What does a Chaplain do?

I have to write an explanation of what I do as a chaplain.  So here goes:

When asked what we do in chaplaincy, my natural tendency is to laugh. My job is varied and always likely to take an unexpected turn. The major aspect is listening to staff and students and the difficulties they are going through. This can vary from home sickness, the ill health or death of family members, struggles with friends or colleagues, work, or anxiety. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a chaplain because you can meet them first, have a few cups of tea and decide if this is the person you want to trust with your difficulties, your secrets.

Sometimes people are in great distress. The current waiting time for help with domestic abuse is four weeks, for sexual abuse it is four months. We listen to people, give them a safe place to talk or cry or sit while they wait. We hear stories from staff and students, but we also have a place on university committees, so we are able to feed back some of the struggles that we have seen and heard to help improve people’s experience.


In Chester we have a wonderful chapel community of staff and students. We meet each week for breakfast after prayer on a Monday, for lunch after prayer on a Tuesday and dinner on Tuesdays and after chapel on Wednedays. We pray for the university and the world and we have a service once a week. Our main Wednesday service is varied. We had a transremembrance service, where we read out the 20191126_192155names of the 291 trans people around the world who have been murdered this year. The week before we heard an inspiring talk about fasting in Islam. The next week we had a traditional Advent communion service. The following week we had students and staff dressed up in dressing gowns and cable-tie halos for a nativity procession around Parkgate Road campus and a Christingle service (like when you were seven).

20191120_142809I run a weekly baking session, whilst kneading and making breadcrumbs, whole life stories come tumbling out. Many languages are spoken and we learn through bread and cakes about cultures from all over the world; all from the tiny kitchen in Chaplaincy House.

I say yes to every manner of strange project. I work with different departments talking about wellbeing, reflective practice, end of life care, religious literacy, modern slavery or anything else I am asked to do. We support students with disabilities and talk about vocations. We work with the wider community, with Green Chester and get involved in local projects. And there is a LOT of washing up. We are working with students after all.

Laura Rhodes


I think that sometimes it’s easy to get lulled into some sort of complacency about things with which we’re familiar, and that a check with reality can be useful.

I live in a community of about 30 people, mostly very elderly and many with serious health conditions. I’m so used to our weekly fire bell tests and the slamming of the fire doors that I note them subconsciously and carry on with what I’m doing.  But late on Saturday night, things changed. The alarms rang continuously; I heard the fire-doors slam; I started coughing on the acrid black smoke rolling down the corridor.  I moved from complacency to reality.

The problems we encountered getting very frail and elderly people down the stairs, and looking after them; the noise and the mess of the fire engines, the firemen, the paramedics, and the alarms ringing and ringing … I was hit with reality. I’m now seeing the fire drills in a different way!

I think that I’ve viewed the tale of the three Kings in a similar way. three-wise-men-3257957_1920 I grew up knowing about the Baby, the Shepherds and the Kings.  I knew the Kings were wealthy men who wore sumptuous robes, and who travelled from afar bringing wonderful gifts for the new King.  Over time, I learned to call them Magi , to recognise that they were wise men, that they came a long way following the star.  But it was still a comfortable and familiar story.  Two events challenged this complacency…

The first time was when we studied TS Eliot in school. From the first time I heard the opening words of the poem, The Journey of the Magi,  I was captured by the sheer physicality experienced by the travellers:

A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for such a journey … the ways deep, the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.

The sort of winters we used to have in the 50s and 60s! And the more we studied the poem, the more I became aware of the real difficulties of that journey:

The camel men cursing … grumbling … running away … wanting their liquor and women… the cities hostile… the towns unfriendly … the villages dirty and charging high prices.

This isn’t a graceful and easy journey across the sand dunes with a focus on Mary and a newborn King. This is a hard, cold, miserable, difficult time.  It’s as real as our own lives and experiences.

joshua-tree-3092596_1920The poem also has a darkness in it, far removed from the cheerful Nativity plays. In one line, the Magi describe seeing on the horizon: Three trees on the low sky. They haven’t yet met the Baby but unknowingly they already see signs of what was to come.  Standing starkly outlined against a darkening sky, the three crosses; the inevitability of the Crucifixion.

Eliot shows The Magi as thinking people, reflective, and suffering in order to do what they think is right: to pay homage to a child whom they know will change the world. For me, this poem brought hard reality to the story and thereby it became more powerful

The second time that reality offered me an insight occurred some 35 years ago in Fuerteventura, at Epiphany.  There weren’t so many tourists in those days and visitors and villagers mixed more readily. I was standing at the side of a small road, and suddenly found myself surrounded (pushed aside actually!) by scores of noisy and excited local children.

I looked in the direction they were facing – and there, against the strong light of the low sun, the silhouette of 3 camels coming towards us.  Lurching along the narrow road, enormous and splay footed, slowly coming nearer and nearer. And atop the camels – three Kings in glittering crowns and rippling rich jewel coloured robes, throwing handsful of sweets into the crowd.

For a minute or so, as they came alongside, I saw the tawdriness of the crowns and cheapness of the robes, but the kids didn’t.  The camels didn’t stop or even slow down: I watched them continue their slow rocking journey to the next village. And for a moment I saw the Wise Men in all their reality: scruffy, tired, on a seemingly endless journey following a star to find a king: the promised King.

If we accept that our own experiences can bring us greater understanding and empathy, we can see that the reality of the hard, messy, and unforgiving journey of the Magi, actually serves to strengthen the story.

These tough men, who unflinchingly trusted in the Star, brought us far more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, they lead us to the Light, to a greater understanding of God’s word, to a Grace beyond comprehension, to wholeness, healing and peace.

A new practice for a new year: Mindfulness

Wherever I go, I hear about mindfulness. It is a recommended practice in the workplace, it reduces stress, increases concentration, improves relationships. Local authorities have paid millions of pounds on training for mindfulness in schools – it improves wellbeing and helps aid good studying. In this university, there are mindfulness sessions, mindful art, mindful movement. It’s in vogue in the health sector, go to your doctor feeling anxious, depressed, burnt out and you are likely to find yourself having a conversation about mindfulness. You can buy a mindfulness colouring books, dot to dots, you can get any number of apps on being mindful and watch endless Youtube videos about it. There is even the MAPPG – the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group. There was a report in 2015 that said, for the future wellbeing of UK citizens, we need to take the enormous amount of research seriously and Mindfulness is the future.

So it’s big. But what is it? Mindfulness was started in its current scientific guise by Kabat-Zinn, who learnt the practice from Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk. He was a great friend of Thomas Merton, who was a Christian monk, who practiced the contemplative tradition within a Christian context. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.

Being mindful is nether Christian or Buddhist or secular, it is a state of mind which is relevant to all people. So what about mindfulness and prayer? I was going to go on a mindfulness course recently and the leader of the group said you have to commit to doing an hour every day of mindfulness practice and I said, ‘Er that might be a bit of a problem. I have to do prayers anyway, does that count?’ ‘No’ I was told.  But I’m not so sure. Tim Stead, a Christian mindfulness practitioner says It could be said that mindfulness is to prayer what John the Baptist is to Jesus. John came not to save; not to do the work himself, but to help people get ready , so that when the moment arrived –  they would be in a place where they were ready to receive what Jesus had to offer.

I think for many of us, when we hear about mindfulness, it is naming something that we may have been doing already. An attitude of openness and willingness to dwell in the present, you could call it relaxing in God. Mindfulness may be very familiar by another name.

If we can be mindful of what is going on around us, that is how we can feel the spirit of God. Our response to situations can be from this spirit, rather than knee-jerk reactions of fear, or anger or envy. And whether the response is to endure bravely or to act creatively, a mindful prayer may help us along the way.

Laura Rhodes


Hope: A thought for Christmas the day before the General Election

Our youngest voters are known as ‘Generation Z, these are the under 20(ish). I, just about, under the most generous counting, fall into the ‘Y’ or ‘Millennial’ generation. You may be one of these, (born early 80s to the millennium). We’re often in the news as the ‘snowflake’ generation. We’ve generally got good qualifications and not-so-good job prospects. We care less about money, but we feel a bit hard done by as the first generation in Britain to be worse off than the one before. Or you may be a Gen ‘X’ (born early/mid 60s to early 80s): independent, adaptable, cynical, pragmatic, sceptical of authority, and seeking a work life balance. Older than that? Are you a ‘Baby Boomer’? (Born towards the end of World War Two until the early 1960s); your youth and childhood were hopeful, lived in the shadow of the moon landing and the Beatles, you are the ‘privileged’ generation with good education, good jobs and good pensions (relatively). Or you may be part of the ‘Silent Generation’ (Early 1920s – 45). You tend not to complain, not to talk about hardship.

So back to our ‘Gen Z’ our under 20s(ish). They are the ‘no-one else is fixing it so we’ll have to sort it out ourselves’ generation. Gen Z were brought up in a time of food banks, a time of austerity, a time of climate crisis. Unlike their millennial cousins, Gen Z lacks hope. Of every negative description of each generation, I think ‘lacking hope’ is the worst.

But it’s not entirely true – I think Greta Thunberg still has hope that we have a chance; Malala Yousafzai has hope of a better future. Hope is not wishful thinking, it is not failing to be realistic. Learning to hope is probably one of the most important skills in life. In the words of Charles Peguy, ‘The one who has hope lives differently’. The one who has hope is given the gift of new life. It helps us to endure difficulty and wait patiently.

When Mary dropped to her knees and thanked God that she was blessed to be the mother of God, she trusted utterly that all would be well. I think a huge part of trusting is annunciationhope. Hope that your family will look after you; hope that your friends will be there for you; hope that you will have the chance to succeed in life; hope that politicians mean what they say and say what they mean. Hope that there is something more in this life; that God is real; hope that beyond all the difficulties, the reasons to distrust, that Mary was right. Mary was right to trust God and offer herself as a servant. I hope we are all ready this Advent, this Christmas, to hope. I hope, I trust, that all will be well. Let’s take the teenage Mary as our example this Christmas.

Laura Rhodes, chaplain.

Chester College, 1939

2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. The declaration of war in September 1939 was followed by some months of the so-called ‘phoney war’, when everyone knew that the nation was at war but there seemed to be no war going on. I remember my parents describing it as a very strange time.

What might have been going through the minds of the students here in Chester at that time? ‘The Collegian’ was their magazine and in the autumn of 1939 it included this paragraph about new students:

The present juniors entered the College at an inauspicious time, their impressions of College life cannot fail to be coloured by the conditions prevailing both inside College and elsewhere. Nor is it to be expected that the prospect of military service, immediately upon completion of their training, will not be in the minds of the new students. For a short time at the beginning of the term a feeling of strangeness did persist, not dispelled by the unearthly pallor of dormitories by night or by sleep-disturbing rehearsals of procedure during possible air raids.

The following is an abridged version of the article written by the College Principal, Revd Stanley Astbury, in the same edition of the magazine:

Principal’s Notes

The Michaelmas Term, 1938, started in circumstances of world crisis and the year proceeded in a state of continual uncertainty; by September, 1939, that state had changed for the certainty of war. We still carry on, but in a minor key. About a third of our second year men have already registered under the Military Service Act; already some half-dozen have left us. Clearly there is no desire on the part of the Cestrians to shirk their duty to their Country. There is a very definite desire to be told what the country wants of them and when. Meanwhile we hear of many 1939 men, and those of earlier years, performing deeds of gallantry in cook-house, canteen and elsewhere, and of not a few who are being recommended for Commissions and other important tasks. May I take this opportunity of asking for full information about any Cestrian serving in any branch of H.M. Forces. We are preparing a Roll of those serving and, as it will occupy a prominent place in the College, we want it to be complete and up-to-date all the time. So please send information about yourself, or any other you know of. This isn’t just sentiment or curiosity; we pray regularly for you in Chapel and we want to pray intelligently.

It is poignant to think that the students who read these words included those whose names are recorded in the book which commemorates members of the College who were killed during the war.

Pray for peace. Remembrance 2019

Peter Jenner



Prayer is the Therapy: Hearts of Stone to Hearts of Flesh

On 10th October the Church remembers Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth century priest and poet whose writings explore the beauty and goodness of God’s creation. Traherne was educated at Hereford Cathedral School and University of Oxford and took holy orders in 1656. During his lifetime his work was largely unknown but was re-discovered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has become much admired.

In ‘Centuries of Meditations’ he writes:

“Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels…You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more so, because people are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world”.

How can we start each day with such an optimistic attitude and live the day in our Father’s Palace as if we were among the Angels? It’s quite a challenge in the humdrum of our daily lives.

In Luke Chapter 11, the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray. He gives them the words of The Lord’s Prayer, a pattern of praying which emulates the way Jesus lived his life and his relationship with his heavenly Father. We can call God Father because the Son calls him Father. We no longer need to hide from God, who is both an intimate Father God and heavenly Creator God. We can pray modestly for our daily needs, because our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask. If we persist in prayer, we can have the assurance of knowing that “for everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened”, as our heavenly Father loves to pour out his blessings on us. We can live in a spirit of forgiveness, ready to receive and offer forgiveness, so that our communities can flourish. And we can pray for help and deliverance when trials and temptations come, just as Jesus did. In this prayer, these few lines, and in his own life, Jesus showed us what it means to be children of God and we can take our own place within his prayer and know that we are children, not of an anonymous God, but of the same heavenly Father as Jesus.

Luigi Gioia in his book ‘Say it to God’ says “prayer is the therapy through which our hearts of stone are progressively turned into hearts of flesh because prayer is simply remaining in the presence of the Lord just as flowers remain exposed to the light of the sun that sustains their life”. And “just like flowers, the moment we stop turning to the sun we start withering”. So perhaps we might like to begin each day with a prayer of thanksgiving, turning our face to the Son. We might like to pray the Lord’s Prayer, spoken very slowly line by line, to ponder the angels in our midst. Perhaps, as we practise this, we can truly enjoy and be grateful for what God gives us each day and share our blessings with one another as sisters and brothers of the same family.

AJ Upton

Chaplaincy Team


Modern Slavery

You know when you see something and it doesn’t quite look right? A friend showed me a picture recently of three men who were resurfacing her drive.  One of the three workers didn’t really speak, and didn’t seem to speak any English, she said.  She showed me a photo of them.  The odd thing was what he was wearing: he had on what looked like suit trousers and smart shoes, with a dirty t-shirt. “Yes,” I agreed, “That is a very odd thing to wear when laying a drive.”

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in a supermarket car park with a woman who was cleaning my car in the middle of December.  “Are your hands not freezing?” I said. “No”, she said, “Gloves would just get wet.” “What about waterproof gloves?” I asked, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”  But I did worry about her, especially a few months later when she was reaching to clean my windscreen whilst very pregnant, and on her feet working a very long shift, with no chair to sit down. It felt a bit odd, but this was a car park of a huge supermarket. They must know who is working here and have all their rights protected.

At the time I lived in Oxford in a theological college with the sisters of Clewer, who were ‘on the sassy end’ of the monastic spectrum, according to our college Principal.  They sold their land in Devon and with some of the money, set up the Clewer Initiative, which raises awareness about modern slavery.  (www.theclewerinitiative.org)  As part of this they have a ‘Safe carwash app‘ that they have made in conjunction with the Santa Marta Group. (www.theclewerinitiative.org/news/safecarwashreport).

I recently downloaded the app and discovered a few features of modern slavery: people may not have appropriate clothing or equipment for the job they are doing; they may be dishevelled, or reluctant to speak; you may be asked to pay in cash; or have to give money to a manager. Then I read the report on the app, and discovered that of the 2000 people who downloaded the app, 41% recorded features of modern slavery. However, only 26% of the people who were advised by the app to contact the police, actually did.

The Church of England so wants to celebrate its place in the history of the Abolition of Slavery Act, however this is always tainted by the huge number of modern slaves that exist in Britain and around the world. Modern slaves who make components in our phones, who make our clothes, who clean our cars and do our nails.

In 2014, the Home Office estimated that there were 10,000 – 13,000 people living in Modern slavery in the UK. However, the Global Slavery Index estimates that there could be 136,000 slaves in the UK (https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/country-studies/united-kingdom/), that’s more than the whole population of Chester.

Recently, the largest modern slavery ring has been convicted in the West Midlands.  They were discovered by people working in food banks, wondering why people were coming to them who said they had full time jobs, but earned only enough to pay their rent, nothing more. People who said their full-time pay was £60 per week.  It was these people, these volunteers, many of whom come from faith communities who actually saw these people and asked them about the circumstances of their lives. This was the only place they weren’t faces behind a mask in a nail bar, or hands that quickly and cheaply wash your car while you wait, or shop.  They weren’t noisy neighbours in an overcrowded house or a cleaner whose name you never asked. Seeing what is really in front of us and being brave enough to call out injustice when we suspect it are deeply Christian principles.  And it is made very easy when all we have to do is open our eyes and then make a phone call.  Anti-Slavery Day is Friday 18th October

Laura Rhodes