling like we are finally in the same boat, where our relationship with the staff has deepened through this shared experience. It’s not them and us; we are all in it together.
And while chaplaincy has always been about walking alongside people in their most difficult times, the difference is that, instead of ministering from solid ground, our worlds have been dismantled too. Somehow, like Nouwen’s wounded healer, we find that has made us more real and accessible.
Katie McClure is an Anglican priest who has been a full-time chaplain with the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for more than ten years.
This article first appeared in the December 2020 edition of Vista Magazine.
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